The Legend of John Henry

Statue of John Henry (photo by Ken Thomas)

Statue of John Henry (photo by Ken Thomas)

Every country has folk tales and legends about famous people or events that happened there. A folk tale is usually not true, but is passed down generation to generation. Legends are usually traditional but maybe not 100% true. There are also tall tales. Tall tales pretend to be true, but they have many parts that are not real or unbelievable.

Today we’re going to look at the tale of John Henry. John Henry is the hero of the story. He worked on the railroad in the 1800s. From the time he was a child, he worked on the railroad. When he was an adult, he continues to work on the railroad. He helped make a tunnel through a mountain. He is famous because he worked faster than a machine!

Here is some vocabulary you might need as you read the story:


Gather = come together
Hero = a person with a lot of strength and ability
Link = connect
Powerful = strong
Steel = a very strong metal
Steel-driver = a man who cuts rock for the railroad
Drill = a tool you use to make holes
Beat = rhythm
Lightening = the light in the sky during a storm
Competition = race
Ain’t = isn’t (casual, not standard English)
Claim = to say something is true, usually without evidence
Laborer = worker
Burst = explode

Click here to read the story. You can listen to it at the same time.

John Henry is very famous in American culture. There are a lot of folk songs about him You can listen to Johnny Cash sing the song. You can read the lyrics here. (It’s 8 minutes long, so have patience!)

Here is a shorter song. It has pictures of life working on the railroad a long time ago. You can read the lyrics here.

After you read and watch the videos, try these quizzes!

Quiz 1 

Quiz 2

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