November 21, 2014 18:56 UTC

American Stories

Children’s Story: ‘John Henry’

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.
A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
Now, the Special English program, AMERICAN STORIES.
 
Today we tell a traditional American story called a “tall tale.” A tall tale is a story about a person who is larger than life. The descriptions in the story are exaggerated – much greater than in real life. Long ago, the people who settled in undeveloped areas of America first told tall tales. After a hard day’s work, people gathered to tell each other stories.
 
Each group of workers had its own tall tale hero. An African American man named John Henry was the hero of former slaves and the people who built the railroads. He was known for his strength.

Railroads began to link the United States together in the nineteenth century. The railroads made it possible to travel from one side of the country to the other in less than a week. Before then, the same trip might have taken up to six months.
 
Railroad companies employed thousands of workers to create the smooth, flat pathways required by trains. John Henry was perhaps the most famous worker. He was born a slave in the southern United States. He became a free man as a result of America’s Civil War. Then, he worked for the railroads.
 
Confirming details of John Henry’s life is not possible. That is because no one knows for sure if he really lived. This is one of the things that makes his story interesting. However, John Henry is based, in part, on real events. Many people say he represents the spirit of growth in America during this period.
 
Now, here is Shep O’Neal with our story.

People still talk about the night John Henry was born. It was dark and cloudy. Then, lightning lit up the night sky. John Henry’s birth was a big event. His parents showed him to everyone they met. John Henry was the most powerful-looking baby people had ever seen. He had thick arms, wide shoulders and strong muscles. John Henry started growing when he was one day old. He continued growing until he was the strongest man who ever lived.
 
John Henry grew up in a world that did not let children stay children for long. One day, he was sitting on his father’s knee. The boy picked up a small piece of steel and a workman’s tool, a hammer. He looked at the two objects, then said, “A hammer will be the death of me.”
 
Before John Henry was six years old, he was carrying stones for workers building a nearby railroad. By the age of ten, he worked from early in the morning until night. Often, he would stop and listen to the sound of a train far away. He told his family, “I am going to be a steel-driver some day.”
 
Steel-drivers helped create pathways for the railroad lines. These laborers had the job of cutting holes in rock. They did this by hitting thick steel drills, or spikes.
 
By the time John Henry was a young man, he was one of the best steel-drivers in the country. He could work for hours without missing a beat. People said he worked so fast that his hammer moved like lightning.
 
John Henry was almost two meters tall. He weighed more than ninety kilograms. He had a beautiful deep voice, and played an instrument called a banjo. John Henry married another steel-driver, a woman named Polly Ann. They had a son.
 
John Henry went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, or C-and-O. The company asked him to lead workers on a project to extend the railroad into the Allegheny Mountains. The workers made good progress on the project until they started working near Big Bend Mountain in West Virginia.
 
The company’s owners said the mountain was too big to build a railroad around it. So the workers were told they had to force their drills through it. This meant creating a tunnel more than one-and-one-half kilometers long.
 
The project required about one-thousand laborers and lasted three years. Pay was low and the work was difficult. The workers had to breathe thick black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men became sick. Many died. Their bodies were buried near the mountain.
 
John Henry was the strongest and fastest man involved in the project. He used a hammer that weighed more than six kilograms. Some people say he was able to cut a path of three to six meters a day.
 
That July was the hottest month ever in West Virginia. Many workers became tired and weak in the heat. John Henry was concerned his friends might lose their jobs. So he picked up their hammers and began doing their work.

One week, he did his own work and that of several other steel-drivers. He worked day and night, rarely stopping to eat. The men thanked John Henry for his help. He just smiled and said, “A man ain’t nothing but a man. He has just got to do his best.”
 
The extreme heat continued for weeks. One day, a salesman came to the work area with a new drilling machine powered by steam. He said it could drill holes faster than twelve men working together. The railroad company planned to buy the machine if it worked as well as the salesman said.
 
The supervisor of the workers dismissed the salesman’s claims. He said, “I have the best steel-driver in the country. His name is John Henry, and he can beat more than twenty men working together.” The salesman disputed the statements. He said the company could have the machine without cost if John Henry was faster.
 
The supervisor called to John Henry. He said, “This man does not believe that you can drill faster. How about a race?”
 
John Henry looked at the machine and saw images of the future. He saw machines taking the place of America’s best laborers. He saw himself and his friends unemployed and standing by a road, asking for food. He saw men losing their families and their rights as human beings.
 
John Henry told the supervisor he would never let the machine take his job. His friends all cheered. However, John Henry’s wife Polly Ann was not happy.
 
“Competing against the machine will be the death of you,” she said. “You have a wife and a child. If anything happens to you, we will not ever smile again.”
 
John Henry lifted his son into the air. He told his wife, “A man ain’t nothing but a man. But a man always has to do his best. Tomorrow, I will take my hammer and drive that steel faster than any machine.”
 
On the day of the big event, many people came to Big Bend Mountain to watch. John Henry and the salesman stood side by side. Even early in the day, the sun was burning hot.
 
The competition began. John Henry kissed his hammer and started working. At first, the steam-powered drill worked two times faster than he did. Then, he started working with a hammer in each hand. He worked faster and faster. In the mountain, the heat and dust were so thick that most men would have had trouble breathing. The crowd shouted as clouds of dust came from inside the mountain.
 
The salesman was afraid when he heard what sounded like the mountain breaking. However, it was only the sound of John Henry at work.
 
Polly Ann and her son cheered when the machine was pulled from the tunnel. It had broken down. Polly Ann urged John Henry to come out. But he kept working, faster and faster. He dug deep into the darkness, hitting the steel so hard that his body began to fail him. He became weak, and his heart burst.
 
John Henry fell to the ground. There was a terrible silence. Polly Ann did not move because she knew what happened. John Henry’s blood spilled over the ground. But he still held one of the hammers.
 
“I beat them,” he said. His wife cried out, “Don’t go, John Henry.”  “Bring me a cool drink of water,” he said. Then he took his last breath.
 
Friends carried his body from the mountain. They buried him near the house where he was born. Crowds went there after they heard about John Henry’s death.
 
Soon, the steam drill and other machines replaced the steel-drivers. Many laborers left their families, looking for work. They took the only jobs they could find. As they worked, some sang about John Henry.
 
You have just heard the story of John Henry. It was adapted for Special English by George Grow. Your storyteller was Shep O’Neal.  Join us again next week for another AMERICAN STORY, in Special English, on the Voice of America. This is Faith Lapidus.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Susana from: Madrid
10/09/2012 6:19 PM
This is the first story that I had heard in "special english" of voice of America and I really enjoy it. I´ll visit this web every week to heard one or two storys because I think that is a great way to learn some english and enjoy yourself.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
10/09/2012 12:02 AM
Thanks for a nice story. John Henry shoud be honored as he performed his best missions. I remember the work Modern Times by Charles Chaplin. Present story seems impled up-coming day of automationized manufacturing where human is used as a part of mechanics.


by: avi from: isral
10/08/2012 10:47 PM
Hi,
the story was very interesting .i am so glad that i find voa website
because it help me allot to improve my English thanks for all
avi


by: francodevi from: italy
10/08/2012 8:22 PM
fabulous! BRAVISSIMO SHEP 0'NEAL!


by: Mauricio Berguecio Neira from: Santiago City. Chile.
10/08/2012 7:53 PM
Congratulation to the storyteller Shep O’Nea, he did a great narration.


by: cily
10/08/2012 12:11 PM
awesome story...........
hmmm John Hendry ,,,,


by: dat from: hcmc
10/08/2012 2:20 AM
I have heard this story in VOA Special English before.But it's still a great story.thanks


by: JOSE LUNA from: DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
10/07/2012 3:29 AM
OMG !! AMAZING STORY ABOUT THE HERO JOHN HENRY ,GREAT GUYS!!

Learn with The News

  • President Barack Obama announces executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.

    Video Obama Orders Changes to US Immigration Policy

    Mr. Obama’s decision will affect the lives of five million people who have entered the United States without permission. He says the country’s immigration system has not been working for many years and needs immediate reform. | In the News More

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at the Vienna International Airport for talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program, Nov. 20, 2014.

    Audio Kerry in Vienna for Iran Nuclear Talks

    The talks are taking place four days before a deadline to reach a new agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Also, North Korea has threatened to carry out another nuclear test in answer to U.N. action against it. A U.N. committee condemned North Korea for suspected human rights abuses. More

  • Audio Myanmar: No Constitutional Change Before 2015 Election

    Parliament speaker says voters will be able to take part in a referendum, or special election, on constitutional changes in May. But he said it would be impossible for any changes to take effect immediately. Myanmar’s constitution currently bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. More

  • France's President Francois Hollande delivers an address at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Nov. 19, 2014.

    Audio France to Increase Airstrikes Against IS Militants

    The French Defense Minister said the fighter jets will be based in Jordan. Also, Pope Francis condemns the synagogue attack in Jerusalem, Ukraine rejects Russia’s proposal for talks, the World Bank says Ebola may cost West Africa less than expected, and a deadly snow storm hits New York. More

  • FILE - Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind border fences near the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, Sept. 2014.

    Audio Study Finds Rising Xenophobia in Turkey

    Xenophobia is the dislike or fear of foreigners. The Pew Research Center found the increase at a time when Turkey faces war on its borders. The country also has unsettled diplomatic relations with some of neighbors and allies. History and education play a part in this rising fear and dislike. More

Featured Stories

  • Jonathan Evans Performs with Bonerama

    Video With Bonerama, Three Trombones Lead the Big Parade

    The New Orleans-based group brings together funk, rock, blues and jazz, creating a gumbo for the ears. Bonerama has horns like many bands. But, unlike most groups, the trombone players lead this band. Reporter Jonathan Evans performed with the band and wrote about it for American Mosaic. More

  • A line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is displayed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

    Audio Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg Still Have Meaning

    On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln said no one would remember his speech at a battlefield cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remains one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. More

  • PLASTIC DREAMS

    Audio Surgery Safaris: Looking for the Perfect Body

    Many people these days are going as far as South Africa to get their version of perfection. People from across Africa and the world come for so-called “surgery safaris.” There are no animals to see on these safaris. The visitors instead look for smaller stomachs, firmer bottoms or perhaps new eye. More

  • Video South Korea Attempting to Reuse More E-Waste

    South Korea is dealing with increasing amounts of waste from electronic devices. These useless or unwanted parts are often called “e-waste.” . The city of Seoul throws out about 10 tons of e-waste each year. Some local governments in South Korea are creating special "e-waste" recycling programs. More

  • FILE - Brittany Maynard, shown with her Great Dane puppy, Charlie, took a lethal dose of medication prescribed by a doctor in Oregon on Saturday. Maynard was battling brain cancer.

    Video Should You Have the Right to Die?

    The recent case of a 29 year old woman with brain cancer has again raised questions about the right to die. Americans are divided on whether doctors should be able to give deathly sick patients drugs to end their lives. Only four U.S states permit doctor, or physician, assisted suicide. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs