The Birth of John Henry

  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!”
Melvin B. Tolson, "The Birth of John Henry" from Harlem Gallery & Other Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Melvin B. Tolson.  Reprinted by permission of The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, on behalf of The University of Virginia Press.
Source: The Black Poets (Bantam Books, 1985)
More Poems by Melvin B. Tolson