John Henry

John Henry

by Anonymous

 When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”

John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.

John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord,”
He laid down his hammer and he cried.

John Henry said to his captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord,
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”

The captain said to John Henry,
“I believe this mountain’s sinking in.”
But John Henry said, “Captain, just you stand aside
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind, Lord, Lord,
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind.”

John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, boy, you better start to pray,
‘Cause if my TWELVE-pound hammer miss that little piece of steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day.”

John Henry said to his captain,
“A man is nothing but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”

The man that invented the steam drill,
He figured he was mighty high and fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel down fourteen feet
While the steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord,
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered on the right-hand side.
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.

Well, they carried John Henry down the tunnel
And they laid his body in the sand.
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, “There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man.”

Summary of John Henry

  • Popularity of “John Henry”: John Henry is a lyrical ballad known for its unique theme: Man versus Machine. It was first published in the 19th It is also known as the folklore of an African-American man working on constructing a railroad. The unfortunate man dies while accomplishing a grand task. John Henry’s statue can be seen outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia
  • “John Henry” As a Representative of Hard Work: The poem presents the undaunted struggle of a man who fights technology of that time that can replace manual work. John Henry, a tall and strong man, always carries a nine-pound hammer and never gets tired, implying he is a hardworking and determined person. He decides to compete against the steam drill in driving the steel. However, when he goes to the mountain where he has to work, he realizes his nine-pound hammer will not work. Therefore, he asks his captain for a twelve-pound hammer. He puts all his efforts to sink the steam drill and succeeds. Unfortunately, he hits himself with that hammer and dies. The workers bring his body down the tunnel and bury him in the sand. Now every woman riding on the trains recall John Henry as a “steel-driving” man.
  • Major Themes in “John Henry”: Bravery, courage, and death are the major themes of this poem. The poem revolves around a historical moment when John Henry does an impossible job. He must hammer down a steel drill into a rock and set the explosives to construct the railroad. He ultimately dies as his heart gives out. He has been portrayed as an industrious and determined man. He worked hard till his last breath and sacrificed his life for the good of his society.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “John Henry”

Literary devices are tools used by writers to convey their emotions, ideas, and themes to make texts more appealing to the reader. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.

  1. Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a phrase or word in two or successive verses. For example, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me” in the opening lines of the poem to emphasize the point and foreshadow John Henry’s death.

Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to perceive things involving five senses. For example, “He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel”, “John Henry hammered on the right-hand side” and “And they laid his body in the sand.”
  2. Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a device used to exaggerate a statement for the sake of emphasis. For example, “It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind.” Here hammer is both exaggerated and personified.
  3. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /ee/ in “He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel” and the sound of /o/ in “Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord.”
  4. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /d/ in “He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord” and the sound of /t/ in “John Henry beat that steam drill down.”
  5. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession such as the sound of /h/ in “John Henry hammered on the right-hand side” and the sound of /l/ in “I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord.”
  6. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought or clause that does not come to an end at a line break. It moves over the next line. For example,

“He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “John Henry”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Ballad: A ballad is a poem that tells a story and is meant to be sung or recited. “John Henry” is one of the famous ballads of 19th century.
  2. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are ten five-lined stanzas in this poem.
  3. Quintet: A quintet is a five-line stanza. Here, each stanza is quintet.
  4. Repetition: The Last line of every stanza is repeated with the same words which have created a musical quality in the poem. For example,

“But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.”

  1. Refrain: The lines that are repeated at some distance in the poems are called refrain. Here, the last line of every stanza is repeated with the same words, and it has become a refrain. For example,

“Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day.”

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below are useful for children while teaching the history of industrialization, and to make them aware of the difficulty people faced while working with heavy tools.

John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried.”