>I Believe I read that John's death was greatly exagerated, >he did beat the drill and did not die doing so.
Possibly, but you can't believe what you read. The few reports that said he lived on are, as I recall, from Big Bend advocates. As I stated before, I think that the evidence gathered by Johnson and Chappell comes close to ruling out this location (by not solidly confirming it), so I consider it to be a very unlikely possibility and the Big Bend informants to be an unreliable bunch. There is disagreement on John Henry's death among them.
None of Johnson's three Alabama informants claimed that John Henry lived on. Two of them specifically said that he died on the spot, including the one who claimed to have been an eye-witness to the contest, among the "about three to four hundred people present."
Chappell cites Newton Redwine: "John Henry the steel driving champion was a native of Alabama and from near Bessemer or Blackton...For several years John Henry worked around the iron mining region of Alabama...." He goes on to put John Henry at many other places and has him dying in the construction of a tunnel at Kings Mountain (KY or TN). Redwine agrees with Johnson's Alabama informants only in placing John Henry in the Birminham area. Another Chappell informant, J. W. Washington, says that John Henry did most of his steel driving in Alabama.
Interestingly, a report to Chappell from Jamaica says "The following names are known:- Dabner, in charge of blasting operations. John Henry, checking up cuts and embankments. Shea, Engineer in charge. Tommy Walters, Assistant Pay Master."
Two of Johnson's Alabama informants mention Shea/Shay and Dabner/Dabney. Another Johnson informant, Leon R. Harris, says that he has "tried faithfully to get the story of John Henry...But I have failed. Anyone who tries will fail. I believe, however, that the following are facts: ('facts' 1-5 are listed) "These are probabilities: (1-3) "4. His 'captain's' name was Tommy Walters - probably an assistant foreman, however."
Certain names, Dabner/Dabney, Shea/Shay, Tommy Walters, seem to crop up from widely scattered sources. The first two of these are mentioned by Johnson's Alabama informants. These names might be keys to further understanding the possible historical background of the ballad.