On my browser, at least, my last posting is hard to read because the lines extend far beyond the edge of my screen, requiring the use of the slider several times to move across a line. Did I inadvertently uncheck the "Automatic Linebreaks" box?
Here is a reposting with "Automatic Linebreaks" definitely checked. I wish I knew how to delete the first posting.
Your attention is drawn to a recent publication:
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
Volume 2, Issue 2
If your institution subscribes, you may find this article at
Nelson has done a wonderful job of digging up records of the C & O pertaining to its construction, records that had been believed for many years (since ca 1925) to have been lost. His writing here is also a thing of beauty.
For me, the most important of Nelson's conclusions is that the John Henry incident did *not* occur at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV. The Big Bend site is the received wisdom from the 1920s studies of Guy B. Johnson and Louis W. Chappell, who may have been in a kind of race to affirm it as the authentic place. About 40% of the versions of "John Henry" collected by 1933 place its action at the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road," which would have been ca 1871, the building of the C & O having occurred in 1869-73.
My view of Big Bend is stated in my 2002 paper, Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi, Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, pp 91-129:
"In my opinion, the data of Johnson and Chappell make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. The evidence for this conclusion can be summarized as follows. (1) Intensive efforts to find John Henry at Big Bend failed. (2) No documentary evidence of John Henry or a contest was found. (3) The positive testimonial evidence contains significant inconsistencies. (4) The negative testimonial evidence is strong and plausible. (5) Alabama, a plausible alternative to Big Bend, is supported by substantive, coherent, and detailed reports that were not investigated satisfactorily." The failure to obtain substantive, coherent, and detailed reports favoring Big Bend is especially significant because Johnson and Chappell were able to interview a dozen or so men who had actually worked on the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. Included among the testimonies is one that claims, in essence, that the steam-drill contest could not have occurred at Big Bend because the informant was there - if it had happened he would have seen or heard about it. He is supported by a couple of others. A few others offer weak testimony favoring Big Bend.
Nelson ignores Alabama in favor of a different tunnel on the C & O line, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, "on the border between Virginia and West Virginia." This is another of the dozen or so tunnels being constructed by the C & O at the same time. Quoting Nelson:
"In the song, the tunnel where John Henry died is the Big Bend, but in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel, which was dug in the same years. Big Bend Tunnel works better as a lyric, and as many later versions of the song demonstrate, workers turned their own tunnels, or nearby tunnels, into the tunnel that killed John Henry. Thus, while the event occurred in Lewis Tunnel, it was probably first sung at Big Bend Tunnel nearby. In fact, when Johnson and Chappell were doing their research in the late 1920s, many local informants mentioned the Lewis Tunnel, dug by convicts, as the source of the song; both Johnson and Chappell failed to follow these leads...."
Nelson's confidence ("in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel") does not impress me. His entire paper is written as if his inferences and speculations are the gospel truth. I *am* impressed with the amount of work, the fact that he has found and consulted several previously unavailable resources, and the rich picture of the construction of Lewis Tunnel that he is able to paint. Also, he gives an excellent brief history of the collecting history of the song.
He errs, understandably, in citing "the first description of the song's performance" as that provided by William Aspenwall Bradley in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1915. I'm greatly impressed that he found the 1915 description - it illustrates how thorough he has been. Only a little luck allowed me to find, recently, an earlier description of "John Henry" singing, in court in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1913, p 14).
One problem with Big Bend as the John Henry site has always been that the evidence indicates that steam drills were never used there. Johnson and Chappell were well aware of this. To accommodate, it was supposed that a steam drill was brought in on a temporary basis and raced against a steel driver as a test. The argument for Big Bend might have been stronger had such an ad hoc assumption been unnecessary. Johnson and Chappell knew that steam drills *had* been used at Lewis Tunnel but did not pursue the possibility that the John Henry incident occurred there.
Nelson has taken up that cause - he believes that he has found the historic John Henry. Here is a summary of his relevant findings.
(1) Lines like "They took John Henry to the White House / And they buried him in the sand" are occasionally found in versions of "John Henry."
(2) A workshop built in 1825 on the grounds of the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) was plastered with lime, making it white. Neither this white house nor its later replacement now exist.
(3) A burial site containing about 400 bodies, stacked "sometimes two deep, with thin layer of sand between them," has been found at a location that would have been next to the white house, near a local connecting railroad along which locomotives would have come "roaring by."
(4) Virginia penitentiary convicts were used in the construction of Lewis Tunnel.
(5) Penitentiary records document John William Henry: received 1866 Nov. 16 for "Housebreak & larceny"; sentenced in Prince George County to 10 years; b Elizabeth City, NJ; age 19; height 5' 1-1/4"; left penitentiary by transfer.
(6) According to the prison register, John William Henry was "contracted out to work on the C & O railroad in 1868, charged to Capt. Goodlow, an employee of C. R. Mason, railroad contractor." The date is given as December 1.
(7) Mason was a contractor at Lewis Tunnel.
(8) A stipulation of the contract between the State of Virginia and the C & O was that each prisoner had to be returned. The penalty for a failure to return was $100. That ensured that prisoners' dead bodies would be shipped back to Richmond, to the penitentiary. If John Henry had died on the job, his body would have been shipped back for burial after marking him off a list.
(9) Beginning in August 1870, many men ("nearly 200") worked alongside steam drills (number unspecified, perhaps just one?). Both men and steam drills presented many problems, and eventually J. J. Gordon, the boss at Lewis Tunnel, ran out of boilers.
(10) In October, 1871, Gordon wrote to Chief Engineer Whitcomb, "I am very anxious to get that boiler to run Burleigh Drill in East approach. If you have done anything in regards to furnishing it please inform me, if not I will have to double on it with hammers."
(11) Gordon quit and "The steam drills left the tunnel by the end of October 1871."
(12) John William Henry is not listed among prisoners who died at the penitentiary. "He does, however, disappear from prison records by 1874, with no mention of pardon, parole, or release."
From this material, Nelson concocts a scenario, much as I have done for Alabama using other data. I have not provided *definitive* evidence of John Henry in Alabama. In contrast, Nelson appears to believe that he has solved the problem, period. I don't share his optimism. Indeed, I think that the Alabama scenario is better supported than the Lewis Tunnel scenario.
As a prisoner at the Virginia penitentiary in Richmond, John William Henry was sent to work under C. R. Mason, the labor contractor for the construction of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. From August 1870 to October 1871 steam and hand drilling were both employed at Lewis Tunnel. In a period leading up to October 1871, they were "apparently drilling two sets of holes in the rock face of the East approach, one with convicts, one with the Burleigh drill." This was the contest between men and machine that "John Henry" is about. After October 1871, only manual labor was used. "Men had triumphed over machines, but at a terrible cost. For two years, between the last month of steam drill operation and the completion of the tunnel - between September 1871 and September 1873 - close to one hundred convicts had died." John William Henry was among those who died. According to contract, his body was sent back to the Virginia penitentiary, where he was buried "in the sand" by the side of the white house and a local railroad track.
Here are some of the deficiencies of Nelson's scenario.
(1) Men named "John Henry" or "John Henry Something" are plentiful. As Uncle Beverly Standard (a Johnson informant) said, "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henry's." Finding a man named John William Henry in a list Virginia penitentiary inmates who were shipped off to work on the C & O at Lewis Tunnel is not unexpected and certainly isn't much evidence that he was the legendary John Henry. It is somewhat surprising that Nelson found only one.
(2) Nelson presents no evidence that John William Henry was a steel driver.
(3) At 5' 1-1/4" tall, it certainly doesn't spring to mind that John William Henry would have become a steel driver. I must admit, however, that a large frame is not necessary. My own favored candidate, John Henry Dabney, is described 5' 10-11" tall and 147-"near" 180 lb. That's not huge, but it's a bit less comical than a 5' 1-1/4" steel driver.
(4) Even if John William Henry *were* a steel driver, why would he be singled out for the ballad? In 1925 L. W. "Dad" Hill made quite an accurate report to Chappell about the building of Lewis Tunnel. Included among his statements is "Bob Jones was the best steel-driver in Lewis Tunnel, but not much better than some of the others in there with him." Hill did not mention John Henry.
(5) Nelson offers no evidence of a contest between a man, or men, and a steam drill or steam drills. I see his inference of two rows of holes, one drilled by machine and one by hand, from Gordon's statement, "I will have to double on it with hammers," as a gross misunderstanding. The common term for drilling by a two-man team, driver and shaker, is "double-jack." I see Gordon's "double" as short for "double-jack." Gordon was simply stating that the job would have to be done with hand labor. His statement does not point to a contest between men and machines or between a man and a machine, as Nelson imagines.
(6) As with all elements of "John Henry" ballads, it is possible that "white house" is an artifact. Indeed, there is a plausible precursor to "white house" in "white road," which occurs in at least one version of "John Henry." I see "white house" as a mutation of "white road." I think that "white road" -> "white house" is a plausible mutation while "white house" -> "white road" is not. A "white road" (sand covered) leads to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks (now Norfolk Southern) near the locally traditional site of John Henry's contest with a steam drill. In my scenario John Henry is buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery or another cemetery on Sand Ridge, which is definitely sandy, accounting for "buried him in the sand." Both scenarios also account for "every locomotive come roarin' by," but I think my accounting is much less contrived than Nelson's. His railroad is not even a main line.
(7) I am not aware of any tradition or testimony that John Henry raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel. A few people interviewed did name Mason as the boss, and he was at Lewis, not Big Bend. Even so, it would be surprising, if Lewis Tunnel were the site, that it is not named in a ballad, testimony, or local tradition.
(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear.
(9) Perhaps the following is just an oversight, but the only mention of the occurrence of sand that I found in Nelson's article is in the sentence "Boxes were stacked sometimes two deep, with a thin layer of sand between them." This does not imply that the convicts were "buried in the sand," although that *would* be the case if the source of the thin layer were the soil at the burial site. Did I overlook a mention of sand at the burial site? Nelson needs to clear this up.
(10) Nelson does not address the evidence favoring Alabama. His only mention of my work is a citation of my article, his footnote 27, which reads as follows: "Both researchers (Johnson and Chappell) considered claims that the contest took place in Alabama in the 1880s, which also had a few firsthand accounts, but gave up on that site when they could find no evidence of a Cruzee mountain in Alabama. See Johnson, John Henry, 19-22; see also John Garst, 'Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,' Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92-129." Nelson does not even note that I *found* "Cruzee"/"Cursey" (Coosa) Tunnel, much less address the mass of circumstantial evidence, favoring Alabama, that I have turned up.
I hope that Nelson will now turn his considerable talent as an historian to Alabama. Perhaps he can find evidence that I have overlooked. That evidence might confirm or refute my scenario. A refutation would enhance the logical standing of his own speculations.