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 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
Melvin Beaunorus Tolson is known as one of the most significant African American modernist poets of his time. In addition, Tolson’s work as an educator led Langston Hughes to declare him “the most famous Negro Professor in the Southwest” in the mid-twentieth century.
Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, on February 6, 1898, and he died at the age of 67 on August 29, 1966, in Dallas, Texas, a few days after undergoing surgery for cancer. In 1922 he married Ruth Southall, and in 1924 he graduated with honors from Lincoln University. From 1924 until 1947, Tolson taught at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, taking a year’s leave in 1930-31 to pursue work in a Master’s degree from Columbia University. His project for a thesis centered on interviewing members of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1947 onward he taught at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma (where he also served three terms, from 1954 to 1960, as Mayor).
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 Anglo-American tradition.”