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GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 10 May 06


Contrary to my suspicion, stated above, "white house" is not a late development in the ballad, or, at least, it was already present in 1913-15. In December 1913 John A. Lomax delivered his address as retiring President of the American Folk-Lore Society at its annual meeting, held that year in New York. In the Jan-Mar issue, 1915, of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, a formal version of this address was published, Vol. XXVIII, No. CVII, pp 1-17. As far as the collecting record goes, this must be counted as an early version of "John Henry." It seems likely, however, that it is not what was sung by a single individual but rather that it is a compilation of stanzas from more than one source. Lomax's commentary on this ballad, in its entirety, reads as follows:

" Very few of the many work-songs that have had their origin among the men who have done the labor of putting down our great railway-lines have escaped printing in railway publications. The following song is sung along the Chesapeake and Ohio Road in Kentucky and West Virginia."

Evidently Lomax considered the 11, fairly coherent stanzas that followed to be a "work-song" rather than a ballad. As a version of "John Henry," it is highly unusual. (1) Its language betrays, to me at least, no sign of black influence. It is often rather stilted, reminiscent of formal poetry. "When John Henry was a little lad / A-holding of his papa's hand / Says, 'If I live until I'm twenty-one / I'm goin' to make a steel-driving man.'    As Johnny said, when he was a man / He made his words come true / He's the best steel-driver on the C & O Road / He belongs to the steel-driving crew." (2) "I hear the walking boss coming," "Before he died he said to his boss / 'O bossman! how can it be / The rock is so hard and the steel is so tough / I can feel my muscle giving way?'" Nowhere is this version is "the captain" or "his captain" mentioned. That is highly unusual. (3) "They brought John Henry from the white house." This is consistent with Scott Nelson's hypothesis that the "white house" was a penitentiary workhouse (specifically at the Virginia Penitentiary, Richmond). Other versions have John Henry's body taken *to* the white house for burial. Although the Lomax ballad is full of references to the C & O, it contains no mention of Big Bend Tunnel (just "the tunnel" and "tunnel number nine" - the C & O did not number the dozen or so tunnels they built in 1870-72). This version, therefore, does not contradict Nelson's identification of the tunnel as Lewis Tunnel, where steam drills were used (unlike Big Bend) and Virginia Penitentiary inmates were sent to labor. (4) John Henry is referred to several times as "Johnny" - this is rare. (5) "If I die a railroad-man / Go bury me under a tie / So I can hear old number four / As she goes rolling by." The Blankenship broadside also mentions train No. 4. In 1900, and perhaps in 1887, Illinois Central No. 4 ran north from New Orleans to Chicago. More specifically, it ran north from Crystal Springs, MS, where John Henry Dabney is supposed to have lived, to Jackson, MS, and other points north, where someone making the trip from Crystal Springs to Birmingham would have transferred to an east-bound train.


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