Originally intended for radio broadcast on CBS' "School of the Air," John Henry was revised for high school orchestras. It is a programmatic piece about the American folk legend, a 19th Century black man, and his heroic battle in a contest against a railroad pile-driver. Copland wrote, "Knowing my audience was to be a young one, and that young people like their music exciting and not too long, I kept John Henry down to less than four minutes and called it "a descriptive fantasy." The music is meant to simulate the sounds of a train and John Henry's hammer.
-Vivian Perlis, 1998