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 hoecakes, 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!”

Arthur Tolson, "The Birth of John Henry" from Harlem Gallery & Other Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Arthur Tolson.  Reprinted by permission of The University Press of Virginia.

Source: The Black Poets (Bantam Books, 1985)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Activities, Eating & Drinking, Jobs & Working, Sports & Outdoor Activities, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Melvin B. Tolson

Biography

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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SUBJECT Activities, Eating & Drinking, Jobs & Working, Sports & Outdoor Activities, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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