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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Peter Origins: John Henry (125* d) RE: The origins of john Henry 13 Feb 98

Barry, I really appreciate your post; it's exactly the sort of trail I wanted to be put on. I want to disagree (politely, I hope) with those who resist any folkloric reading of what is, after all, a folk song. John Henry may very well have been an actual historical figure, and the song may very well take it's plot from an actual historical event. And, further, any pursuit of the song down that track may be futile, giving us only phantoms and vague, unfounded suppositions. But a folk-hero's nature stands halfway between history and myth, and there are other, profitable ways to ask questions about the song. Invariably, these stories incorporate traditional, generic elements (one example is the trickster figure, mentioned by Barry) which are added to the story. These elements constitute much of the meaning of the song (perhaps the primary meaning?), and recognizing them does not depend on being able to identify a certain Alabaman. "John Henry" is interesting as a song -- and it's great fun to sing -- but I think it is most interesting as a window to a culture that, for me anyway, is hard to know. In asking the question I did, I was really asking less about John Henry, whoever he may be, than about the culture that produced the song. So I'm not sure it's wrong to stuff it with symbolism (which I hope isn't a dirty word): symbols are what a culture uses to communicate with itself. I myself mistrust Marxist and Freudian readings of songs from cultures which had never read Marx or Freud, but (with respect to Marxist readings, anyway) people did resent oppression, and try to resist it through song, before Das Kapital. I appreciate the help some of you brought to this post. I am inded very interested in when people started singing about "John Henry" and what the specific circumstances of that version of what I suspect is a very old song were. It is unfortunate that those hard facts are lost to us (though I'm not surprised to learn it). But I don't know why the ways in common a culture has of telling a story and what elements constitute that story and what tradition that story is embedded in, just because they are more abstract, need be any "softer".

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