“John Henry Blues”
1 class period
8th Grade US History
Development of the Industrial U.S., 1870-1900
Common Core Standards Addressed:
Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
Steven Rapaport (2006)
This lesson plan will each focus on aspects of the relationship between music and the railroads. It will also explore the question of whether we are better off using technology or letting everything being done without the use of machines.
It is amazing how Americans from their earliest childhood days till their deaths tend to think fondly of the railroads. Even though trains are still an important means of transporting products from one end of our great nation to another, they are not the primary mode of transportation for people anymore. We tend to use the automobile and planes to cross our great land but what is heroic about those modes of transportation? No, the train has been indelibly immortalized in the songs of our nation forever. We hear the rhythm of the train’s wheels hitting the tracks or ask the conductor to blow his whistle as we see trains pass. From the time we are little kids in school till we pass on we sing and hum the tunes that helped make our country great!
Who was John Henry?
What purpose do machines serve?
Students will better understand who John Henry was, and be able to discuss the role of machinery in the Industrialization of the United States.
Song used in this lesson:
“John Henry Blues”
While driving steel, John (Henry and his fellows probably sang work songs. With the help of work songs, a tradition brought from Africa, many heavy, cooperative tasks became easier. Work songs were used for different types of railroad work, such as lining track and, in the case of John Henry, pounding drills into the rock or "driving steel." Workers mixed and matched improvised and pre-existing lyrics to fit the rhythm of the work. For example:
Imagine John Henry swinging his legendary 20-pound hammer high above his head as a line began, and hear the ring of the steel as it landed on the drill: "huh!")
Power Point Project on one part of the construction of the Central Pacific or Union Pacific Railroad.
Extending the Lesson
Have the students read one article from “The Railroad Man’s Magazine from 1906 and review and report on an article to the class.
This project requires students to look at their hometown from the perspective of transportation options and to determine what option, if any, the railroads offer. With maps readily available, ask each student to select as a travel destination a large city at least 500 miles from where he or she lives. Each student’s objective is to figure out the best way of getting to that destination and back. Options they should look into include train, bus, and plane.
Poem on the Railroad
Talk about what the design means and analyze the poem.
Man vs. Machines: What are some things that pit man against machines?
(Man has taken on the computer playing chess) (Man has changed the great American baseball game, Football, Track and Professional Bike Racing by the use of drugs) What are the consequences of taking performance-enhancing drugs? Are the risks worth the financial rewards?
“John Henry Blues” available at
Copyright 2011-2012 Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library System