The Birth of John Henry

By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
The night John Henry is born an ax   
            of lightning splits the sky,   
and a hammer of thunder pounds the earth,   
      and the eagles and panthers cry!

      John Henry—he says to his Ma and Pa:
            “Get a gallon of barleycorn.   
      I want to start right, like a he-man child,
            the night that I am born!”

Says:   “I want some ham hocks, ribs, and jowls,   
            a pot of cabbage and greens;   
      some hoecackes, jam, and buttermilk,   
            a platter of pork and beans!”

      John Henry’s Ma—she wrings her hands,   
            and his Pa—he scratches his head.   
      John Henry—he curses in giraffe-tall words,   
            flops over, and kicks down the bed.   

      He’s burning mad, like a bear on fire—
            so he tears to the riverside.   
As he stoops to drink, Old Man River gets scared
            and runs upstream to hide!

    Some say he was born in Georgia—O Lord!
            Some say in Alabam.   
But it’s writ on the rock at the Big Bend Tunnel:   
            “Lousyana was my home.   So scram!”   

Melvin B. Tolson, “The Birth of John Henry” (1965). Reprinted with the permission of Melvin B. Tolson, Jr.

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Birth & Birthdays, Activities, Race & Ethnicity, Heroes & Patriotism, Social Commentaries, Living, Jobs & Working, Mythology & Folklore

Poetic Terms Common Measure, Rhymed Stanza, Ballad

 Melvin B. Tolson


Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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