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rebellion and protest in John Henry

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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GUEST,Jim Hauser 06 May 13 - 01:39 PM
Stilly River Sage 06 May 13 - 11:09 PM
BanjoRay 07 May 13 - 05:59 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 07 May 13 - 09:59 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 07 May 13 - 11:32 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 07 May 13 - 03:38 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 25 Oct 14 - 02:46 PM
Don Firth 25 Oct 14 - 04:39 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 26 Oct 14 - 05:35 PM
Lighter 26 Oct 14 - 07:05 PM
Don Firth 26 Oct 14 - 07:13 PM
GUEST,Andy T 26 Oct 14 - 10:04 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 27 Oct 14 - 10:33 AM
GUEST 27 Oct 14 - 11:03 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 27 Oct 14 - 11:22 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 27 Oct 14 - 11:38 AM
Lighter 27 Oct 14 - 12:03 PM
Don Firth 27 Oct 14 - 07:00 PM
GUEST,John Henry 27 Oct 14 - 09:28 PM
GUEST 27 Oct 14 - 10:49 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 28 Oct 14 - 12:19 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 28 Oct 14 - 02:30 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 28 Oct 14 - 09:50 PM
GUEST 24 Dec 17 - 11:01 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 23 Feb 18 - 02:52 PM
Mark Ross 23 Feb 18 - 03:09 PM
robomatic 24 Feb 18 - 07:07 AM
robomatic 24 Feb 18 - 07:13 AM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 24 Feb 18 - 02:50 PM
robomatic 24 Feb 18 - 10:21 PM
StephenH 25 Feb 18 - 12:21 PM
robomatic 25 Feb 18 - 03:39 PM
StephenH 25 Feb 18 - 05:02 PM
GUEST,Gerry 25 Feb 18 - 05:08 PM
GUEST,Jim Hauser 25 Feb 18 - 10:14 PM
Jeri 25 Feb 18 - 10:22 PM
GUEST 25 Feb 18 - 10:54 PM
robomatic 26 Feb 18 - 07:35 PM
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Subject: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 06 May 13 - 01:39 PM

Hello everyone,
I am an amateur music researcher who has never posted to Mudcat before, but I have found it to be a useful resource several times in the past. (I am a librarian by trade and do music research as a hobby.) Currently, I am researching the ballad of John Henry and would appreciate your assistance. I've identified certain versions of the ballad in which John Henry challenges or rebels against his captain or is at odds with him in some way, and I am hoping that you folks may be able to tell me of some additional versions. I hope to eventually write an article about my research, and have created a webpage which provides some details about what I've found.

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/


I've identified eight rebel versions of John Henry which are listed below. I refer to them as rebel versions because, in each one, a key, well-known and commonly appearing verse from the song which begins "John Henry said to the captain" has been transformed from a statement of resolve concerning defeating the steam drill into a statement which can be interpreted as a rebellious challenge against the captain, the man who oversaw the work of John Henry and his fellow steel drivers.

These versions appear in:
Howard Odum and Guy B. Johnson's "Negro Workaday Songs"
Guy B. Johnson's "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend"
Bruce Jackson's "Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues"
Ernest Booth's "Stealing Through Life"


Rebel Version 1 (from Booth)

John Henry tole his cap'en one day:
"A man ain't nuffin' but a man,
But 'fore ah'd let yo' hit me on the --- wid dat strap,
Ah'd die wif dis hammer in mah han' . . . "
Hey . . . hey . . . hey . . .


Rebel Version 2 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry went to captain,
Say, "Man ain't nothin' but a man.
Befo' I let you beat me down
I die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 3 (from Johnson)

John Henry told his captain,
"A man ain't nothing but a man.
Before I'd let you beat me down
I'd die with the hammer in my hand."


Rebel Version 4 (from Johnson)

John Henry said to the captain,
"A man ain't nothing but a man,
Before I let a man beat me down
I will die with my hammer in my hand."


Rebel Version 5 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry said to his captain
"Lawd, a man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I let a man beat me down
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 6 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry said to his captain,
"Man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I work from sun to sun
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 7 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry told his captain
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I work from sun to sun
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 8 (from Jackson)

John Henry told-a the Captain,
He said, "A man ain't but a man,
And before I'll stand to let you drive me down,
I will die with the hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I will die with the hammer in my hand.

In addition to the eight rebel versions, I've identified eight complaint versions of the ballad in which John Henry complains to his boss of inadequate wages or mistreatment on the job. He does not threaten his captain in these versions, but he crosses over the boundary of what white people in the Jim Crow south considered to be acceptable behavior for a black man in addressing or interacting with a white man. These versions are included on my webpage.

These versions suggest the possibility that protest and resistance were an important part of the John Henry tradition, but they have apparently been overlooked or ignored by folklorists and researchers.

Please let me know if you are aware of any other versions in which John Henry rebels against or challenges his captain.

Thanks for any help you can provide.

Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 06 May 13 - 11:09 PM

Welcome to Mudcat, Jim Hauser!

A simple question to start, regarding your research - have you checked the Digital Tradition (see the search box on the upper left of the main page) and searched for John Henry in the forum?

SRS


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: BanjoRay
Date: 07 May 13 - 05:59 AM

There's a whole lot of stuff about the history of John Henry, especially from John Carst.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 07 May 13 - 09:59 AM

I have checked the various John Henry threads, and haven't found anything along the lines of what I've been looking at. One thing that I have seen in mudcat is lyrics in which the drill is associated with being the captain's drill, which puts John Henry at odds with his captain sort of indirectly, but maybe directly also depending upon how you interpret it. Versions such as these are fairly common and I should include them in my webpage.

Regarding John Garst, I recently received his e-mail address and paln to contact him. I'm especially interested in whether he's come across any unpublished versions of the ballad that might be similar to the versions I've identifed so far. I also need to contact Scott Nelson who wrote a book about his search for John Henry a few years ago.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 07 May 13 - 11:32 AM

I fail to see "rebellion" in the verses in Odum and Johnson. Pride in his ability, yes, but not rebellion.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 07 May 13 - 03:38 PM

I agree that certain versions which I've identified as rebel versions can be interpreted as John Henry expressing pride in his ability (and in his determination to defeat his opponent in a steel driving contest, whether the opponent be a steam drill or the captain or any other challenger.)   Unfortunately, I failed to note in my original post that these versions are open to different interpretations. I get into this on my webpage which can be found at:

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/

or by googling "John Henry the rebel versions"

Most of the informants for these versions were African American, and I believe that a large number of black men in the early 20th century Jim Crow south would have interpreted phrases such as "before I let you beat me down/before I work from sun to sun, I'll die with a hammer in my hand" as a threat to fight back.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 25 Oct 14 - 02:46 PM

In my continuing research into "John Henry", I've come across a recording of the song by a blind black musician named Bailey Dansley.   In the second line of the final verse of the song, it sounds like John Henry tells his captain that he has made a "bad mistake."   I've come across two recordings by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with similar lines in this verse--one in which John Henry says "Shut up! You don't know what you sayin'" and another in which he says "Captain, you are wrong." It sounds to me like the second line in Dansley's version contains the phrase "you's a bad mistake" which I interpret to mean "you made" or "you are making" a bad mistake. Am I hearing it right??? The webpage with the recording (link is below) includes a transcription which has the word "that's" instead of what I hear as "you's."

http://digitalcollections.uark.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/OzarkFolkSong/id/2333/rec/7

Below is the verse as I hear it. Note that based on context and on a number of other versions of the song, including the versions by Terry and McGhee, Dansley mistakenly switches John Henry and the Captain in the first line.

Henry told his Captain, "The mountain's falling in."
"No Captain, you's a bad mistake.
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind.
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind, God knows.
My hammer handle ringing in the wind."


Below is a transcription of the verse that appears on the webpage which contains the recording. Note that it's clearly inaccurate and that it even does not include Dansley's mistake of switching John Henry and the captain in the first line of the verse.

Captain told John Henry the mountain's falling in
Henry say to the Captain, That's a bad mistake
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind, God knows
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind


This is quite an interesting version of the song with some lines in other verses that I can't recall ever seeing before!

Jim Hauser

link to my website discussing my research


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Don Firth
Date: 25 Oct 14 - 04:39 PM

Jim, I've been learning and singing folk songs since 1953 and the ballad of John Henry was familiar to me right from the start. I've heard it sung by Lord only knows how many people, both live and on record—including in a concert at a Berkeley folk music festival by John Lomax Jr. And I was given a two-record set, sung and narrated by Josh White, of the legend of John Henry. I have also sung the song myself many times in a lifetime of performance.

In the versions with which I am familiar, although John Henry is black and it is assumed that the foreman is white (although I've never heard this specified), I was not particularly aware of any kind of strong racial component.

Or the foreman threatening John Henry with corporal punishment!

The conflict in the song—as I have always heard it—was between John Henry and the idea of he and his co-workers being replace by a steam drill. Hence, the contest between John Henry and the steam drill—which John Henry wins, but at the cost of his life.

A song about racism? This is the first time I've ever heard that!

Don Firth


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 26 Oct 14 - 05:35 PM

Don,
I know that my work is controversial and a lot of folks wouldn't agree with my ideas about John Henry. But some folks (for example, Alan Dundes and Lawrence Levine) have suggested that the struggle between black and white may be a significant aspect of the legend. They don't point to much in the way of evidence so I'm looking for it, mostly by looking at lyrics. I've still got a lot of research to do so I don't know what I might find, either to support, refute, or modify my ideas. Even if you don't agree with me, if you're open to the possibility that I might be on to something, you might check my website every six months or so to see what has developed.
Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Lighter
Date: 26 Oct 14 - 07:05 PM

Jim, the transcription that appears at the website is clearly erroneous in some places, as you've undoubtedly noticed.

The "mountain" stanza sounds like this to me:

Henry tol' the Captain, mountain's fallin' in
No, Captain, yous a bad mistake
Hear my hammer handle ringin' in the wind
Hear my hammer handle ringin' in the wind, God knows
Hammer handle ringin' in the wind


"Yous" doesn't make much sense to me here, unless, as you suggest, "made" has been elided.

I don't hear "that's" anywhere in these lines.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Don Firth
Date: 26 Oct 14 - 07:13 PM

Will do, Jim.

It's just that in a lifetime of singing, in an environment in which "John Henry" became such an old warhorse that it's practically been banned from the repertoire (everybody recorded and sang various versions of it during the Fifties, to the point when after the first few bars people would mutter, "Ye gods, not that again!"), and in all the versions I've heard of it, I've never heard it as a song about racism. Man being replaced by machines, yes.

But I'll keep checking with your website to see what you come up with.

Pardon me for being a bit touchy about racism, but from time to time I've been attacked by the PC ("politically correct") police for singing songs as I learn them without bowdlerizing them or trying to "pretty them up."

Case in point:   I learned "Black Girl"
Black girl, black girl, don't lie to me,
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines
And I shivered the whole night through.

(and goes on to tell how her husband was killed in a railroad accident, and the implication is that, in addition to mourning for her husband, she is now homeless),
from a Leadbelly record, and started singing the song as he sang it (without trying to imitate his "accent"). It was not long before every now and then, someone, in high dudgeon, would tell me that I, as a white man, should not sing that song.

I checked with Lynne, a young black girl who sang folk songs, and she told me that it was not offensive at all and to keep right on singing it. I checked further with Rosetta, a non-folk singing friend, a young black woman who was a telephone operator, singing the song for her, and she found it touching and poignant—and not offensive at all.

Only white self-appointed PC police found it offensive.

I have heard a few recordings in which the singer changed the words to "Little girl, little girl…" which, to me, is downright wimpy!

So please forgive me if I'm a bit hypersensitive about people finding racism where it doesn't exist.

Don Firth


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Andy T
Date: 26 Oct 14 - 10:04 PM

The song is about a man who didn't want to be replaced by a machine, something many people since then have been able to relate to.

His job can't have been much fun, deep inside a tunnel, breathing kerosene lamp fumes, endlessly hammering on a steel rod pressed against solid rock, with the harsh metallic sound of the hammer blows greatly amplified and echoed by the rock-hard surfaces and small size of the tunnel. But it was the only thing that gave meaning to his life, and the only way he could earn a decent living.

He naively thought that if he showed that he was faster than the machine he could keep his job. We know that the steam drill did in fact replace John Henry, but rather than deal with the idea that management favors machines over people for other reasons besides efficiency, we explain that by saying that he died during the contest.

But it's absurd to suggest that someone who spent all day every day of his career hammering a steel rod into rock, creating miles of tunnels by the combination of the holes he drilled and the dynamite sticks placed in those holes, could be killed by driving a rod a mere 16 feet, no matter how quickly he did it.

The real danger in this operation is to the shaker -- the guy who has to hold the rod while someone swings a nine pound hammer at it, and has to watch the hammer head coming at him and move the end of the rod to the exact point where it will meet the arc of the hammer swing.

Think of how difficult that would be, especially in a dimly lit tunnel. And think of what would happen to you the first time you failed to put the end of the rod in exactly the right place. And think of the added danger when the operation is speeded up recklessly for a race.

Hence,
John Henry said to his shaker, "Shaker, you had better pray.
If I miss your six feet of steel, tomorrow will be you buryin' day."

And the shaker said right back to John Henry, "A man ain't nothin' but a man.
But before I would let any steam drill beat me down, I would die with my steel rod in my hand."


The idea that John Henry would work so hard for that short time that he might die with his hammer in his hand makes no sense, but it allows us to kill him off in the song, like an inconvenient movie character, so that we don't have to explain why the steam drill, which only made 9 (feet), replaced him anyway.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 10:33 AM

Jonathan, thanks for letting me know that you hear the same thing that I hear in the second line (i.e. the word "yous" not the word "that's").   Regarding the first word in the third and fourth lines, it's very unclear but it does sound to me more like the word is "that" rather than "hear."

Jim


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 11:03 AM

Don,
I used to get defensive when people didn't agree with my ideas about "John Henry." But I've finally come to the realization that people who don't agree with me are actually doing what needs to be done. I want people to debate the issue and at least entertain the possibility that race may have something to do with the legend. As I noted before, Lawrence Levine and Alan Dundes have suggested the possibility, but, as far as I can tell, nobody has actually spent much time exploring that possibility. Maybe some folks out there in the folk music/folklore/academic world have come across things about the legend that have puzzled them that might make sense if looked at from a different perspective.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 11:22 AM

Don, I somehow mistakenly posted my previous message as "GUEST."

One thing I want to bring out is that I have my doubts about the legend having originated as a result of John Henry entering a contest with the steamdrill to save his job. I believe that John Garst--who has been researching the legend for many years--posted a message on this forum looking for evidence of where this idea originated. If I remember correctly, he stated that this explanation for the legend does not appear in either Louis Chappell's book on John Henry which was published in 1933 or in Guy B. Johnson's book which was published in 1929. I'm not saying that saving jobs is not a valid interpretation, but that it was something which appears to have been attached to the legend at a later time.
Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 11:38 AM

Andy, you bring out an important point about the dangers of tunneling work. Chappell's book (and Scott Nelson's relatively recent book) describe just how horrible and dangerous these jobs were. It's hard to imagine why anybody would do this work voluntarily. Nelson points out that convict lease laborers were used in the building of at least two tunnels. I imagine that many of the "free" laborers who did this type of work were actually victims of peonage who "owed their souls to the company store."
Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 12:03 PM

Jim, I'd reject "that's" unless you (unlike me) can pretty clearly hear a final "s."


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Don Firth
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 07:00 PM

This seems to be pretty well researched:

Clicky.

I also chased down a few links in the article and found this pretty interesting:

Clicky #2.

Don Firth


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,John Henry
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 09:28 PM

You're right, I don't hear an "s." To me, it sounds like he's singing "That my hammer ringin'..." It's too bad that the recording is so muddy sounding--the lyrics in the "a man ain't nothing but a man" verse are something I've never come across before. Dansley's version might be much better known if it weren't for the poor quality of the recording.
Jim


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 27 Oct 14 - 10:49 PM

Jim,
For this pursuit, and your line of inquiry, you need to get into the bibliography for the discipline of American Studies. I'm quite confident you will find "John Henry" references and with a nod to race, class, societal context, socioeconomics, and such. Wish I could help further with specifics; been too long away from university library. Perhaps there are leads for researchers at the website for the American Studies Association.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 28 Oct 14 - 12:19 PM

Thanks for the tip! I'll check into the website for the American Studies Association.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 28 Oct 14 - 02:30 PM

Don,
I checked the wikipedia webpage that you linked to and it says that Guy B. Johnson found someone who claimed that John Henry entered the contest with the steam drill "because he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him." I must be mistaken about seeing a post by John Garst stating that Johnson's and Chappell's books don't mention that saving jobs was a motivation for the contest. Thanks for setting me straight on this!
Jim


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 28 Oct 14 - 09:50 PM

I found the post by John Garst. I was mistaken. Garst does ask where the idea first appears of John Henry engaging in the contest in order to save his job and those of his fellow workers. But he did not say that it does not appear in the books by Johnson and Chappell. Instead, he said, "I have not found it in any of the early songs or studies." Here is a link to the thread containing the post. It's near the very end of the thread and is dated January 15, 2013.

Link to the thread containing the post

According to the "John Henry" article in wikipedia, Guy B. Johnson talked to a man named Neal Miller who said that "John Henry wanted to drive against [the steam drill]. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him." The source cited by wikipedia is a February 2, 1930 article in the Modesto Bee and News-Herald which was written by Johnson. The article was published after Johnson's book which was published in 1929.

I don't have the article so I can't vouch for its accuracy, but I'm guessing that the quote probably is accurate. I tried to find the same quote in Johnson's book but couldn't. I did find a section in the book where Johnson discusses what Miller told him, but there is no mention of John Henry going up against the drill to stop it from taking away his job and those of his fellow workers. Possibly this is brought out in another section of the book.

One thing that has occurred to me while looking into this is that if the outcome of the contest was to determine whether or not the steam drill would replace manual laborers, an average laborer--rather than the strongest and most skilled laborer--should have been put to the test. Maybe John Henry was just an average steel driver, but his strength and steel driving skill became magnified over the years as the story of his victory circulated and turned into a legend.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 24 Dec 17 - 11:01 AM

It's been three years since I've added to this thread on racial protest and rebellion in "John Henry," and I want to let those who may be interested in my work know that I am still doing my research and finding interesting things. Some highlights are below.


1. JOHN HENRY AS A "BAD" MAN:

The book Stars in de Elements written by an African American music professor and folklorist named Willis Laurence James has a bad man version of "John Henry" with the following verses. The lyrics are in the AAB format.

John Henry was a man didn't 'bey no law (twice)
Didn't need no gun, could whip an' man he cross.

De white man say, John Henry, do lak yo' please (twice)
Done hear 'bout yo', all de way f 'om Tennessee.

In the verses above, John Henry is a "ba-a-a-d" (i.e. great and powerful) man, so ba-a-ad that white men feared and respected him, and let him do as he pleased. Because of his badness, he is not subject to the limitations which were placed on other black men by the white system of power.   We can see him as an African American hero because he was not bound by the laws of the white man's legal system, a system which was often used as a tool to oppress black people.

John Henry?s badness allows him to be a free man. Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train (his classic book about rock ?n? roll) described the legend of Stagolee as being a fantasy of no limits, a fantasy for black people who in the Jim Crow south lived every day in a labyrinth of limitations.    The John Henry song collected by James suggests that the powerful steel driver may have conjured up that very same fantasy for black people. They may have imagined themselves to be as big and ?bad? and powerful as John Henry, so powerful that nobody, including and especially white people, would mess with them.



2. REBEL VERSION #12 (performed by an African American woman named Minerva Williams):   

Mary Wheeler collected a version from the lower Ohio River Valley in the mid-1930s which I believe has been completely unknown to all those who have researched "John Henry" in the past. I have never seen it referenced by any researcher or writer. Wheeler is the author of the book Steamboatin' Days: Folk Songs of the River Packet Era, and the book includes several versions of "John Henry" but not this one. It was performed for her by a black woman named Minerva Williams. It can be found in the Mary Wheeler Collection of the McCracken County Public Library in Paducah, Kentucky.   The two verses below are from that version. The first verse is the key verse. (I've included the second verse simply because not only is it a beautiful verse but it's also one I've never seen elsewhere--I figure that some folks on this forum might want to include it in their own versions of the ballad.) I have classified it on my website as rebel version #12.

John Henry said to the walking boss,
I'm nothin' but a man,
AND BEFORE I TAKE ANY ABUSE FROM YOU,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand.

John Henry drove steel in the mountain with his woman right by his side,
And the water came a running down John Henry's cheeks,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky.


Clicking on the link below will take you to a webpage containing a digital image of Wheeler's typewritten transcript of the complete lyrics to the song (Wheeler classified it as John Henry #3).

http://digitalcollections.mclib.net/luna/servlet/detail/McCracken~13~13~113~2256:John-Henry,-



3. VERSION BY AN AFRICAN AMERICAN NAMED GROVER WELLS (recorded at Parchman Farm))

In 1959, Alan Lomax recorded a work song version of "John Henry" at Mississippi's Parchman Farm prison which was performed by an African American named Grover Wells who was accompanied by a group of unidentified prisoners who sang and struck their hoes to a steady beat throughout the song. It includes the verse below in which John Henry makes a thinly-veiled threat against his captain. The verse is a variation to one which appears in many versions of the ballad in which John Henry speaks similar lines to his shaker, the worker who held the drill in place for the steel driver as he hammered it. A link to the recording is below.

verse 2:
John Henry told his captain,
"Boss man, do you ever pray?
Well, if I miss this steel and this hammer get away
Tomorrow be your buryin' day.
Lord, Lord
Tomorrow be your buryin' day."

http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=4763


4. FURRY LEWIS'S "PARTNER FALLIN' DEAD" VERSE:

Bluesman Furry Lewis made a long string of "John Henry" recordings, and there is a verse which appears in at least three of them in which John Henry looks at the sun and then looks at his work partner and sees him falling dead. One of the recordings appears on the album Fourth and Beale which was recorded in 1969. The verse and a link to the recording are below. (The "falling dead" verse is the last verse of the recording.)

John Henry looked at the sun one day,
And the sun had done turned red.
And he looked back over his shoulder, Lord,
And he see'd his partner fallin' dead, dead, dead.   

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPccUT5tyvA

Of course, many of you recognize that Lewis adapted the verse from one contained in the African American Texas prison work song "Go Down Ol' Hannah." Hannah is the name that the convicts gave to the sun. Below is the verse as it appears (including parenthetical explanatory comments from the performer) in one of several versions of "Go Down Ol' Hannah" included in Bruce Jackson's book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues. It can be interpreted as a protest against convicts being forced to work in the fields of prison farms, work which was done under the blistering Texas sun for exhaustingly long hours and at a brutal pace.

Well I look at old Hannah,
She was turnin' red, ("Means it's late in the evenin'")
Well I look at my partner, ("That's the one on the row with you")
He was almost dead.


5. VIRGIL PERKINS'S "HANDS GETTIN' COLD" VERSION:

In addition to Furry Lewis's version above, another recording of the ballad which borrows a verse from a black work song is one by a black musician named Virgil Perkins which appears on the Folkways Records album Folk Music U.S.A., Volume 1. The verse and a link to the recording are below. Perkins begins the verse with John Henry making a complaint to his captain (first two lines), and then ends it with the captain's response (last two lines).

John Henry said to his captain
He said, "Captain, my hands gettin' cold."
He said, "That don't make no difference, boy, what you said.
I wanna hear that hammer roll."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIWACYX2Lns


The above verse is a variation to a verse (see below) found in a work song titled "Grade Song." The lyrics to "Grade Song" appear in Howard Odum's article "Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes" which was published in the year 1911 in the Journal of American Folklore. The song includes a number of short verses in which complaints and a threat are made to or about the captain. The verse also appears in a song collected by Lawrence Gellert titled "Told My Captain" which appears in his book Me and My Captain: Chain Gang Negro Songs of Protest (published in 1939).

Told my captain my han's wus cold.
"God damn yo' hans, let the wheelers roll!"



6. JOHN HENRY AS A SYMBOL OF BLACK FREEDOM:

In Part Two of my website, I discuss how John Henry was a great symbol of black manhood and how black manhood was linked to the struggle for freedom. Based on this, John Henry can be seen as representing freedom to African Americans. The above badman version collected by Willis Laurence James is an example of this.

I believe that Bob Dylan himself made the same connections between John Henry and black manhood and the struggle for freedom when back in the early 1960s he wrote the first verse to ?Blowin? in the Wind.? Some 50 years after writing it, Dylan stated:

If you sang ?John Henry? as many times as me ? John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said, ?A man ain?t nothin? but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I?ll die with that hammer in my hand.? If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you?d have written ?How many roads must a man walk down?? too.


I see myself continuing my John Henry research for years to come and will be updating my website several times a year. A link to my website is below. I'll be happy to answer any questions about this post or my website. Thanks for taking the time to look at my work!

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home

Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 23 Feb 18 - 02:52 PM

I recently updated my website with a discussion of the phrase "a man ain't nothin' but a man" as an assertion of racial equality. An excerpt is below.

We can see the phrase "a man ain't nothin' but a man" as an assertion of racial equality by looking at the black folk song "De Black Jack and de Tall White Pine." (It was collected by an African American professor and folklorist named Willis Laurence James, and appears in his book Stars in de Elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music.) In this song, a conversation takes place between two trees, a black jack and a white pine. The white pine thinks it is superior to the black jack, but the black jack proclaims its equality by telling the pine, "Trees ain't nothin' but trees." The key verse from the song is below exactly as it appears on page 142 of James's book, including the parenthetical definition of the term "biggity."

De black jack said to de tall white pine,
Just 'cause you high in de breeze,
You need'nt talk so biggity (bigoted),
Trees ain't nothin' but trees.

    Considering that the black tree calls the white tree bigoted, the phrase "trees ain't nothin' but trees" is clearly an assertion of racial equality. It follows that the John Henry ballad's "a man ain't nothin' but a man" phrase--which is simply a variation to "trees ain't nothin' but trees"--is also an assertion of racial equality. Certainly, many African Americans who performed or heard "John Henry" during the days of Jim Crow interpreted the phrase in this way.   


A link to Part 2 of my website which contains the complete "a man ain't nothin' but a man" dscussion is below.
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/a-look-at-resistance-and-rebellion-in-the-legend-of-john-henry-part-2


MAILING LIST INFO:
I am putting together a mailing list for notifying folks who are interested in my work about updates to my website. If you would like to be added to the list. please send an e-mail to me at jphauser2000@yahoo.com with the words "John Henry mailing list" in the subject line. I anticipate sending no more than three or four update messages per year.

Jim Hauser


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Mark Ross
Date: 23 Feb 18 - 03:09 PM

"Shaker said to John Henry,
I believe this mountain's cavin' in,
John Henry laughed and he shook his head,
Ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind,
Ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind."

I s the way I heard it.

Mark Ross


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: robomatic
Date: 24 Feb 18 - 07:07 AM

John Henry was a steel driving Luddite.

Man is a tool making and using animal. When the ability to use mechanical means came along the cotton gin made slavery a going concern, as it paid the owners to have lots of cotton to feed the machine that could get the seeds out of the bolls. But there was no machine for picking that cotton, ergo cheap labor.
When steam came along you didn't need the mule Sal to tote that barge on the Erie Canal. Likewise when the steam drill came along it worked harder for longer no matter the color of the workers.
(I always liked the song "John Henry". As a young kid I had no idea of the issue of race in the song. The version I heard most was Harry Belafonte's who sang "...ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind")

When the computer came along, there was a somewhat legendary but true story of a Japanese man who worked an abacus and beat the computer on a large arithmetic procedure. But the postscript to the story was that the man who used the abacus went to sleep for a day afterwords, while the soldier who operated ENIAC went out to play baseball.

Now the rebellion is real, man against tool-using man. The French workers wrecked the


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: robomatic
Date: 24 Feb 18 - 07:13 AM

Sorry, that last line got away from me. I was going on to make the point that reaction against equipment was a perennial human activity. But the end is (almost) always the same. The Egyptians take bronze swords into a battle against iron swords- Unhappy results! French knights in armor go up against Englishmen with yew bows. Stone walls fall to cannonade. Japanese Samurai go up against peasants armed with muskets. In that last case the Japanese ruling class got firearms banned for hundreds of years.

Blame Prometheus for bringing fire to humanity.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 24 Feb 18 - 02:50 PM

Robomatic,
I agree with what you're saying about machines and technological innovation. I wouldn't refer to John Henry as a Luddite though because I don't believe that the race with the drill had anything to do with saving the jobs of manual laborers. The idea that the race was some kind of test to determine whether steam drills should replace workers is, of course, ridiculous. As you have pointed out, workers have to sleep and rest; machines don't. Also, for the investment in a steam drill to pay off, you'd have to replace a large number of workers, not just one. Therefore, a steam drill competing against only one man (John Henry) is not a good test of whether you should replace a group of men with a machine. You could argue that John Henry was the equivalent of a whole group of steel drivers, but that's the stuff of legend, not reality.

If you really want to explore what could possibly have sparked the legend, you need to consider the story of John Henry in its historical context: the oppression and exploitation of black people. (Unfortunately, popularization of the ballad has taken it out of this context.) Black workers picking cotton on the plantations, constructing and repairing levees along the Mississippi, loading and unloading cargo carried on riverboats, and laying track and carving out tunnels for the railroads contributed largely to turning America into an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. But these workers were terribly abused and exploited by their employers/bosses/overseers/captains. Largely, they were victims of peonage on plantations and in levee camps and other work camps. Other workers endured incredibly cruel conditions on prison farms and under the convict lease system. So telling the story of John Henry winning a contest against the steam drill was a way for black people to defeat their oppressors without having to pay the consequences. It was sort of like the black boxer Jack Johnson defeating a white man for the heavyweight championship. In a contest, a black man could defeat a white man--actually beat him up, in the case of Johnson--without any backlash from whites. Keep in mind that, in many versions of the ballad, John Henry refers to the drill as YOUR drill while addressing the captain. His victory over the drill represented a victory over his cruel racist white boss.

I believe that it's quite possible that a man named John Henry did race a drill--not to save jobs, but as a sporting event. But I also believe that there is a very real possibility that it never happened at all. Regarding this second possibility, it could have been a piece of creative storytelling invented by a black tunnel worker to honor a fallen co-worker who was "bad" enough to challenge a cruel captain and then paid for his insubordination with his life. In telling the story of his friend, he could have described John Henry as being "so bad that he could outhammer a steamdrill. Singlehandedly!" With that bit of exaggeration, the legend could have been off and running. (By the way,Zora Neale Hurston's book Mules and Men is a wonderful source for hearing great black storytelling.)

Jim


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: robomatic
Date: 24 Feb 18 - 10:21 PM

Jim:

Extremely interesting. Since a long time ago, before the internet, I assumed that the song was based on a historical event. Apparently, this is not confirmed. Just came here from Wikipedia. Growing up we had physical encyclopedias in the house, and we had a set of books on the United States breaking it down state by state, directed at young people. I fancy the history/ legend of John Henry might have been in one of these.

I also know the Allan Sherman comedic version almost by heart. Also from my youth.

I haven't gone through the Mudcat threads on this song. Mudcatters with deep backgrounds have probably weighed in and are worth reviewing. If we don't have a date for the supposed contest, the song versions may provide geographical ranges and dates.

Your approach reminds me of another comparison between art and history and why we need to be careful in thinking we understand what something is about:
A frequently repeated television show to this day is MASH. If you ask most young people, seeing the show for the 'first' time in this day and age, and ask them what the show is about, they will most likely say: "Korea". If you ask someone of an age to have seen the program when it first aired, they will say: "Vietnam".

Good luck with your study and work.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: StephenH
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 12:21 PM

robomatic - your link to the Wikipedia on the Luddites contains these lines: " It is a misconception that the Luddites protested against the machinery itself in an attempt to halt the progress of technology."
It all came down to the classic "who owns the means of production."
I know this hasn't a lot to do with this thread but it always bugs me to see the Luddites being characterised as purely anti-technology.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: robomatic
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 03:39 PM

Stephen:
I think Mudcat can afford some free range in a thread this interesting. I am a fan of Wikipedia, but it is no more gospel than any other publication. My knowledge of the Luddites does not extend beyond the Wikipedia article and I have always thought of them as anti-technology from the point of view that they were losing their jobs/ livelihood/ means of self worth, and they took direct means in expressing themselves, i.e. destroying factory equipment.
Furthermore, I suspect them of being great song material.
If you wish to enlighten me, or send me to other resources, I am all ears, metaphorically speaking.
There is that old repetitive expression of "no one buys buggy whips anymore" to which I'd add "and precious few typewriters". But many textile workers lived to see their jobs simply disappear while the textiles kept coming off of the mills.
Thomas Friedman has repeated a joke which is growing less funny as it grows more true: "The new factory will have automated machinery, one man and one dog. The man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to keep the man away from the equipment."


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: StephenH
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 05:02 PM

robomatic: I have loads of links to material on the Luddites. Here's one to a very readable article on Smithsonian:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-the-luddites-really-fought-against-264412/

I don't claim to know the "truth" about the Luddites but have read enough that I have formed an opinion that goes beyond mere anti-technology, and, to be fair, you certainly allude to that in your posts.
Yes, there are many songs about the Luddites - check out "English Rebel
Songs" by Chumbawamba, for instance.
I think there is a link with this thread, also, in that Jim Hauser has asked us to examine what motivated John Henry. I had always just thought of it as an expression of pride in his strength but this thread has given me a lot to think about and I intend to investigate JH's website.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Gerry
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 05:08 PM

"Furthermore, I suspect [the Luddites] of being great song material." robomatic, maybe you'd be interested in this: Captain Swing


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST,Jim Hauser
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 10:14 PM

Robomatic,
Regarding whether or not the song is based on a historical event, in the early 20th century professors Guy B. Johnson and Louis Chappell both separately went in search of the historical John Henry and tried to determine whether the race with the steam drill actually happened. Based upon a local story tradition of the race having taken place near Talcott West Virginia in the Big Bend (aka Great Bend) Tunnel, they concentrated their efforts in that area. They both failed to come up with proof that the event actually happened and they failed to identify the historical John Henry. Still, there are books and articles which present as fact that John Henry raced a steam drill in the Big Bend Tunnel.   

Another researcher named Scott Reynolds Nelson published a book titled Steel Drivin' Man about 10 years ago in which he claimed that the historical John Henry was a convict lease worker named John William Henry and that he raced a steam drill in the Lewis Tunnel in the state of Virginia. A competing claim has been made by folklorist John Garst who believes that the real John Henry raced a steam drill in the Coosa Mountain Tunnel near Leeds, Alabama. About 3 or 4 years ago, I heard that Garst had completed writing a book detailing his research, but based upon my periodic searches in Amazon.com it appears to not have been published yet.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: Jeri
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 10:22 PM

See Origins: John Henry.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 25 Feb 18 - 10:54 PM

Stephen,
Regarding what motivated John Henry, you are right that pride in his strength and skill could have been the reason. But rather than John Henry's motivation, what I am primarily interested in is what he symbolized to African Americans. Did he see himself as fighting for racial equality? Maybe not. But I've found a good bit of evidence that--whatever his motivations--John Henry was a symbol of racial resistance and protest in the eyes of his fellow African Americans.

The boxer Jack Johnson did not try to be or see himself as a symbol of racial equality (at least not initially), but his black fans sure did.


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Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
From: robomatic
Date: 26 Feb 18 - 07:35 PM

And of course there is the great American aphorism, from one of the great American Film Westerns: "...this is the West, when Reality meets Legend, print the Legend."


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