Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafesj

Post to this Thread - Printer Friendly - Home
Page: [1] [2] [3]


Origins: John Henry

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


Related threads:
John Henry: A Folklore Study- Chappell (18)
Why did John Henry hammer till he died? (60)
rebellion and protest in John Henry (42)
Lyr Req: John Henry (from Dave Van Ronk) (8)
Lyr Req: John Henry Jr (Merle Travis) (16)
(origins) Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240)
(origins) JOHN HENRY solved???? (38)
Lyr/Chords Req: John Henry - Sheet Music Anyone? (5)
Lyr Add: John Henry (14)
John Henry's Wife (7)
Lyr Req: Little John Henry (from Lomax, McCurdy) (7)
John Henry Painting (5)
Lyr Req: John Henry Blues (Two Poor Boys) (6)
Lyr Req: John Henry (from Williamson Brothers) (16)
Chord Req: John Henry (from Hoyt Axton) (2)
Modern Day John Henry (14)
(origins) What did John Henry mean? (27)
Lyr Add: Death of John Henry (8)


Peter Turner 12 Feb 98 - 02:09 AM
Bert 12 Feb 98 - 09:39 AM
Barry Finn 12 Feb 98 - 10:16 AM
Bill in Alabama 12 Feb 98 - 02:11 PM
Bruce O. 12 Feb 98 - 02:28 PM
Norm Cohen 13 Feb 98 - 01:43 AM
Peter 13 Feb 98 - 03:32 AM
Earl 13 Feb 98 - 08:23 AM
chet w 15 Feb 98 - 11:33 AM
Bruce O. 15 Feb 98 - 11:57 AM
Bruce O. 15 Feb 98 - 12:51 PM
Art Thieme 17 Feb 98 - 08:57 PM
Barry Finn 17 Feb 98 - 09:44 PM
Peter 18 Feb 98 - 03:22 AM
Bruce O. 18 Feb 98 - 10:31 AM
Cary Ginell 28 Feb 99 - 11:03 AM
28 Feb 99 - 12:43 PM
daviddd@pacbell.net 05 Mar 99 - 09:19 AM
Steve Parkes 05 Mar 99 - 10:05 AM
DaviD 05 Mar 99 - 10:26 AM
GUEST,darren haggar 08 Aug 00 - 10:50 AM
GUEST,Matthew 08 Aug 00 - 11:53 AM
voyager 08 Aug 00 - 12:14 PM
Mrrzy 09 Aug 00 - 12:02 PM
GUEST,frosty 13 Aug 00 - 06:06 PM
GUEST,Tim Pridemore 13 Aug 00 - 06:50 PM
IanC 14 Aug 00 - 08:44 AM
George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca 14 Aug 00 - 09:59 AM
GUEST,Jennifer 15 Aug 00 - 02:23 AM
Jacob B 15 Aug 00 - 11:24 AM
GUEST,Barry Finn 15 Aug 00 - 11:46 PM
GUEST,Hope Danie 21 Jun 01 - 01:02 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Aug 01 - 06:23 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 02 Aug 01 - 08:39 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 02 Aug 01 - 08:47 PM
GUEST,toadfrog 02 Aug 01 - 11:23 PM
IanC 03 Aug 01 - 04:50 AM
GUEST,djh 03 Aug 01 - 09:23 AM
GUEST 03 Aug 01 - 09:42 AM
IanC 03 Aug 01 - 09:47 AM
GUEST,djh 03 Aug 01 - 10:41 AM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Aug 01 - 10:55 AM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Aug 01 - 11:03 AM
GUEST 03 Aug 01 - 11:24 AM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Aug 01 - 03:57 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 03 Aug 01 - 04:47 PM
IanC 04 Aug 01 - 01:33 PM
GUEST,voyager 05 Aug 01 - 11:08 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 26 Aug 01 - 08:16 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 01 Sep 01 - 11:49 AM
Share Thread
more
Lyrics & Knowledge Search [Advanced]
DT  Forum
Sort (Forum) by:relevance date
DT Lyrics:













Subject: The origins of John Henry
From: Peter Turner
Date: 12 Feb 98 - 02:09 AM

Does anyone know what "John Henry" is really about? It's first impression is of the power of the human spirit and the often inspiring nature of tragedy. This interpretation makes us take the song at its word. But I've heard it argued that we should be more skeptical in interpreting the lyrics, that the song actually works in favor of the railroad bosses and against the men who work for them. In this view, it justifies the torturous labor the men are asked to do, and it creates a situation in which a man being worked to death is a hero. It is, in fact, not a song that many politically conscious rail workers would enjoy. There are all sorts of possibilities it never allows, like John Henry resenting being overburdened, or John Henry refusing to work himself to death. Especially helpful would be if someone can trace the history of the song for me, but any thoughts at all would be appreciated, enjoyed. Thank you.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bert
Date: 12 Feb 98 - 09:39 AM

I have always assumed it to be about a song against the mechanization of industry. Here's another song about a guy whose job was taken over bt "Mechanical Power".

manura


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Barry Finn
Date: 12 Feb 98 - 10:16 AM

2 books are dedicated to John "John Henry: Tracking Down A Negro Ledgend" by Guy B Johnson (Chapel Hill, 1929) 7 "John Henry: A Folklore Study" by Chappell (Jena, 1933). Lomax credits Chappell with the tracking of the major folk hero's roots & any facts that have survived as the best that'll ever happen with John Henry. "He (Chappell) pinpointed the scene of the ballard to the Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O, R.R. in the West Virginna Mnts. about 1870. 1 1/4 mile long, the Big Bend was the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date". It appears John started out as a mere 6' & 200 lbs, who could out sing & work any other man (sounds like Leadbelly & John L) on the job, swinging a 20lb hammer, when 10lb was the norm, drilling 2 holes 7' deep beating the staem drill which drove only 1 hole, 9', not dying from the race but probaly later from the frequent cave-ins, when his hammer made the mnt shake (sexual), again giving rise to belief that he died not from being overworked but from love making.. Lomax belives that John Henry is a decendant of Old John the trickster slave & that the origins of the song springs from the old Hammer song & Lass Of Roch Royal, giving it sexual & magical powers. Just a brief run down from mostly Lomax, but if you read Jackson's 'Wake Up Dead Man' & Lomax's 'Land Where The Blues Began', it gives many reasons for the rise of folk heros within an oppressed community & the relationships developed between worker & worksong & how the labor is seen by themselves & others. Good Luck, Barry


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bill in Alabama
Date: 12 Feb 98 - 02:11 PM

Archie Green at one time had some information which placed the actual John Henry in Alabama. He asked me to work on the search with him, but we never came up with anything other than an attributive reference which, by the nature of folk music, is more likely to be wrong than right. Bert's information is most likely correct. Alabama will just have to be content with Railroad Bill as a ballad hero.

I suspect that you're better off not trying to stuff the piece with a lot of symbolism, or to read anything much into it other than what the words suggest: a kind of American Luddite ballad about a man whose pride in his work and whose ego caused him to challenge the advent of mechanization.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bruce O.
Date: 12 Feb 98 - 02:28 PM

Bill above is along the right track. Norm Cohen in 'The Long Steel Rail', p. 574-6, 1981, discusses the various theories, and says he can't be confident of the answers. He cites many early song copies including recordings and the work of all those mentioned above. (It may or may not have grown out of some version of "Nine Pound Hammer").


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Norm Cohen
Date: 13 Feb 98 - 01:43 AM

I don't know of anything on the origins of the "John Henry" ballads beyond what I wrote in Long Steel Rail, but there is a more recent bibliography for those inclined to check it out on their own: Brett Williams: "John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1983). It's easy to attach all sorts of psycho-sociological theories to the ballad--including Marxist and Freudian interpretations; but as for hard facts about the origins of the story, we'll never get any closer than Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel did in the 1920s when they tried to interview anyone who claimed to remember anything about the building of the Big Bend (actually "Great Bend") tunnel to which the legend was most frequently attached. Which was not very close.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Peter
Date: 13 Feb 98 - 03:32 AM

Barry, I really appreciate your post; it's exactly the sort of trail I wanted to be put on. I want to disagree (politely, I hope) with those who resist any folkloric reading of what is, after all, a folk song. John Henry may very well have been an actual historical figure, and the song may very well take it's plot from an actual historical event. And, further, any pursuit of the song down that track may be futile, giving us only phantoms and vague, unfounded suppositions. But a folk-hero's nature stands halfway between history and myth, and there are other, profitable ways to ask questions about the song. Invariably, these stories incorporate traditional, generic elements (one example is the trickster figure, mentioned by Barry) which are added to the story. These elements constitute much of the meaning of the song (perhaps the primary meaning?), and recognizing them does not depend on being able to identify a certain Alabaman. "John Henry" is interesting as a song -- and it's great fun to sing -- but I think it is most interesting as a window to a culture that, for me anyway, is hard to know. In asking the question I did, I was really asking less about John Henry, whoever he may be, than about the culture that produced the song. So I'm not sure it's wrong to stuff it with symbolism (which I hope isn't a dirty word): symbols are what a culture uses to communicate with itself. I myself mistrust Marxist and Freudian readings of songs from cultures which had never read Marx or Freud, but (with respect to Marxist readings, anyway) people did resent oppression, and try to resist it through song, before Das Kapital. I appreciate the help some of you brought to this post. I am inded very interested in when people started singing about "John Henry" and what the specific circumstances of that version of what I suspect is a very old song were. It is unfortunate that those hard facts are lost to us (though I'm not surprised to learn it). But I don't know why the ways in common a culture has of telling a story and what elements constitute that story and what tradition that story is embedded in, just because they are more abstract, need be any "softer".


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Earl
Date: 13 Feb 98 - 08:23 AM

A man ain't nuthin but a man.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: chet w
Date: 15 Feb 98 - 11:33 AM

When John Henry was a little baby boy Sittin' on his daddy's knee His daddy picked him up and he threw him on the floor And he said, "This baby's wet all over me" Lord, Lord, said "This baby'w wet all over me"

Irreverently, Chet W.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bruce O.
Date: 15 Feb 98 - 11:57 AM

All well and good Bert. But lets make clear where facts end and speculation begins. As to old songs the oldest known is still the broadside printed in the early 1900 obtained by Guy Johnson. This is the first item in the 'A' section of references to song copies given by Norm Cohen. In all Norm gave about 13 pages of reference to other copies in 'The Long Steel Rail', pp 76-89, and many pages of references to "Nine Pound Hammer".

I asked Norm Cohen to take a look at this thread, in order to see if he had turned up anything new in the line of information since his book was published in 1981.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bruce O.
Date: 15 Feb 98 - 12:51 PM

Sorry, that should have been Peter, not Bert that I was addressing on that last posting.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Art Thieme
Date: 17 Feb 98 - 08:57 PM

If the Big Bend tunnel was 1870 J.H. was obviously born a slave with ALL that that entails. He was making a wage of some kind for the first time in his life. He was getting to keep the money for the first time in his life also. (So were the other guys.) Within that frame he had become the BEST at doing his job and he was the one apparently chosen by the others to go up against the steam drill/automation that threatened the few bits of free life that Afro-Americans were allowed to hold onto as their own. When the drill broke his tremendous effort beat the machine BUT he died in that effort. So it was a hollow victory----just like all the other hollow victories Black folk have seemingly won only to find frustration after the win proves to be less than expcted.

Also, I'm reminded of a short and favorite tale of mine. Afellow walking home in mud. Every time he takes one step he falls back two steps. Eventually he turned around, went the other way, and finally got where he wanted to be!!! (Art Thieme)


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Barry Finn
Date: 17 Feb 98 - 09:44 PM

Art, could've been born a slave, prior to the war between the states many blacks were born free men & worked at different trades, the best of them being a sailor or waterman of some kind. In many ways life could be easier than after the war when Jim Crow settled in, & they were free but with out any/many means of earning a living. Working trains or rails after the war was one of the few trades along with building the levees that allowed them the means of survival while offering some sense of independence & self worth, although in many cases & areas it was another form of slavery & conditions were not only dangerous but deadly. The hollow victory is the tragic side of the legend/tale, but I often wonder if JH was the first black folk hero to be sung about because prior to that time, the living heros ( Boston Massacre, Dartmore Prison {sp?}, New York's most honorable Boarding House Master), would not have survived if sung about much less have their stories told/sung in the climate of the times. Peter, I feel the same way about your window into a culture, as you mention above, giving more understanding into the roots of the songs & people, otherwise do we trace songs to their origins just for the exercise? Sorry for the ramble. Barry


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Peter
Date: 18 Feb 98 - 03:22 AM

Bruce, I wonder if we can't use somewhat more precise language than "facts" and "speculation", or at least less loaded terms. There ought not be any doubt that it is a "fact" that folk-tales incorporate generic elements -- motifs -- that link them to a specific tradition within the greater genre. It is, for example, a "fact" that stories about King Arthur, Charlemagne, Tsar Alexander I, and Nero all employ two related motifs: 1. the culture hero or divinity who has not died but is still alive and 2. the culture hero or divinity who is expected to return at the proper time (Thompson, 1953, motifs A570 and A580). It is an act of interpretation (the connotations of which I prefer to "speculation") to say that these motifs transcend (a bad word) the particular story in which they are present to establish a relationship with other stories of the same typology. I don't see why it is not also interpretation (or, if you prefer, "speculation") to determine which songs of a collection are forged.

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. But -- I plead with you! -- heuristical tools like the notion of "genre" reflect reality. These terms I am throwing around exist in the real world. We ought to recognize their import and incorporate considerations of them into how we talk about the music. What I do with them in particular is another matter -- that's where my interpretation might be flawed.

I apologize if I am being overbearing (and it is awful if I am being rude -- I confess ignorance of forum etiquette), but this is one my most desperately ground axes. There is so much to learn about the music if we can think about it in these terms. Alan Dundes, someone I've seen you cite in the past, is a proponent of the "symbolic" reading of such tales as these, and it seems to me that he provides very satisfying (and believable) readings that profoundly deepen our understandings of the tales by placing them in a cultural (read:symbolic) context.

But, on a lighter note: Art, I very much enjoyed your reading of "John Henry". It shows what we can do without resorting to the sort of sorcery I tend to employ. (Although, I am afraid that I cannot allow either that you have left the drawbridge of speculation for the castle of facts.) And, Barry, I am 100 pages into "The Land Where the Blues Began." Thank you, and consider your good deed for the day accomplished.

Peter


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Bruce O.
Date: 18 Feb 98 - 10:31 AM

I take facts to be texts of known provinance, and what can be proved directly by them. Interpretations (or speculation based on them) of the even the same set of facts often vary widely. Admittedly, subconsciously perhaps, no one is totally objective, even sometimes when it comes to deciding what the facts really are. But some try much harder than others to get as close as possible to 'truth'.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Cary Ginell
Date: 28 Feb 99 - 11:03 AM

Was wondering if anyone had seen an article by Linda Wheeler of the Washington Post. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times issue of 12/26/98. Wheeler reported that a William & Mary researcher discovered evidence that a prisoner, buried at Virginia Penitentiary, could have been the "real" John Henry. References in the variants of the ballad to "the White House" do not refer to the President's home in the nation's capital, but to the prison hospital, which was commonly known as such. I don't have the article handy, but it can be downloaded from the LA Times archive website for $1.50.

Cary Ginell Sound Thinking Music Research cginell@gte.net


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From:
Date: 28 Feb 99 - 12:43 PM

In the 1870's, if I read Land Where the Blues Began correctly, the African-American railroad worker held a prestigious position within his culture.
"Babe when you marry, marry a railroad man.
Everyday a Sunday dollar in your hand."

If we take this, then John Henry would already be somewhat of a hero in his community. And John's job would be the source of his standing. In that sense, John would be loyal to his employer, no matter how oppressive, because the employer was the source of John's status and perhaps his self-definition. If I remember my sociology correctly this is a common situation for both slave and worker. In this manner, the song is reflective of the culture from which it has arisen.

I think it is more significant that this song is beloved by African- and European- Americans for the overcoming of the mechanical drill (read industrialism, progress, etc.). It endures as a folk song, because the folk identify with the oppression of modernization and the belittlement of the work of a man or woman.

Roger in Baltimore


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: daviddd@pacbell.net
Date: 05 Mar 99 - 09:19 AM

Good morning to you all. I'm takeing a stupid Afram Eng31 (jr.college) course which gives me less one hour to discuss, digest, and disgust this item. Here are some websites. The White House prison archeological dig reference from above is: (click)


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Steve Parkes
Date: 05 Mar 99 - 10:05 AM

The story of the man who beats the machine that's replacing him seems to be fairly common in Britain in this century. It's usually the "little" man, rather than the hero; postmen seem to be a particular favourite, for some reason - out-sorting the expensive new sorting machine. I've no idea whether there's a conscious awareness of the John Henry story on the part of the authors, but I suspect it's a motif that goes back a lot further in history and culture. (Not that I'm any expert!)

Steve


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: Doin' web thing (the ballad of John Henry)
From: DaviD
Date: 05 Mar 99 - 10:26 AM

Here's the web meta search page: askjeeves.com Or, if you're typing by hand (rather than cut and paste) http://www.phillynews.com/inquirer/98/Dec/13/national/HNRY13.htm

Computerist's version: (going down the listings) http://the-brother-of.cyrus.org/jhenry.htm Another parody: http://apk.net/~drushel/jhenry.html

Lyrics:http://www.usscouts.scouter.com/songs/songbk1c.html children's songbook: http://www.umcs.maine.edu/~orono/collaborative/sing.html

1995 nat'l Public Radio backround piece http://www.droop.com/JohnHenry/jhIndex.html subsites:looks like a nice record album cover picture and sociological note on popularity http://www.droop.com/JohnHenry/Text/Legend.html discography: http://www.droop.com/JohnHenry/Text/Music.html

Here's the primary site (and a clue as to a good search engine!) if anyone wnats to do more digging. http://www.askjeeves.com/AskJeeves.asp?ask=Sing+me+the+ballad+of+John+Henry&site_name=Jeeves&scope=web&metasearch=yes&frames=yes&qSource=0&origin=0&r=x&AskJeeves.x=15&AskJeeves.y=13

I'm still looking the lyrics per se (on-line text form but have run out of tiem (how typical! :( )


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,darren haggar
Date: 08 Aug 00 - 10:50 AM

I'm in the process of designing a cover on a book about the myth of John Henry. Apparently there was an american postage stamp featuring a portrait or something ...? Does anybody know where I can get my hands any images that might be cover materail ...for instance, pictures of railworkers from that era?


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,Matthew
Date: 08 Aug 00 - 11:53 AM

Darren,

I can't help you with your quest, but I did want to mention something to you. Just as an FYI.

Disney's next release will be a short (8-minutes, I think) animated film of John Henry. Not to imply that anything done by the mouse comes anywhere close to historical accuracy, or even accepted fictional accuracy. But there you go.

Matthew. (knew the "Animation Tour" at Disney/MGM last month would pay off)


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: voyager
Date: 08 Aug 00 - 12:14 PM

The Origins of John Henry (Cub Scout Version) --------------------------------------------- A few years back, while playing CUB SCOUT JEOPARDY with our local pack, I created the Category TALL TALES.

Q1 - This Lumberjack rode a blue ox and levelled a forest with one swing of the ax. A - (Paul Bunyon) - kids didn't know

Q2 - This railroad engineer stayed in the locomotive and warned passengers of the impending train wreck. A - (Casey Jones) - kids didn't know

Q3 - This steel-driver won a contest against a steam engine carving a tunnel thru the side of a mountain.

A - HARRIET TUBMAN!! (kids knew this answer)

voyager fsgw ghetto east silver spring, maryland


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Mrrzy
Date: 09 Aug 00 - 12:02 PM

Excellent thread, just what I really enjoy.

I would quibble with the interpretation raised in the original posting that this song symbolizes the overseer's inhumanity to the common worker. This song, at least the versions I grew up with, all seemed to indicate that the boss wanted to automate something that the worker thought he could do better, so he tried, won, and died - a Pyrrhic (sp?) victory. But it was always the common worker's choice - not imposed from above. In fact, the overseer could quite properly have prevented John Henry from even attempting the contest - but he didn't.

Also, since I had so many different versions, even some with different names (Henry Clay is one) - I always figured this was one of those based-on-a-true-incident-that-grew-larger-than-life-in-the-telling. I figured there really was some poor soul who tried to outdo a steam drill back when they were first being invented; whether he won or not, died or not, or was named John Henry or not, I wouldn't even hazard a guess.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,frosty
Date: 13 Aug 00 - 06:06 PM

Hi Was just floating about the neighbourhood, looking for info on John Henry and ended up here. I only wanted to know who he was and have spent 2 hours on this damn machine(mild technophobe)anyway a few things occured to me 1: Song used to be a way of passing on news as a lot of people couldn't read, and an event like this was newsworthy. 2: I think it endures as a popular song as it is as relevant today as it was then and every one loves the underdog, at least they do around here. 3: Finaly if Mr Finn is right and JH died of love making it's nice to know that not only did he die a Legend but also happy. frosty


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,Tim Pridemore
Date: 13 Aug 00 - 06:50 PM

How about a picture of the statue of the real John Henry at Talcot WV...location of the Big Bend Tunnle on the C&O Railroad. For more information dial 1-800-CALL-WVA.

As an old mountain boy from that area I didn't realize until I was in my 20s that there were people who DIDN'T know the story was true


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: IanC
Date: 14 Aug 00 - 08:44 AM

I've got the info somewhere, but the statue is based on the legend, not the other way round. It was set up in the 1970s.

I've read both Chappell and Johnson and from the descriptions of people who claimed they had come across him, collected in the 1920s, he was more than one person anyway (very big, very black; small and light skinned etc.). Using the hammer with both hands appears to be a description of ambidextrosity in the earlier sources. Apparently, some of the better hammer men could do this.

The postage stamp portrait is a picture of the statue and, for anyone who wants it, an internet search on "John Henry Days" brings up the Talcott site (which is becoming increasingly more commercial and less informative).

I have a copy of the Blenkinsop broadside copied from Johnson (it's a photographic plate in his book). It scans well if anyone wants it.

Cheers!
Ian


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca
Date: 14 Aug 00 - 09:59 AM

Ian, please scan it and make it available.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,Jennifer
Date: 15 Aug 00 - 02:23 AM

Being a musicologist with the maiden name of Henry, this is a subject which has interested me for years. I know for a fact the origins of my cousin Johnny Henry who is a rock musician & D J in Tulsa, OK. However, facts about the John Henry of song fame continue to be elusive and probably will be for another 100 years. While often confused with John Hardy the murder, I have found the John henry of the song fame in dozens of versions. They have him driving steel on the Air Line, the K. C., the Frisco, (on which my grandfather worked in Okla-he knew of no such John Henry), the C. & O. Railroads; they call his woman Lucy, Delia Ann, Polly Ann, Sally Ann; he can be found "sittin' on his pappy's knee" or holding his little son "in de palm of his han'." Either a 7 or 9 pound hammer is the death of him. The songs all seem to agree that John Henry battled with the steam drill which threatened to "beat him down"; he toiled mighitly from dawn to sunset; beat the machine as the sun went down, and "died wid a hammer in his han'." I believe there may have been a John Henry who was a railroad worker, however I believe most of the song is fiction and a true folk song ballad-about the life & times of the black railroad worker circa late 1800's.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Jacob B
Date: 15 Aug 00 - 11:24 AM

I suspect that, at the time it was written, John Henry was not considered "a song against the mechanization of industry." John Henry would not have minded giving up his job swinging a hammer for a better-paying job operating a steam drill - but there wasn't the faintest possibility that he would get that job. By trying to prove to his boss that he could do a better job than the machine that the steam drill salesman was selling, John Henry was trying to prevent an entire community of black men from losing their jobs to a few white men, operating machines.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,Barry Finn
Date: 15 Aug 00 - 11:46 PM

Hi Jacob, I couldn't agree with you more. Prior to railroading, cowboying was a place where black men could scratch out a living while giving themselves a sense of selfworth in less opressing enviorment. Here again they've left their fading mark in song, though Lomax states that some estimates site their numbers to be as high as 25% of cowboys were black (he doesn't say where & goverment census were quite a bit lower) & that their numbers were also well represented among the ranchers, herders& drovers. I haven't found anything that mentions that this type of livelyhood supported any type of Afro American community, though it would seem that railroading did, just as much as sea realated employment prior to the 1860's did. Where interestingly enough the gov. census do reflect their numbers to be as high in certain yrs. & places as high as 25%, here again we find their fading mark in song. I'd say that they're are many different reasons that John Henry & other folk heros were so important to the culture that spawned them. Barry


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,Hope Danie
Date: 21 Jun 01 - 01:02 PM

I have a little boy in my summerschool class by the name of John Henry. He is disabled due to an accident when he was a young child of about two. He is african american and quite small and wirey. I got on the net and started looking about for some info on John Henry the legend I remembered singing about in elementary school. The sites I have located have been wonderful. There is one site with an animated movie that you can download. When John Henry wakes up from his nap he will be so excited to know he is named after an eight foot tall, strong steel driver from the 1800's. Thanks for all of the interesting stories!!


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Aug 01 - 06:23 PM

The Alabama connection needs more work, and I have starting on that project. Here's what I've found so far.

Guy Johnson's "Cruzee/Cursey" Tunnel in Alabama, which he nor anyone else has located until now, is really the Coosa Tunnel, which was constructed 1886-88 by Columbus and Western Railway line, who were completing the rail connection between Columbus, GA, and Birmingham, AL. Note how close "C&W" is to "C&O." Some of Johnson's informants mentioned Oak Mountain Tunnel, which is on the same line just north (2 miles?) of the Coosa Mountain Tunnel, just as they said. These locations are east and a bit south of Birmingham.

Red Mountain, also mentioned by these informants, is nearby, too. It is just east of Birmingham, and I suspect that the C&W might have tunneled there, too, although I haven't confirmed this yet.

The Blankenship broadside was recovered in the mid-1920s from a woman living in Rome, GA. According to a white pages search, there are 26 Blankenships now living in Rome (with telephones). I don't yet know whether or not any of these are related to W. T. Blankenship, who produced the broadside of John Henry. Rome is less than 100 miles northeast of Coosa and Oak Mountain Tunnels.

One of the Alabama informants claimed that there was a crowd of about 500 standing around watching the competition. If that were so, then I believe that it would have been covered in local newspapers. I intend to launch a search soon of Birmingham and vicinity newspapers (and Rome newspapers).

As for Big Bend Tunnel in WV, I think it significant that that intensive searches for John Henry there failed. Those who still favor that location have to ignore a tremendous number of negative reports and inconsistencies among the second/third/fourth-hand positive ones. I think that the Big Bend possibility has been dead ever since the investigations of Johnson and Louis Chappell.

Alabama hasn't failed, at least yet, so I think that it should be considered the favorite possibility at this time.

John Garst garst@chem.uga.edu


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 02 Aug 01 - 08:39 PM

The original was "John Hardy." W. A. McCorkle, governor of West Virginia 1893-1897, wrote "He [John Hardy] was a steel-driver and was famous in the beginning of the building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was also a steel-driver in the beginning of the extention of the N & W Railroad. It was about 1872 that he was in this section. This was before the day of steam drills...he was reported to be six feet two and weighed two hundred and twenty-five or thirty pounds...was one of the handsomest men in the country, and, as one informant told me, was as black as a kittle in hell." The story is carried on by John Knox Smith, a Negro lawyer who was present at the trial and execution of John Hardy. John had been working at the Shawnee Coal Co. after his steel-driving days. "...One payday night he killed a man in a crap game over a dispute of twenty-five cents. Before the game began, he laid his pistol on the table , saying to it "Now I want you to lay here; and the first nigger that steals money from me, I mean to kill him." This came to pass. ...Hardy was as black as a crow [the rest similar to McCorkle's description]. All this, and much more, in Cox, Folk Songs of the South (West Virginia almost exclusively, with many variants of Child songs). When this tale metamorphosed into John Henry I don't know. Nine versions of John Hardy are printed in entirety (earliest 1890s), only one, collected in 1924, named John Henry.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 02 Aug 01 - 08:47 PM

Now- was there another RR man with first name possibly John Henry and the song variants extended to him? Or was the story passed on to cover other strong men on the railroad and in the mines? This transfer has happened in songs before; John Hardy was transformed to cover different men, times and places.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,toadfrog
Date: 02 Aug 01 - 11:23 PM

When I first noticed this thread, I took it for a new one, and was rejoicing to see Bruce O back. To bad I was wrong. He's got a real good point there. Listening to folk songs sure beats hell out of reading some enthusiast's "interpretation" of said songs. Folk music understates what romanticism overstates.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: IanC
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 04:50 AM

Dicho

I think it might be worth spending a little time reading the corpus of research work on John Henry before you bring us back to this old "John Hardy/John Henry" red herring. It's been well covered in the literature and the prettywell universal agreement is that the transformation was the other way round - via common "floating verses".

This thread (and the others on the subject) isn't my favourite ... basically because I spent a great deal of time about 2-3 years ago in researching the question by reading the 3 main books written in the 20s on the subject and all the subsequent literature available in the libraries and on the net. The same notions which get well quashed by various good studies keep coming up here. I'm not meaning John Garst's well-intentioned and obviously well researched attempts at proving a Georgia provenance here.

For what it's worth, I have two pieces of advice for anyone wanting to make a serious contribution to this discussion. (1) Read what has already been written before you form your own conclusions. There is plenty on this subject, much of it well researched and helpful. (2) Never try to find confirmatory evidence for a view you hold ... you'll only find yourself stretching the evidence to suit your hypothesis. Logically, things can never be fully confirmed, only disproved.

Now I've had my 2d worth of grouch. I'm sorry if this causes anyone any offence ... it wasn't intended to.

:-)
Ian


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,djh
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 09:23 AM

John did really live.There is allegedly a real picture of the John in an old book about folks songs. I am sorry I don't remember the name, if I find it I will post it.
The Big bend tunnel was Wet rock ,had it been dry the steam drill probably would have won. The mud and clay clogged up the drill frequently.
Railraod work was as good as it got for a black man in the 1870's, So it is not propaganda for the boss man.The later Spike Driver Blues took the stance- (paraphrasing) "workin' to death like John was not what I had in mind , tell the captain I'm gone.",but, John Henry is simply about natural man vs the mechanistic age.
There is a book in my local library from the 20's simply titled "John Henry" in it the author points out that there were a few men named John Henry workin on the railroad. The author comes down on the side of there was a contest although I can't recall his arguments this morning. It may be one of the books others have spoken of in this thread.
The thing I found most interesting about the book was that one of the women interviewed was named Rosalee? Cannon and she spoke about learning the song from her uncle Gus who was a songster over in Memphis = Gus Cannon of Cannon's Jug Stompers. The author , of course, didn't realize that her uncle was an American music legend because he wasn't yet. I love that book , I am the only one who has checked it out in a decade , multiple times.
I love the tale and the many variants on the song so much I named my band "John Henry's Hammer".
Sorry I am all over the place this morn.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 09:42 AM

If John Died of love making as has been suggested, wouldn't it have been a masterbatory act, after all "he died with his hammer in his hand". LAWD, LAWD


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: IanC
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 09:47 AM

GUEST

Thank god for some intelligent input.

DJH - the only picture of John Henry is the one of his statue (see above) erected in 1970. The picture on the stamp is also taken from this. As I said above, there were loads of men called John Henry, and different people seem to have remembered different ones!


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,djh
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 10:41 AM

No , Ian there is purportedly a photo. I haven't seen it and I am not sure about 1880's photography, but, I have been meaning to order the book.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 10:55 AM

Korey Stringer is another "John Henry." His death brings home the very real threat of heat exhaustion. As I heard a doctor on TV describe it, you stop sweating, your body temperature goes to around 108 degrees, your cells die (baked), and that means you die. Korey didn't want to appear weak, I suspect. He probably wanted to set a good example for rookies. It may be that he didn't drink enough water. It takes time to drink water. Maybe time was too important.

John Henry could easily have felt that way. He couldn't stop hammering for a drink of water because it was so important to him that he beat the steam drill. He beat it, and collapsed from heat exhaustion, just like Korey.

When you hear those old work songs, calling for the water boy, don't imagine some romantic fluff. Imagine a vitally important function - if the laborers don't get water, they die. Don't think that the water boy's job was easy, either. Try carrying significant amounts of water significant distances, over and over, for 8 hours or more. If that doesn't do it for you, try carrying it uphill.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 11:03 AM

A brief follow-up on heat exhaustion and water:

One informant said that John Henry raced the steam drill on September 20, 1882, at "Cruzee" Mountain Tunnel on the A. G. S. line. Coosa Mountain Tunnel, also known as Long Tunnel, was built by the C&W. Another informant said 1887, which is consistent with the actual construction dates. I wonder if an error in transcription of handwriting converted a "7" in the letter of the first informant to a "2." In any event, if the competition took place on September 20 (of any year), that is not so late in the year that it could not be very hot and humid in central Alabama, setting up the most favorable conditions for a death from heat exhaustion.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 11:24 AM

Gimme a cool drink of water 'fore I die.
I Believe I read that John's death was greatly exagerated, he did beat the drill and did not die doing so.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 03:57 PM

>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.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 03 Aug 01 - 04:47 PM

What "literature" is IanC talking about? There was much interest in "John Henry" in the 1920s-early 1930s. Perhaps the best book of that time was Johnson's "John Henry." Several writers have referred to the Negro RR workmen of the late 19th century; one suggested that a prototype could be buried at a VA prison site where a number of railroad workers were buried (all without names attached). The Britannica indicates that there "could" be a factual basis to John Henry; the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia dates are 1870-1873, near the end of the steel-drivers day since the steam drill was "introduced to the South in 1870.". Dr. J. H. Cox, one time archivist of the W. Va. Folklore Soc., wrote in 1925 that the version collected by Prof. Combs in Kentucky was wholly about the steel driving incident, thus may have been composed before John Hardy committed the murder, and could be the oldest.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: IanC
Date: 04 Aug 01 - 01:33 PM

Dicho

I've given 2 of the standard sources above, but there's quite a lot since. If you like I'll put it in under "People" in my Basic Folk Library.

Cheers!
Ian


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,voyager
Date: 05 Aug 01 - 11:08 AM

Folk Tale Anecdote Department..

During a round of "Boy Scout Jeopardy" - Category 'Tall Tales'

the answer read
"This steel driver beat a steam-powered drill in a contest
To carve out the side of a mountain"

Scout Shouted Out

I know....HARRIET TUBMAN

For more research see ...
http://discoverytheater.si.edu/jhenry/jhbg1.htm

voyager
FSGW Ghetto


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 26 Aug 01 - 08:16 PM

I have found a photograph of the drill that stood, in 1930 and perhaps now, in a rock just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, near Leeds, Alabama. This is supposed to have been the drill that John Henry was driving when he died, and it is supposed to have been left in position all these years since 1887-88, when he met the steam drill there. What else would account for a drill standing embedded in rock? Obviously there was no intention of blasting the rock away, or another hole would have been drilled, in the event that the first drill got stuck in its hole. On the other hand, if there were a contest held there, then there ought to be another hole in the rock somewhere nearby. I've not been there, so I can't comment on this point.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: The origins of john Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 01 Sep 01 - 11:49 AM

Peter Turner, asked, on 12-Feb-98, "Does anyone know what "John Henry" is really about? Its first impression is of the power of the human spirit and the often inspiring nature of tragedy. This interpretation makes us take the song at its word. But I've heard it argued that we should be more skeptical in interpreting the lyrics, that the song actually works in favor of the railroad bosses and against the men who work for them...."

Phillips Barry has argued that the John Henry text and tune show strong white influences - elements of the text may derive from old British ballads and the tune is identified with one used by mountain whites for the ballad "Earl Brand" (Child No. 7).

The oldest known version of "John Henry, The Steel Driving Man," may be the one on the Blankenship broadside, believed by Guy Benton Johnson to date to 1900 or before. (However, MacEdward Leach suspects that it is "from the twenties.")

The Blankenship broadside contains language that is more literary than that usually recovered from singers. Although Leach suspects that it is the work of a "hack writer to capitalize on a growing popularity of John Henry," I think it could be the other way around - the folk versions could have sprung from a more literary source.

In any event, I think that the Blankenship broadside is relevant to the point Peter makes. I quote the first two verses below.

John Henry was a railroad man,
He worked from six 'til five,
"Raise 'em up bullies and let 'em drop down,
I'll beat you to the bottom or die."

John Henry said to his captain:
"You are nothing but a common man,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."

Here "Raise 'em up bullies and let 'em drop down" sounds much more British, to me, than American Negro speech.

Verse two is the killer. Where most collected versions have John Henry saying to his captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man, etc."; here he says "You are nothing but a common man, etc." In the first instance, John Henry is talking about himself - he means "I am nothing but a man," meaning "I'm not superhuman." In the Blankenship broadside, saying to the captain, "You are nothing but a common man, etc.," seems to mean "You're just a man, but even so, I'm so dedicated to you that I'm going to beat that steam drill for you."

This is the kind of attitude in blacks that whites admired, of course, so it can be seen as a natural effusion of a white author.

Of course, this whole discussion assumes that John Henry was black. There's nothing in the Blankenship broadside to indicate that, nor is there is most versions. A few of Johnson's informants insisted that he was, in fact, white. If he was white, that changes the whole thing a little.

Even so, the fact of the matter is that most blacks who sang the song thought of him as black. No wonder they changed "You are nothing but a common man" to "A man ain't nothin' but a man."


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate
Next Page

  Share Thread:
More...

Reply to Thread
Subject:  Help
From:
Preview   Automatic Linebreaks   Make a link ("blue clicky")


Mudcat time: 7 December 4:53 PM EST

[ Home ]

All original material is copyright © 1998 by the Mudcat Café Music Foundation, Inc. All photos, music, images, etc. are copyright © by their rightful owners. Every effort is taken to attribute appropriate copyright to images, content, music, etc. We are not a copyright resource.