Fascinating thread. Totally useless, but fascinating. You can "ivory tower" a song to death, you know. Did John Henry really exist? WHO CARES? It will not change the power of the song one iota. This song has lasted for years because it touches the listeners with true power, on a primal level. NOT because JH was a myth or a real person. Because we can identify with the good fight, and the underdog, and the victory, and the cost. Now I remember why I left academe:
"A man ain't nothing but a man." (I wish I had written that.)
"I am trying to find a fundamental difference between my speculation and other, more legitimate kinds of interpretation. The only distinction I can come up with is that the units/objects of analysis are, in my case, more abstract than in other cases." (Thank God, I didn't write this.)
Just sing the damn song.