December 20, 2014 08:02 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

  • US Cuba

    Audio Obama Moves to Normalize Relations with Cuba

    President Barack Obama announced a major change in United States’ policy toward Cuba this week. He said he wants Congress to ease more than 50 years of U.S. sanctions against the island nation. And he said the two nations should once again formally recognize one another. More

  • Santa Claus waves at the crowd during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Nov. 27, 2014.

    Video A Los Angeles Christmas

    The end of December is a time when many Americans are thinking about snow and cold weather. Yet the city of Los Angeles, California is almost always warm and sunny, even during the winter holiday season. Many people like all the holiday decorations and lights seen in and around Los Angeles. More

  • FILE - A man casts a fishing net on the Mekong riverbank in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

    Audio Disagreement Over Mekong River Dam Project

    A two-day meeting in Laos has left government officials and environmental activists deeply divided. The meeting was called to examine plans for a 260 megawatt dam on the Lower Mekong River. The Lao government is prepared to start work on the project. More

  • Mideast Islamic State US

    Audio Top Islamic State Leaders Killed in Airstrikes

    Three top Islamic State leaders were killed in a series of targeted airstrikes in Iraq. U.S. not ruling out White House visit by Cuban President Raul Castro. Suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnap over 100 women, children. Putin says Russia’s economy will improve in two years. More

  • the interview

    Video Sony Criticized for Cancelling 'The Interview'

    The company acted after a group of computer hackers attacked the company and threatened to attack movie theaters that show the film. Most people have criticized Sony’s decision to cancel the release. The US says North Korea was behind the cyber attack. North Korea denies the accusation. More

Featured Stories

  • Video Music Shows in Private Homes Gain Popularity

    Attending a live musical performance, be it in a huge arena or a small cafe, is an exciting experience. But here in the U.S., a very different kind of performance is gaining popularity: house concerts. “There's just a totally unique experience as opposed to playing like a coffee shop or a bar." More

  • Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomatox

    Audio Southern General Robert E. Lee Surrenders at Appomattox

    General Robert E. Lee’s military skill and intelligence helped extend the war between the states. But even his skill could not save the South from the industrial power of the North and its mighty armies -- armies that were better-fed and better-equipped. On Sunday, August 9, Lee surrendered. More

  • Uganda Playground for Disabled Children

    Audio Helping Uganda’s Disabled Children Play

    You may think that all children have freedom to play. But for children who look differently from others or have physical disabilities, the idea of play can seem far away. An organization in Uganda is seeking to change that. Read on to learn words needed to talk about this sometimes difficult topic. More

  • A microneedle used to inject glaucoma medications into the eye is shown next to a liquid drop from a conventional eye dropper. (Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Audio Tiny Needles Treat Eye Disease

    Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness around the world. In the United States, more than two million people suffer from the disease. Now, researchers are developing very small needles that may offer a more effective and painless treatment for glaucoma and other eye diseases. More

  • The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas

    Audio Mob Museum Tells About the Mafia in America

    The U.S. government has long used public money to fight organized crime. Now, public money is also paying for a museum in Las Vegas to tell about "The Mob,” and not everyone is happy about that. But some say it helps the local economy by bringing people to a part of Las Vegas that few visit. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs