Thank you, Guest "dutch", for your thoughtful remarks.
I had not considered the possibility that "john" could have been simply a man-designator. I am more familiar with "jack" being used in this way. In steel driving, there are "single-jacking" and "double-jacking," referring to the number of men it takes to do the job. Of course, "Jack" is a nickname for "John."
The testimony of C. C. Spencer, who claimed to have been an eye-witness to John Henry's contest and death, is as follows (February 24, 1927): "John Henry, whose real name was John H. Dabner." Thus, Spencer, who seems to have known John Henry pretty well (giving not only his name but also where he was from), thought that "John" was part of his "real name."
"Henry" was a slave to Gus Dabney, "Henry Dabney" appears in the 1870 census, and "Henry Dabner" (same vital information) appears in the 1880 census. In 1870 and 1880 Henry Dabney lived in Copiah County, Mississippi, not far from Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Gus' son, who would (as Chief Engineer) build the extension of the Columbus & Western Railway from Goodwater, Alabama, to Birmingham, the job on which Spencer's and others' testimonies place John Henry, in 1886-88.
I have no documentation that the slave "Henry" was the census "Henry" or the steel-driving "John Henry", but things seem to be sufficiently consistent to make that a likely possibility. The most out-of-whack part is that two records (1860 Slave Schedule and Letitia Dabney's memoir) have the slave "Henry" born about 1844, while two records (1870 and 1880) have the census "Henry Dabney/Dabner" born about 1850. I am inclined to believe that this discrepancy is within the likely "experimental error". Census takers simply wrote down what they were told, and people were often casual about their ages.
Steel drivers, even champions, were usually not all that big. Technique and endurance were most important. John Henry Dabney was probably about 5' 7-10" and weighed perhaps 160 lb., as best we can gather from a couple of people who claim to have known him personally.
Henry Dabney/Dabner (census) married Margaret Boston in December, 1869. Spencer tells us that John Henry "Dabner"'s wife "cooked for the men." "Margaret Dabney," of course, could give rise to "Maggie D."
I think it hyperbole that she "drove steel like a man." For someone, male or female, doing domestic work on a daily basis to pick up a hammer suddenly and start driving steel is beyond belief, IMHO. The real information in that stanza, I think, is that John Henry had been sick. If this were an undiagnosed mild heart attack that he treated with rest, that would set the stage for his death from ventricular rupture at the contest by leaving a weakened ventricular wall. His dying symptoms suggests death by bleeding from a ruptured organ, and the heart is most likely, ventricular rupture being not rare.
There are quite a few rare elements of versions of "John Henry" that are clearly consistent with the Alabama claims and that are not clearly consistent with other scenarios.
Yes, the slave "Henry" would have been well known to Captain Dabney. Consistent with this, there are both ballad lines and legends to the effect that "the Captain" was very fond of John Henry. If John Henry had grown up as part of Captain Dabney's family (in a sense), there might have been an unusual ease of conversation between them. In the ballad, John Henry pretty well speaks his mind. I'm not sure how common that would have been for black railroad construction workers in the late 1880s in Alabama, but I think that both whites and blacks would have allowed it if they had known there was a fond personal relationship between John Henry and the Captain. This may have been what allowed late 19th- and early 20th-century blacks and whites to sing the ballad.
In the earliest known text, his name was "Johnie Henry." I don't think that this affects your argument that "john" could be a man-designator; "johnny" works the same way.
There is a considerable opinion on the side of "John Henry" having been written and adapted to a tune by whites, then taken up by blacks and continued by whites. I have not made up my mind about this, and I suspect that making a compelling distinction between authors, by race, may not be possible.
There is an interesting comparison between "John Henry" and "John Hardy," a subject of early confusion. Except for Leadbelly, who probably learned it from his white friends, "John Hardy" is not found in the comprehensive book, *Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943* (Dixon, Godrich, Rye), and, as far as I know, it did not appear in any of the famous collections of black folk songs. Regardless of who wrote it, "John Hardy" has been the exclusive property of whites. "John Henry," on the other hand, has belonged to all Americans.
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