I agree with "Blues=Life" that knowledge of the historical John Henry "will not change the power of the song one iota" and I appreciate the sentiment, "Just sing the damn song." I can't tell how many times I've seen some long-winded person get up to lead at a Sacred Harp singing and have their remarks terminated by a polite version of "Shut up and sing!"
John Henry is a powerful legend that stands on its on and will keep going no matter what. I've done quite a bit of wondering what the impact of firmly documenting John Henry in Alabama would be on the West Virginia people. In a way, it would rain on their parade, sort of. But if we recall that their investment is in the *legend,* not the facts, then finding John Henry in Alabama would be irrelevant to their celebrations. If that day comes, I surely hope they will see it that way. Also, as I've noted earlier, I suspect that they really did have their own John Henry, John Henry Martin, a noted steel driver at Big Bend. I don't think that he raced a steam drill, however.
None of these considerations deter me from pursuing the historical John Henry. It is a real challenge, and an interesting one, just the kind of thing you might design for a retired chemist to do.
Are you ready for some wholesale speculation?
Here're some facts.
I've known of Neal Pattman since about 1970, when he worked as a one-armed janitor at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education here on the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens. I didn't know then that he was a bluesman. When Art Rosenbaum joined our faculty in 1976 or '77, he started immediately digging up local traditional musicians, and he found Neal, blowing his harmonica and singing. Since then Neal has become pretty well known on the international blues scene.
I attended a Neal Pattman concert last night. As he said, he usually includes "John Henry" because it was the first song he ever learned from his father. As usual, his version is flexible. The weight of John Henry's hammer can vary from singing to singing as can the selection of verses. Neal always sings about driving "them steels" and not letting "another man beat my time" (rather than the "steam drill"). Anyhow, last night he included the verse about John Henry's woman/wife who "drove steel like a man" when John Henry was sick.
In most versions you hear nowadays, John Henry's woman/wife is "Polly Ann." In about 1927, however, Leon Harris, a collector of John Henryana from Moline, Illinois, stated that "Lucy" was the only name for John Henry's woman/wife that he had never heard in a "John Henry" song.
Both "Polly Ann" and "Lucy" strike me as likely commonplace replacements for an earlier, perhaps less "romantic" or singable name.
In addition to these, one finds among the 59 versions of the "John Henry" ballad collected and published by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell the following names: Julie Ann, Mary Magdalene, Mary Ann, Ida Red, Sary Ann, Martha Ann. Last night Neal Pattman sang something like "Maggadee," maybe "Maggie D," perhaps? I'll try to find out from him what he thinks he sings.
Anyhow, if it's not "Maggie D" its something much like it.
Henry Dabney, black, b 1850 in Mississippi, married Margaret Foston on November 4, 1869, in Copiah County, Mississippi.
Speculation: "Maggie" was Margaret's nickname. To distinguish her from other "Maggies," she was called "Maggie D."
"Maggie D" appeared in the earliest versions of the "John Henry" ballad. Neal Pattman preserves it. Oral tradition led to changes like the following.
Maggie D -> Magdalene -> Mary Magdalene -> Mary Ann -> Polly Ann -> Julie Ann, Sary Ann, Martha Ann
"Ida Red" is likely a transfer from the song/fiddle tune of that name.
This adds a little bit to the plausibility that Henry Dabney was the historic John Henry.