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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Books and Authors: John Henry as History
Ain’t Nothing But a Man:
My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. By Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson. 2008. 64p. illus. National Geographic, $18.95 (9781426300004); lib. ed., $27.90 (9781426300011). 973. Gr. 6–9.
Tall tales are those stretched-truth stories of our folklore-loving ancestors, like your grandfather’s “one that got away” fish story. Often part of the literacy curriculum, they are also an excellent, albeit underutilized, interdisciplinary resource for the K–12 social-studies curriculum. In language-arts units, tall tales can give students examples of myth, hyperbole, analogy, metaphor, and allegory. The stories, teachers explain, began as retellings of actual happenings, but storytellers stretched the truth until the retelling was more of a yarn than an account. So, in addition, tall tales can teach us about truth telling.
John Henry stands out as a sterling example. He is an unassailable figure of earned pathos, age-defining heroism, and one of the longest-running African American figures introduced to children. As compelling as the character is, the story of John Henry is imperfect. The story’s meaning as an anti-industry, pro-proletarian fable is a little dated for our “screenagers.” And the story depends on John Henry dying; it is one of the few story traits that exist in every version of the tale. But to me, a teacher trying to handle the story responsibly for my students, John Henry’s tragic sacrifice sometimes seems reminiscent of the Hollywood habit of killing the one black character by the end of the movie.
Historians, ethnomusicologists, and other researchers use instances like these to triangulate what we actually know and also to analyze what people find most engaging about a story. For instance, John Henry always takes to hammers at a ludicrously early age (birth!) and dies with a hammer in his hand. Why are those such core elements of his story? What does it mean that we enjoy such dark symmetry? Fairy-tale characters go from rags to riches; not so with tall-tale figures, who often stay in rags and devoted to their industry, like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan.
Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson’s Ain’t Nothing But a Man is a children’s book that provides a historian’s perspective while retelling Nelson’s adult book Steel Drivin’ Man (2006). Nelson used photographs, songs, and published folktales to collect clues about who the original John Henry might have been. These sources drove him to visit sites, read government and corporate documents, and conduct interviews that got him closer to a theory about the original character. He tells the story as a historian who wants to excite young readers about the mystery and journey of researching the legend. Spoiler alert: I was heartbroken to learn that Nelson’s research suggests that the original John Henry was working the railroad as part of a prison work crew and that he may have been buried in a mass grave. How will I teach that part sensitively?
Facing the loss of my classroom hero, I was encouraged by Nelson’s product: a compelling example of a historian’s process that could excite young readers to take up a similar adventure themselves.
At the end of the book, Aronson’s two-page article, “How to Be a Historian,” ties directly to Nelson’s work
This is where students reengage with John Henry as participants in the story and not only as readers. Nelson eventually found amazing information in government and prison records that helped him theorize who John Henry had actually been and where he had worked. However, it was the stories and songs from the oral tradition that brought him to that point. Without those songs, there would have been no evidence of John Henry whatsoever.
Recorded versions of the songs are worth listening to when reading the lyrics. The codified, written version is, after all, an interpretation of something that was originally sung, which means it is approximated so that it will fit within the confines of our written musical notation system. (How does one write the improvisational notes of a jazz trombone slide?) That’s what the oral version of the story was before it was retold as a children’s book.
Students can repeat Nelson’s process of researching a hero with a subject that is personally meaningful and legendary to them. Following are two examples of units that can accomplish this goal and are anchored to Nelson’s book, additional fiction titles, and songs that ought to be used as comparable texts. The units, which can easily be used to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), are flexibly designed to last several days or a few weeks, since they each depend on multiple readings of multiple sources, collaborative work in the classroom, and research and writing.
Using Local LegendsAfter sharing Nelson’s book with students, shift their attention to comparable stories. Family legends are rich material. Share your own examples, such as the time Grandpa hitched a ride with a celebrity; community myths about a supposed crime or supernatural event that occurred; a record breaker or prank that happened at school. Emphasize that we use these stories to construct meaning in our lives, and brainstorm with the whole class to come up with a variety of local legends, camp legends, family stories, or similar examples.
Next, have each student write his or her own version of a chosen story as he or she understands it. Then, with a peer group, each student identifies three sources to check the story’s facts: one print resource, one adult, and one peer. (If one of these sources is not available, substitute an additional source from another category.)
Having collected these sources, students will then compare them for specific areas of agreement and divergence. An example: a student’s mother says that she found her engagement ring in her dessert when her soon-to-be husband proposed at a restaurant, but the student’s father says she swallowed the ring by accident. Each student can then formulate additional questions: Why doesn’t the student’s mother want to admit that she swallowed the ring? Are there other things to question in her retelling?
Next, the student can expand the search for additional information to other sources, the web, print media, and historical artifacts: Is there a hospital record for the ambulance call when she swallowed the ring? How does the restaurant owner remember the story? Finally, each student presents her or his process and findings to the class or at a special history night. These steps parallel Aronson’s six steps of a historian, above.
Common Core Connections
Many of the Common Core’s anchor standards for informational texts link well with this unit. Below are specific standards that could be implemented while carrying out the suggested activities.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.3. Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.6. Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6–8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6–8.9. Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
Comparing Primary Sources
As Nelson writes, the oral tradition changed John Henry over time “like the message in a big game of telephone.” We have no certain record of who the real John Henry was nor what happened in the steam drill competition (if it ever even happened), but by comparing different versions of the story, we can make some guesses about what people value about this tale. In this way, tall tales, which are usually treated as a fictitious literary form, become primary source documents for historical purposes. We preserve their fictitious foundations, but, like myths and legends, they help us understand the role of the story in a greater culture.
Students can read one or two versions of the John Henry story using the books listed in this article and create a chart of the major events from beginning to end. Post the charts next to each other. This helps with sequencing and understanding character arcs. Next, have students compare a lyric sheet from a songbook or an online source with a performed version of the song. Modern recordings will often be better for deciphering the words, but an old recording from a blues or folk master gets students closer to the historical importance of the lesson. Chart the songs using the same approach as with the stories, and post them, too. Lead the class in identifying the most frequently recurring parts of the story, such as “born with a hammer in his hand,” “steam drill competition,” and “dies after beating the steam drill.”
Have students read Nelson’s appendix, “Many John Henrys: Versions of the Songs,” and chapter 4, “Following the Clues in the Song about John Henry,” to determine how Nelson used songs as primary source documents. There are many rich discussions to have after completing the charting tasks. Why are these the most frequently recurring pieces of the story? Why didn’t the other details become part of the story? If you told your favorite version to 100 people, and they each told the story to 100 more, what details might remain and what might be absent? What is the message of the central story—the most frequently recurring bits—without the rest of the details? Since railroads don’t have the same significance in today’s society, what would a new version of John Henry’s story have him compete against? What does Nelson value in the story?
Many CCSS standards for reading both literature and informational texts apply to this unit. Below are a few examples of specific standards that could be implemented with these suggested activities.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.1. Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.7. Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.5. Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the idea.
In these units, the story of John Henry could be seen in retrospect as the expression of a culture, and it is the student’s responsibility to determine what roles the story plays for people. Why do we have John Henry? Why do we have Cinderella, who is totally fictitious and retold in cultures around the world? In a similar sense, why do we have Rosa Parks, whose story is told in a particular way to express a particular message? These are not questions to turn students into skeptics but rather to turn them into analysts, historians, and ethnographers who will graduate with the ability to make claims based on evidence.
Ari Frede is the founder of the Orange School, an emerging arts-based elementary school in Chicago, Illinois.
John Henry Sources
Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson cite sources at the end of their book for readers interested in reading further. Teachers will want these excellent examples of the John Henry story to support lessons.
American Tall Tales. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illus. by Michael McCurdy. 1991. 128p. Knopf, $19.95 (9780679800897). 398.22. Gr. 4–7.
Featuring color woodcuts, this ubiquitous title revels in the narrator’s role as a truth stretcher, so not only are the tales taller but the language is livelier and, like Lester’s book below, the narrator more than peeks out from behind the curtain. This book is particularly useful because of the variety of its stories, including Johnny Appleseed—a noncombatant hero—and Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind—an amalgam of female characters drawn from Davy Crockett stories, writes Osborne. To my daughter, she is, more importantly, “a girl!”
Big Men, Big Country:A Collection of American Tall Tales. By Paul Robert Walker. Illus. by James Bernardin. 1993. 80p. Harcourt, o.p. 398.21. Gr. 4–6.
Revel in this eye-popping compendium that includes John Henry and lends itself to study, read-alouds, and silent reading. Accompanied by a full-color gouache-and-pencil portrait, each story is followed by a note about the origin of the character and the sources Walker used for his retelling.
From Sea to Shining Sea:A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. Ed. by Amy L. Cohn. 1993. 416p. illus. Scholastic, paper, o.p. 810.8. All ages.
Too good to be true: 140 songs and stories, with sources, lyrics, notation, award-winning illustrators, and veteran storytellers. Organized by story type, the collection offers a subject guide for geographical areas, ethnic and religious groups, song and story types, and more.
Gonna Sing My Head Off! American Folk Songs for Children. Ed. by Kathleen Krull. Illus. by Allen Garns. 1992. 160p. Knopf, o.p. All ages.
Songs, simple notation for piano and guitar, and helpful (but not too helpful) performance direction provide an ample jumping-off point for singers and would-be bandleaders. The exuberant illustrations, mostly in bright pastels, manage to be both familiar and dramatic.
John Henry. By Julius Lester. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 1994. 40p. Dial, $18.99 (9780803716063); Puffin, paper, $7.99 (9780140566222). 398.21. All ages.
The challenging vocabulary, complicated analogies, and Faulknerian sentences may be halting for reluctant readers. But the book’s merits as a piece of literature demand teachers to incorporate this as a read-aloud when it cannot be used as a classroom library choice. Here John Henry is exaggerated to superhero-like abilities. His character is again unquestionable, and he is both a man of the people and also connected to nature. Animals, rainbows, and even the sun and moon are tied to him—the rainbow literally so in the pencil-and-watercolor illustrations.
John Henry:An American Legend. By Ezra Jack Keats. Illus. by the author. 1965; reprinted 1987. 32p. Dragonfly, paper, $6.99 (9780394890524). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
Notice the 1960s protest-era imagery, especially the cover illustration of our hero proudly wielding the hammer above his head (power to the people). Despite Keats’ jerky retelling, which adds unique features like a steamboat adventure and a suspiciously deliberate-looking multicultural work crew, this underscores the story of John Henry as a defender of the people and a man of sterling character.
Box: Web Connections
Log on to YouTube, and search for “John Henry.” Posted videos and songs may not be in the same place from year to year, as featured items move around, but the site is an excellent source for folk songs about John Henry. You’ll find contemporary posts featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Gillian Welch as well as older versions by Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
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