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Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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GUEST,Rick Pollay 24 Aug 20 - 04:05 PM
cnd 25 Aug 20 - 09:25 AM
GUEST,John Moulden 25 Aug 20 - 10:13 AM
GUEST 25 Aug 20 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,Rick Pollay 25 Aug 20 - 02:40 PM
Lighter 25 Aug 20 - 03:36 PM
GUEST,Rick Pollay 26 Aug 20 - 01:56 AM
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Subject: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: GUEST,Rick Pollay
Date: 24 Aug 20 - 04:05 PM

The myth of John Henry ar evident in the song variants that have strayed from the historical facts and emphasizing super human powers, e.g. the size of the hammer swung. Because the showdown competition between man and machine happened in 1871, even what was collected by Lomax was already more myth than history. Lost we some basic facts such as that he was a black Negro, newly declared feee, but that was not to be.

The info below attempts to bring the song back to telling the histoiral story. For this I have relied upon a Scholar: Nelson, Scott Reynolds, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend. Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.

Some factual fragments:
Negro Prisoner 497 Virginia, 1866, start of reconstruction era.
Arrested Richmond VA at age 19, theft from store. Charge rewritten from petty shoplifting to maximize prison time (10 years)
Convict leasing to railroad construction to get coal from WVa
He was 5'1" short = perfect for working in coal mines or as TUNNEL RAT
Silica dust, 10% a year died, many more after being sent home to die.
Also scurvy (malnutrition), dropsy (edema).
Shaker, drilling holes for nitro, "rock and roll" debris
Usually 9-12 lb hammers. Not 20, 30, 40 !?! as in some lyrics
CONTEST 1871. Lewis tunnel West Virginia. Man vs. steam drill.

Hopefully, this revised version retains the themes of being worked to death, man vs. machine competition, dying with dignity (a Hero's death), and now includes convict leasing during reconstruction.

Some say he was from Georgia,
        Some say from Alabam,
In fact he was a New Jersey Man,
On a prison railroad gang, Lord Lord
On a prison railroad gang.

Arrested and jailed in Virginie
        For robbin' a grocery store. (Wiseman's)
The white judge threw the black book at him.
Said, you owe us TEN YEARS more. Lord, Lord
        You owe us TEN YEARS more.

John Henry worked in the tunnels,
        He worked from six 'till five. (11 hour work day)
He stood at only five foot one
        But he made his hammer come alive, Lord Lord
        He made his hammer come alive.

The shaker said to John Henry
        I do my work between swings
I rock n' roll the crushings away
        So you'll hear my steel bar ring, Lord, Lord (2)

John Henry said to his shaker,
        "Shaker, you'd better pray?
If I miss your six foot of steel
        Tomorrow be your burying day Lord, Lord. (x2)."

The captain said to John Henry
        "Gonna bring a steam drill 'round.
Gonna bring a steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whoop that steel on down. DOWN, DOWN" (x2)

John Henry said to his captain,
        "A man ain't nothin' but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I'd die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord." (x2)

The Captain said to John Henry. (OPTIONAL)
        "Niggah, dam your soul,
You'll beat dis steam drill o' mine
        When de' rocks in this mountain turn to gold, Lawd, Lawd (x2)

The man that invented the stream drill
        Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry he made fourteen feet (SHAFT?)
While the steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord (x2)

John Henry hammered in the mountain
        His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord , Lord (x2)

They took his body to a graveyard
        Laid him unmarked in the sand
But every steam engine a-roarin' on by
Knew "There lies a steel-drivin' man Lord, Lord (x2)

UNUSED = trad - but historically suspect

When John Henry was just a baby
Sittin' on his mama's knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
Said, "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."

John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Anne
When John Henry took sick and went to his bed
Polly Ann drove steel like a man. Lord Lord
Polly Ann drove steel like a man

Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing
You can hear John Henry a mile or more
You still hear John Henry's hammer ring Lord, Lord
You still hear John Henry's hammer ring

and many, many more ...


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: cnd
Date: 25 Aug 20 - 09:25 AM

This is intriguing. Are you saying you've identified who John Henry could have been historically?


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: GUEST,John Moulden
Date: 25 Aug 20 - 10:13 AM

I suggest that, before going any further, intending contributors to this thread read what is already on the site. Especially, pay attention to the contributions of John Garst. He has uncovered a great deal of information and questions the conclusions drawn by Scott Nelson. I think that disentangling the fact and fiction of John Henry will need very careful reading and perhaps some actual research.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 25 Aug 20 - 01:56 PM

For the 2006 debate between Prof. Garst, Chemist, and Prof. Nelson, Historian, see On the Trail of John Henry (From History News Network) available here: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/31137

I relied on Nelson, not Garst, because I too have written history and appreciate Nelson's careful unearthing handling of primary source evidence.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: GUEST,Rick Pollay
Date: 25 Aug 20 - 02:40 PM

Wikipedia also has an informed page and makes a distinction between the the hammer work songs and ballads or mourning songs.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: Lighter
Date: 25 Aug 20 - 03:36 PM

Garst's handling of evidence is perhaps superior.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Telling the true history of John Henry
From: GUEST,Rick Pollay
Date: 26 Aug 20 - 01:56 AM

in his published articles, Garst does not report original research or use of archival materials, just a cherry picking of oral histories. If the “book” which never materialized would have been more convincing, it is indeed a shame it was not made public.


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