I just listened to Studio 360, American Icons, Friday 24Nov2006. This is the program with a brief John Henry segment.
It has excerpts from Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, Mississippi John Hurt, and some unidentified black singers.
It is mostly about black people's reactions to the song and interpretations of it in the light of the black experience.
Sherman James is quoted briefly telling about John Henry Martin, a farmer he found with all kinds of possibly stress-related disease. James coined the term "John Henryism" to describe the extra stressful lives of many American blacks.
Scott Nelson tells briefly about John William Henry. I think he also comments on the changing character of the ballad, early versions being more of a cautionary tale than a hero celebration. I'll have to think about that one.
As I suspected, my views on the historic John Henry are not mentioned.
Nelson comments that by 1890 steam drills had improved so much, from 1871, that it would have been hard for a human steel-driving team to beat one. Yet, that is exactly what eye-witnesses claimed for John Henry Dabney in Alabama in 1887. How credible are these eye-witnesses? I find C. C. Spencer's testimony to be very credible. He knew too much that can be documented to have been making his story up. I don't know why Glendora Cannon Cummings' uncle would lie to her about his having been with John Henry when he died (at Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Alabama, 1887). F. P. Barker claimed to have known John Henry when JH was working on Coosa Mountain Tunnel in 1887, and he took delight in telling how JH vowed that he would beat the steam drill and did it, then died. All three of these people put JH at the same place (Dunnavant, Alabama) and time (1887), though that time has to be figured out from other data for Spencer and Barker. Spencer said 1882 but other facts (that JH worked for a "Dabner," Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney) require 1887. Barker said "about 45 years ago, somewhere about that time," which would have been somewhere about 1882 but which really had to be, again, 1887, because that's when Coosa and Oak Tunnels were under construction. I suppose that 1887 is "somewhere about" 1882. Cummings got the year precisely correct.
The radio segment was brief and shallow, consisting largely of concise "ain't-that-something" narration and sound bites.
It makes no contribution to scholarship.