Palmer C. Hayden Collection | The Museum of African American Art

JOHN HENRY SERIES: Legend Comes To Life
The John Henry Series is a collection of 12 oil paintings dated 1944-1947 that are part of the Palmer C. Hayden Collection at The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. This exhibit includes all 12 paintings in the series plus three related paintings (one at the beginning and two at the end) that help to “frame” the story of the Ballad of John Henry that Palmer Hayden narrates through the series.

“Working on the Railroad” (1939-43) is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art. However, this piece was completed just before the start of the John Henry Series and depicts what might be considered the “setting” for the John Henry Series, which is dated 1944–47.

"When John Henry was a little baby, Sittin’ on his Mama’s knee...

He said, "The Big Bend Tunnel On the C&O Line Is gonna be the death of me!"

So the famous "Ballad of John Henry" begins, and there are many versions. This verse explains the shocked expression on the mother’s face in Palmer Hayden’s "When John Henry Was A Baby," as she is holding baby John Henry with his little hammer, and he has apparently just predicted his own death. Her expression is quite understandable under the circumstances.

This painting shows the wispy ghost of John Henry hovering above the entrance to the Big Bend Tunnel (also known as the Great Bend Tunnel). Outside the tunnel are a few local workers, one of whom looks like he might be saying, “Did you hear that?” The ghost in the painting is a good metaphor for the legend of John Henry that has been “hanging over” the region for many generations. This is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art.

This painting shows how the legend of John Henry was communicated regionally over the years as people visited the area around the Great Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia. It is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art.

Credits: Story

The text in this online exhibit includes excerpts from The Museum of African American Art's exhibit catalog "Echoes of Our Past: The Narrative Artistry of Palmer C. Hayden" by Allan M. Gordon, PhD. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 88-60629. Copyright © 1988 The Museum of African American Art.

Special thanks to digital artist Lindsey Mejia at Samy's Camera Digital Service Bureau in Los Angeles for careful digitization of images in the Palmer C. Hayden Collection for this online exhibit.

This online exhibit is curated by Keasha Dumas Heath for The Museum of African American Art in partnership with Google Cultural Institute.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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