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.
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