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GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 02 Feb 05


Today I found a hitherto unrecognized couplet from "John Henry" in Newman I. White, American Negro Folk Songs (Harvard, 1928). Incidentally, I own Guy Benton Johnson's personal copy of this book, in which he put marginal notes next to all the John Henry fragments he recognized. There is no note next to this one, whose connection to "John Henry" becomes apparent only after the publication of Louis W. Chappell, John Henry, in 1933.

On pp 116-117 of Chappell appears the "John Henry" version obtained from J. W. Washington, Ft. Meyers, Florida. I've quoted it here several times before. It mentions Mobile, Alabama, (as John Henry's birthplace) and the L & N (as an alternative employer to the C & O) as well as "the Big Ben tunnel at Brinton, New Jersey"! The following verse is one I frequently cite in an effort to link "white road" with "white house," sand or limestone, and Dunnavant, Alabama.

"They carried John Henry down the smoky road
And put him on that long white road,
When they brought that poor boy back to town
He was lying on his cooling board."

White has chapters, "Work Songs - Gang Laborers," "Rural Labor," and "General and Miscellaneous Labor" containing many short fragments.

In "Gang Laborers" are included

"Captain, Captain, nothing but a man,
But 'fo' I let dat steam-drill beat me down,
I'd die wif er hammer in my hand."

and

"Poor John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Old John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Drove that steel - hic
Steel would n't stand - hic."

and versions of "This Old Hammer,"

all of which Johnson recognizes as "John Henry" related. He does not recognize the following.

"Well they took him up on the smoky road,
But dey brought him back on de coolin' board."

This was "Reported from Auburn, Ala., 1915-1916, MS. of B. Y. Pennington, as heard in Andalusia, Ala. 'Sung by Negro ditch diggers.'"

Taking "him" on the "smoky road" and putting him on a "coolin' board" connect with Washington's "John Henry." That this was recovered in Alabama is consistent with the idea that these lines are fragments of an early Alabama version of "John Henry." True, I'd take them no matter where they were found, and true, John Henry isn't mentioned in the Pennington text, but the connection is there nonetheless.

Another verse that might connect with "John Henry" is this:

"I remember last summer,
'T was de month of June,
My partner fell sprawling
An' dey laid 'im in de tomb.
Ain't dat 'nough, boys,
To grieve my mind?"

Like all those other "killed my partner" hammer songs, this is not necessarily about John Henry, but it could be. It comes from Auburn, Alabama, and was heard in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1906.


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