Nelson accounts for verses like
They took John Henry to the White House,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man.
(Johnson, John Henry, p 99)
by identifying a white workshop at the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) with "White House." To me, this is plausible, but just how much reliance should we place on the occasional occurrence of "White House" in the ballad? I don't know, but here are some things to chew over.
Johnson (1929) and Chappell (1933) presented a total of 58 apparently independent versions of the ballad (two of Johnson's "belong together," in his words, reducing his contribution from 29 to 28).
Of these, 7 have JH buried in the sand at the White House. 6 have him buried in the sand at other (or unspecified) locations. In 1 of these he is buried in "the new burying ground." 5 have him buried in a burying ground/graveyard with no mention of sand. 4 mention the White House in other contexts. 1 mentions a white road, but not the White House.
Of those mentioning the White House in other contexts, 1 has JH being taken from the White House, 1 says people came from the White House to see JH, 1 has JH leaving the White House to go to the heading to drive steel, and 1 has JH buried at the White House with no mention of sand (instead, the "rode him in a van," which supplies the appropriate rhyme).
Interestingly, perhaps, only 2 of these 58 versions have the scene as Big Bend/C&O and the burial as White House/sand. None places the scene at Lewis Tunnel, favored by Nelson, nor, as far as I am aware, is there any testimony or local lore placing it there.
As I've noted before, I'm inclined to see "white road" as the precursor of "White House." I think that the mutation, "white road" to "White House," is plausible, while the reverse mutation, "White House" to "white road," is not - "White House" is simply too commonplace, attractive, and esily understood to be replaced in this manner. Early versions collected by Perrrow and Cox don't mention the "White House," nor does the Blankenship broadside. I've not yet looked over the to see when the first appearances of "White House" in the record were, but I suspect that it could be with the publication of Johnson's book (again, I don't *know* this).
I am inclined to believe that "White House" was a late development in the ballad. If so, it is not related to origins.