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Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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Art Thieme 23 Aug 02 - 05:30 PM
Art Thieme 23 Aug 02 - 11:34 PM
Rick Fielding 24 Aug 02 - 10:30 AM
George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca 24 Aug 02 - 10:44 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Aug 02 - 01:21 PM
Mark Clark 24 Aug 02 - 02:19 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Aug 02 - 08:33 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 01 Sep 02 - 03:02 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 01 Sep 02 - 04:03 PM
Bobert 01 Sep 02 - 06:45 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 02 Sep 02 - 11:23 AM
Nigel Parsons 02 Sep 02 - 11:38 AM
Bobert 02 Sep 02 - 12:18 PM
GUEST 02 Sep 02 - 01:45 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 06 Sep 02 - 02:24 PM
John Minear 23 Sep 02 - 07:50 AM
IanC 01 Oct 02 - 10:47 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:13 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:34 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:58 AM
IanC 07 Oct 02 - 04:22 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 27 Nov 02 - 02:27 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 15 Sep 03 - 11:18 AM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Dec 04 - 02:45 PM
GUEST,Art Thieme 09 Dec 04 - 01:27 AM
Nerd 09 Dec 04 - 02:30 PM
GUEST,John Garst 09 Dec 04 - 03:34 PM
GUEST 09 Dec 04 - 03:37 PM
Nerd 09 Dec 04 - 05:18 PM
Lighter 09 Dec 04 - 07:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 Dec 04 - 11:41 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 10 Dec 04 - 03:08 PM
Lighter 10 Dec 04 - 07:35 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Dec 04 - 07:43 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Dec 04 - 02:51 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 04:04 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Dec 04 - 04:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst - to Nerd 11 Dec 04 - 04:42 PM
Nerd 11 Dec 04 - 06:27 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM
GUEST,John 12 Dec 04 - 04:01 PM
GUEST,John 12 Dec 04 - 04:12 PM
Lighter 12 Dec 04 - 04:52 PM
Nerd 12 Dec 04 - 06:08 PM
GUEST,John 13 Dec 04 - 05:24 PM
GUEST,John 13 Dec 04 - 05:31 PM
Nerd 13 Dec 04 - 06:01 PM
Lighter 13 Dec 04 - 06:39 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 11:36 AM
Nerd 14 Dec 04 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM
Nerd 14 Dec 04 - 02:37 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 03:32 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 05:08 PM
Nerd 15 Dec 04 - 02:42 AM
GUEST,John 15 Dec 04 - 03:38 PM
Nerd 16 Dec 04 - 12:12 PM
Lighter 16 Dec 04 - 02:07 PM
GUEST,John 16 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM
GUEST,John 16 Dec 04 - 02:24 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Dec 04 - 01:42 PM
Nerd 17 Dec 04 - 02:33 PM
GUEST,John 18 Dec 04 - 10:47 AM
GUEST,John Garst 18 Dec 04 - 10:53 AM
GUEST,John Garst 18 Jan 05 - 01:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 05 - 07:01 PM
Lighter 24 Jan 05 - 08:09 PM
Kaleea 25 Jan 05 - 03:51 AM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 05 - 04:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Jan 05 - 03:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM
Lighter 27 Jan 05 - 09:11 PM
GUEST,garst 30 Jan 05 - 11:08 AM
GUEST,garst 30 Jan 05 - 11:27 AM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Feb 05 - 04:16 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Feb 05 - 04:11 PM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Aug 05 - 10:48 AM
Kaleea 04 Aug 05 - 01:02 AM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Aug 05 - 10:58 AM
GUEST,John Garst 06 Aug 05 - 03:22 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Sep 05 - 05:51 PM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Sep 05 - 07:00 AM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Sep 05 - 07:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Oct 05 - 04:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Oct 05 - 04:24 PM
GUEST,Bill 30 Dec 05 - 12:41 PM
GUEST,Bill 30 Dec 05 - 01:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 Jan 06 - 02:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Jan 06 - 03:33 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 May 06 - 04:14 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Jul 06 - 02:30 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Aug 06 - 04:50 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Aug 06 - 02:18 PM
GUEST,Lighter 04 Aug 06 - 08:40 PM
GUEST,Garst 17 Aug 06 - 02:39 PM
GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama 10 Sep 06 - 04:34 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Sep 06 - 08:00 PM
Lighter 13 Sep 06 - 01:57 PM
Kaleea 13 Sep 06 - 03:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Sep 06 - 04:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Sep 06 - 04:10 PM
GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama 20 Sep 06 - 09:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Sep 06 - 05:13 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Sep 06 - 11:19 AM
BK Lick 01 Oct 06 - 01:38 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 01 Oct 06 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Oct 06 - 05:13 PM
GUEST, John Garst 26 Oct 06 - 06:21 PM
GUEST,Richie 25 Nov 06 - 12:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Nov 06 - 11:18 AM
GUEST,Richie 25 Nov 06 - 06:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Nov 06 - 10:31 AM
Tweed 26 Nov 06 - 11:08 AM
Stilly River Sage 27 Nov 06 - 06:23 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 27 Nov 06 - 07:44 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Nov 06 - 09:30 PM
GUEST,mick 28 Nov 06 - 06:53 AM
Stilly River Sage 28 Nov 06 - 10:34 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Nov 06 - 01:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Nov 06 - 07:49 PM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Nov 06 - 04:04 PM
GUEST,John Garst 31 Dec 06 - 02:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 07 - 05:07 PM
GUEST,observer 25 Jan 07 - 05:51 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Feb 07 - 05:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Feb 07 - 02:48 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Feb 07 - 03:43 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Feb 07 - 04:57 PM
Lighter 27 Feb 07 - 06:15 PM
GUEST 28 Feb 07 - 03:54 AM
Lighter 28 Feb 07 - 08:02 AM
GUEST,John Garst 02 May 07 - 04:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 May 07 - 03:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Jul 07 - 11:14 AM
GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama 21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM
GUEST,Bill Oursler 30 Aug 07 - 07:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Sep 07 - 09:45 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Sep 07 - 10:19 PM
GUEST 18 Sep 07 - 08:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Sep 07 - 10:41 AM
GUEST,John Garst 21 Sep 07 - 01:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Feb 08 - 03:24 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Feb 08 - 04:05 PM
GUEST,Lighter 09 Feb 08 - 10:15 AM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Mar 08 - 03:05 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Apr 08 - 06:16 PM
GUEST 15 Apr 08 - 12:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Apr 08 - 03:03 PM
GUEST,D. Clowers 25 Apr 08 - 04:07 AM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Apr 08 - 05:39 PM
GUEST,cStu 17 May 08 - 06:21 PM
GUEST,Guest is Q 18 May 08 - 04:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 May 08 - 03:28 PM
GUEST,Don Clowers, in beautiful Leeds, Alabama 29 May 08 - 06:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Jun 08 - 12:55 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Oct 08 - 09:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Nov 08 - 10:31 AM
GUEST,Ifor Coggan 05 Nov 08 - 03:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Dec 08 - 03:17 PM
Richie 01 Dec 08 - 06:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 06 Dec 08 - 02:26 PM
Stringsinger 07 Dec 08 - 02:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Dec 08 - 11:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Dec 08 - 09:15 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Jan 09 - 10:44 AM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Feb 09 - 08:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Mar 09 - 03:05 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Apr 09 - 03:57 PM
Mark Clark 17 Jun 09 - 08:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jun 09 - 03:12 PM
Art Thieme 23 Jun 09 - 05:42 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jul 09 - 02:26 PM
mayomick 22 Jul 09 - 04:29 PM
GUEST 25 Jul 09 - 12:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM
GUEST,TJ in San Diego 12 Aug 09 - 04:41 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 05:55 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 07:52 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 08:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 09:17 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 09:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Aug 09 - 11:41 AM
Stringsinger 16 Aug 09 - 12:53 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Aug 09 - 03:17 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 16 Aug 09 - 04:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Aug 09 - 03:25 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Sep 09 - 04:01 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Nov 09 - 07:47 PM
Art Thieme 16 Nov 09 - 08:12 PM
Richie 16 Nov 09 - 11:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Nov 09 - 10:22 AM
GUEST,John Garst 30 Dec 09 - 03:34 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Mar 10 - 02:33 PM
Richie 13 Mar 10 - 01:13 PM
GUEST,dutch 01 Apr 10 - 02:38 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Apr 10 - 04:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 May 10 - 02:00 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Sep 10 - 07:29 PM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Oct 10 - 10:52 AM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Oct 10 - 06:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Dec 10 - 02:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 04:35 PM
BanjoRay 22 Jan 11 - 06:00 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 22 Jan 11 - 06:20 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 07:03 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 07:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 11 - 10:19 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 23 Jan 11 - 05:11 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 11 - 10:02 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 23 Jan 11 - 10:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 11 - 09:59 AM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 11 - 08:49 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 11 - 03:36 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Mar 11 - 04:58 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 May 11 - 05:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 May 11 - 06:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 May 11 - 07:27 PM
GUEST,John Garst 30 Jun 11 - 05:02 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Oct 11 - 07:30 PM
Lighter 13 Oct 11 - 08:00 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Oct 11 - 10:41 AM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Nov 11 - 03:02 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Dec 11 - 03:31 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Jan 12 - 06:52 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jun 12 - 03:39 PM
GUEST 30 Oct 12 - 05:18 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Dec 12 - 05:21 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Jan 13 - 04:52 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Jan 13 - 01:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Jan 13 - 04:13 PM
GUEST,Carl Ellis 14 Jan 13 - 03:35 AM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Jan 13 - 01:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 15 Jan 13 - 04:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 13 - 05:13 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Apr 14 - 02:31 PM
GUEST 11 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Dec 14 - 03:24 PM
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Subject: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Aug 02 - 05:30 PM

As an old girlfriend said to me before we jumped into bed ther first time, "Yes, 'cause we both need this!!!"

John Garst, please re-post your last message in the old PART ONE of this thread. (I'm assuming it was from you---but my computer just about crashed before getting in there.)

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Aug 02 - 11:34 PM

I started this seriously to continue the other too long thread.

Art


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 10:30 AM

Guess I'd better re-fresh my memory with that other thread Art, but just so you'll be able to sleep properly. Hmmmmm, you want the 'origin' of John Henry eh? Well here's my best guess:

It seems I remember that some said he was born in Texas....but ya know, others said he was born in Maine...but golly Art, I don't give a gosh darn where that poor boy was born, because he most undoubtedly was a steel driving man, lord lord (as you choose to see him/her) yes indeed, let me re-iterate, he WAS a steel driving man.

My apologies folks. I'll leave your thread alone now. It's been a good one!

Cheers

Rick


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 10:44 AM

This thread is continued from Origin of John Henry


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 01:21 PM

Reposted in Part TWO, as requested:

A synopsis of my recent (2002) Tributaries article has been posted on the John Henry pages at

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/index.html

It summarizes what I consider to be the most important evidence, but it is much less complete than the article itself.

An 1895 photograph of Coosa Mountain Tunnel is also posted (taken from my article) and a 1930 photograph of "John Henry's last steel drill," sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, will probably be posted there late next week, about August 30 or so, 2002.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Mark Clark
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 02:19 PM

Thanks, Art, for continuing this thread. And thank you John for sharing your research and suspicions with us here. This is fascenating and I I'm anxious to see how John's theories are accepted.

John, you mentioned Art Rosenbaum in one of your posts. Are you in contact with Art? I still remember Art from his days in Iowa City. Please tell him hi for me. And tell him Al Murphy says hi as well. Al and I were talking about Art just the other day. I still listen to the album Art and Al put out many years ago.

      - Mark


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 08:33 PM

> Thanks, Art, for continuing this thread. And thank you > John for sharing your research and suspicions with us > here. This is fascenating and I'm anxious to see how > John's theories are accepted.

To give a little hint of what I expect from some quarters, let me quote a little aphorism I read a few years ago in, I think, a software engineering journal. This was offered as advice to a young professional.

"Always freely discuss your work with others, without fearing that your ideas might be stolen. If your ideas are any good, you will have to cram them down people's throats."

> John, you mentioned Art Rosenbaum in one of your posts. > Are you in contact with Art?

Sure, he's a professor at my institution, the University of Georgia. In fact, he was just recently awarded a nice chair here. A couple of years ago he bought a No. 7 Whyte Laydie. Realizing that this made his older Wildwood his third- string banjo (his newer Wildwood now being second string), I approached him about buying it and he sold it to me. It is now my first-stringer.

> I still remember Art from his days in Iowa City. > Please tell him hi for me. And tell him Al > Murphy says hi as well. Al and I were talking about > Art just the other day. I still listen to the album > Art and Al put out many years ago. > > - Mark Clark

He will be thrilled to hear from both of you in such a roundabout way.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 03:02 PM

I'm told that a 5-6 minute segment on "John Henry" is scheduled to broadcast on NPR on "Morning Edition" on Labor Day. There might be a few seconds of me, stating some of the evidence for John Henry in Alabama. There will be a corresponding WWW site set up by NPR.

I think that the segment will be made available eventually for internet listening.

Stephen Wade is the author/producer of the program.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 04:03 PM

The NPR "John Henry" WWW site is already there:

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/johnhenry/index.html


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Bobert
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 06:45 PM

I think that the greatest part of the story is that it can be interpreted on different levels and perspectives; man vrs. machine, spirit vrs. intellect, boss (ruling class) vrs. worker (slave), courage vrs. cowardace, etc. I think this is why the legend is just that and why it continues to be be told and sung.

I hope this doesn't seem to simplified but, hey, that's the way I appreciate John Henry.

As to the birthplace, I'd have to guess either Virginia, Wst Virginia or Tennessee becayse of the anount of coal mining in those states. Coal mining and tuneeling were very similar. A driver and a shaker and something that went boom. Not tto high tech. So I would guess that John Henry, if he actaylly existed, was from a mining area.

BTW, in 1873, the longest tuneel ever dug was opened in Richmond, Virginia. The Churchill Tunnel, over 3900 feet long, was opened that year afetr two years of sweat and blood. In 1925 ut collapsed on a work tyain killing the engineer, the fireman and a still inknow number of black laborers whose bodies are still in the tunnel...

Bobert


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 11:23 AM

Bobert says:

"I think that the greatest part of the story is that it can be interpreted on different levels and perspectives; man vrs. machine, spirit vrs. intellect, boss (ruling class) vrs. worker (slave), courage vrs. cowardace, etc. I think this is why the legend is just that and why it continues to be be told and sung.

"I hope this doesn't seem to simplified but, hey, that's the way I appreciate John Henry."

Good insight.

"As to the birthplace, I'd have to guess either Virginia, Wst Virginia or Tennessee becayse of the anount of coal mining in those states. Coal mining and tuneeling were very similar. A driver and a shaker and something that went boom. Not tto high tech. So I would guess that John Henry, if he actaylly existed, was from a mining area."

Alabama is noted for its extensive coal, iron ore, and limestone deposits and the steel industry, centered around Bessemer, that exploits them.

"BTW, in 1873, the longest tuneel ever dug was opened in Richmond, Virginia. The Churchill Tunnel, over 3900 feet long, was opened that year afetr two years of sweat and blood. In 1925 ut collapsed on a work tyain killing the engineer, the fireman and a still inknow number of black laborers whose bodies are still in the tunnel... "

Big Bend Tunnel West Virginia Completed 1872 6,560 feet

Hoosac Tunnel Northwestern Massachusetts Completed 1874 25,081 feet

Mr. Cenis Tunnel Swiss Alps Completed 1871 40,135 feet


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Subject: Lyr Add: JOHN HENRY / HENRY JOHN
From: Nigel Parsons
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 11:38 AM

Searching The DT for "John Henry" brings up a lot, but not the following:

JOHN HENRY / HENRY JOHN
(Trad?)

There was a man, who had two sons,
And these two sons were brothers.
John Henry was the name of one,
And Henry John, the other.

Now these two sons they found a bike.
They found it in a hollow.
And wheresoe'r the front wheel went,
The back would surely follow.

Now these two sons, they bought a cow,
They milked it with a spanner.
The milk came out in shilling tins,
The smaller ones, a tanner

Now these two sons took ill, and died.
They died from eating jelly.
John Henry died upon his back,
And Henry John, his belly.

Tune: Begeilio'r Gwenyth Gwyn (Mi sydd fachgen) Verse only (no chorus)
This song was learned in my youth, at wolf cub campfires (C 1960)
Shilling: 12 old pence (1/20th of one pound)
Tanner: 6 Old pence
Jelly: a gelatinised fruit cup, not the U.S. version of jam.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Bobert
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 12:18 PM

garst; Ol' Bobert stands corrected on the date of the Big Bend Tunnels completion. Thanks fir getting my historical wiring fixed on that one.

I had just finished reading a doctorial theseis on the Churchill Tunnel written by Dr. Walter Griggs and must have either misread or misremembered. Either way, thanks...

Bobert


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 01:45 PM

Bobert: "Ol' Bobert stands corrected on the date of the Big Bend Tunnels completion. Thanks fir getting my historical wiring fixed on that one."

Actually, some sources give 1869 and others 1870 for the beginning of Big Bend Tunnel construction, and some give 1872 and others 1873 as the completion date.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 06 Sep 02 - 02:24 PM

Most recorded versions of "John Henry" are pretty upbeat, whether by blacks or whites. However, a couple that deviate from this pattern have come to my attention recently.

First, Fiddlin' John Carson, whose version is believed to have been the first to have been recorded. His magnificent (IMHO) 1924 performance can be heard at

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/johnhenry/index.html

Second, Wise Jones, recorded in Fayettville, Arkansas, 1958. To me, this performance sounds like a true lament. It can be heard at

http://www.smsu.edu/folksong/maxhunter/0006/


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: John Minear
Date: 23 Sep 02 - 07:50 AM

I was just over in Berea, KY last week to look at some dulcimers and on the way, my wife and I stopped in Hinton and Talcott, West Virginia, to visit the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&0 Road. I don't know about John Henry, but it sure was ghostly standing in the mouth of that old tunnel! I could certainly imagine that as the sight of John Henry's work and his contest. It was a powerful experience. And speaking of imagination, I recommend Colson Whitehead's book JOHN HENRY DAYS. It's strange but fascinating, a story about the release of the commemorative stamp and the first "John Henry Days". But he manages to get everybody who has ever been important to the John Henry saga (West Virginia version) into the story. It focuses on some itinerant journalists, and is set in the present, but includes John Henry and his shaker, Lil' Bob, the steam drill, the guy who first made up the song, the guy who wrote it down and marketed it, the guy who recorded it, and Guy Johnson, the black scholar who went in search of John Henry in the '20's. There are also ghosts, cemeteries, postal employees and a stamp collector and a guy who has the largest collection of John Henry memorabilia in the world. It is fascinating how Whitehead weaves all of this together and manages to cover most of what is known about the West Virginia end of the John Henry story. It's also a story about a certain kind and breed of journalism, and a little slow getting started, at least for me, but once it's rolling it's worth it. T.


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Subject: Lyr Add: JOHN HENRY THE STEEL DRIVING MAN
From: IanC
Date: 01 Oct 02 - 10:47 AM

A couple of years ago (on the previous thread), I said I had a copy of the Blankenship broadside, which I could scan. I finally got round to scanning it, but can't at the moment put it on my web site as the FTP is down. In the meanwhile, here's a transcript of it.

JOHN HENRY THE STEEL DRIVING MAN

John Henry was a railroad man
He worked from six till five,
"Raise 'em up hollow 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 this steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."

John Henry said to the Sinkers:
"You must listen to my call,
Before this steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll jar these mountains till they fall."

John Henry's captain said to him:
"I believe these mountains are caving in"
John Henry said to the captain:
"That's my hammer you hear in the wind."

John Henry he said to the captain:
"Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain
Oh captain will you walk in?"

John Henry's captain came to him
With fifty dollars in his hand,
He laid his hand on his shoulder and said:
"This belongs to a steel driving man."

John Henry was hammering on the right side,
The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He's hammered his fool self to death.

They carried John Henry to the mountains,
From his shoulder his hammer would ring.
She caught on fire by a little blue blaze
I believe these old mountains are caving in.

John Henry was lying on his death bed,
He turned over on his side,
And these were the last words John Henry said,
"Bring me a cool drink of water before I die."

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Pollie Ann,
He hugged and kissed her just before he died,
Saying "Pollie do the very best you can."

John Henry's woman heard he was dead,
She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
"I am going where John Henry fell dead."

They carried John Henry to that new burying ground
His wife all dressed in blue.
She laid her hand on John Henry's cold face,
"John Henry I've been true to you."

Price 5 Cents W. T. BLANKENSHIP.

:-)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:13 AM

Turtle Old Man writes of Colson Whitehead's book JOHN HENRY DAYS and its treatment of Guy Johnson, the black scholar who went in search of John Henry in the '20's.

It is true that the fictional Guy Johnson, in JOHN HENRY DAYS, is black.

The historic Guy Benton Johnson, Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, was a gentlemanly southern white. He made a career of studies of race relations, and his wife related that he was once almost fired on account of his liberal views of black people.

IanC says he has a copy of the Blankenship broadside. If this is an original, then it is only the second that I know to exist, and it should be safeguarded.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:34 AM

IanC,

If you have an original Blankenship broadside, do you see any aspect of it that might allow dating? The copy at UNC has been pasted onto a stiff board backing. If yours has not been treated this way, perhaps you can hold it up to light and find a watermark.

I'd like to correspond directly about this. Please e-mail me.

Thanks.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:58 AM

From the Blankenship broadside:

John Henry's woman heard he was dead,
She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
"I am going where John Henry fell dead."

In reviewing work on "Casey Jones," I've been reminded that Cayce was killed as he drove the Illinois Central's train No. 1, the Cannonball Express. No. 1 ran south from Chicago to New Orleans. No. 4 was the return trip, running north over the same route. Cayce was the engineer for a section of each of these runs.

John Henry is said to have been born a slave near Raymond, Crystal Springs, and Jackson, Mississippi. Presumably, many of his friends and relatives lived there. I don't know when the IC put in the Memphis-New Orleans run and started calling it "No. 1" and "No. 4," but if it was as early as 1887, then it is plausible that someone might have started a train trip from Crystal Springs, MS, which is on the IC line, to Birmingham, AL, by staring north on the Cannonball, the No. 4 train, just as the Blankenship broadside says.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: IanC
Date: 07 Oct 02 - 04:22 AM

John

Sorry - it's a photocopy of the one in Johnson! Details are in another thread!

:-)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 27 Nov 02 - 02:27 PM

One of the earliest known versions of "John Henry" was printed as what is now known as the "Blankenship broadside," "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man." IanC has posted the text above. At the bottom of this song sheet, which is printed on one side only and which consists of the title and 12 verses of poetry (no music), is "Price 5 Cents      W. T. BLANKENSHIP".

There is no indication of date or place. Guy Johnson dated it speculatively, based on information provided by the source of his copy of the broadside, a woman living in Rome, Georgia, as "ca 1900." MacEdward Leach later suggested that it might be as late as the 1920s. Nothing is certain here.

A second Blankenship broadside, "The Great Titanic," was sold recently on eBay.   It came from an estate in Huntsville, Alabama. The Titanic sank early in the morning of April 15, 1912. This broadside was probably printed shortly thereafter. Like "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," it provides no place.

I have now found a third Blankenship broadside, "Our President," a photocopy of which comes to me from a woman living in Madison, Alabama, not far from Huntsville. Her mother made a small collection of "ballets," mostly handwritten but a few printed, in the early part of the twentieth century, and she retains this collection.

"Our President" is about the sinking of the Lusitania, May 7, 1915. It promises that "When Uncle Sam lands a million soldiers in France / The old German Kaiser will sink in a trance," so this dates it rather precisely to about the time of the entrance of the United States into WWI. The United States made a formal declaration of war on April 6, 1917 against Germany. The first United States troops arrived in France on June 27, 1917.

At the bottom of "Our President" is printed, in addition to the usual "Price 5 Cents" and "W. T. BLANKENSHIP," an address, "Huntsville, Alabama."

This solidly confirms what I had suspected for a while, that WTB operated from Huntsville; he probably lived there. I hope that this gives me a good foundation for pusuing WTB further. I've got a few other leads about him, as well.

"Our President" is such a terrible effusion that I doubt that any publisher other than the author would have printed it. Thus, I assign its authorship to WTB himself.

This tells me that WTB *did* write poetry. The logical next step in this speculation is to posit that he wrote "The Great Titanic." In my view, that is highly likely.

The text of "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," however, shows internal evidence of tradition. I agree with others that this is not likely to be the "original" of "John Henry." Even so, it might well be that WTB reworked traditional verses to produce his version.

Finally, I've noted WTB's verse 11 here before:

John Henry's woman heard he was dead,
She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
"I am going where John Henry fell dead."

In 1900, IC train No. 4 ran north from New Orleans to Chicago. If "John Henry's woman" started from Crystal Springs, MS, where his relatives lived (I think), then train No. 4 would provide the logical first leg of a trip to Leeds and Dunnavant, AL, where John Henry died (I think). After going north to Jackson, or perhaps further, the passenger would transfer to an east-bound train for Birmingham. I'm told that by 1887 there already was at least local passenger train service between Crystal Springs and points north in Mississippi, and it may well be that the route numbering (trains Nos. 1-4) was established by then and was unchanged in 1900.

If this is true, then it seems clear that the "John Henry" verse quoted above had to have been written by someone who was familiar with the Crystal Springs/Jackson train service. Logically, I think that would have been someone who lived in that area. Therefore I suspect that the author of "John Henry" was a central Mississippian.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 15 Sep 03 - 11:18 AM

For evidence that John Henry Dabney, from Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Copiah County, raced a steam drill outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887, see my article, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi," Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, 2002.

I quote from that article:

"The 1870 census lists a Henry Dabney, black, twenty years old, "works on farm," living with his wife Margaret in Copiah County, Mississippi, a specific candidate for John Henry. Henry Dabney married Margaret Foston on November 4, 1869, in Copiah County, Mississippi (marriage records)."

We all "know" that the name of John Henry's wife/woman was "Polly Ann," don't we? That is almost universal nowadays. It couldn't have been "Margaret," could it? Here is evidence from collected information that it *could* have been.

Of 60 "John Henry" ballads published by 1933 (29 in Johnson, 30 in Chappell, 1 in Central of Georgia Magazine for October, 1930):

Polly Ann    15*
Mary Ann       3
Julie Ann      3
Delia Ann      1
Sary Ann       1
Martha Ann    1
Lucy          1**
Mary Magdalene 1
Ida Red       1

*Obvious variants are included: Paule Ann, Paul E. Ann, Poly Ann, etc.
**The informant was an amateur "John Henry" specialist who claimed that he had never heard any other name for John Henry's "woman."

I think that the following are characteristics of oral transmisstion:

(1) There will be substitutions prompted by mishearing, misrecall, and mental associations.
(2) The familiar will replace the unfamiliar.
(3) The simpler will replace the more complex.
(4) The plausible will replace the implausible.
(5) Better rhymes will replace faulty ones.

(6) The recent versions of a very popular ballad will less valuable
than older ones, as far as historicity is concerned, because the recent versions will have been changed substantially by the processes listed above. As change occurs, a ballad will tend toward a stable end point, that is, changes will have occurred that removed all of the earlier needs for change.

"Polly Ann" strikes me as too familiar to be the correct historic
name. Instead, it is probably a nearly stable end point.

When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as "Mary Magdalene," I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible "original," or a relative of the "original," and try to check it out further.

"Mary Magdalene" puzzled me for several years. Here is the way it was in a version sent to Guy B. Johnson in ca 1927.

John Henry, he had a woman,
Her name was Mary Magdalene.
She would go to the tunnel and sing for John,
Just to hear John Henry's hammer ring.

Note the direct statement, "Her name was Mary Magdalene," and the interesting near-rhyme: "-lene" / "ring."

Here the matter rested, in my mind, until about this time last year (2002), when I heard Neal Pattman, a local blues singer, in concert.   In his concerts he almost always does "John Henry," the first song he ever learned, he says, which he got from his father. Prior to that evening, I'd never heard him sing a verse that names John Henry's "woman." Such a verse is absent from Neal's text of "John Henry" as given by Art Rosenbaum in his and Margo's book, Folk Visions and Voices, and it is absent from his "John Henry" recording issued by Global Village (now on CD: CD 226).

That evening I sat bolt upright at full attention when I thought I heard Neal sing something like:

John Henry had a little woman,
Maggadee was her name,
When John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
Maggadee drove steel like a man.

"Maggadee" sounds a lot like "Magdalene" and a lot like "Maggie D."   As I sat there on our blanket (this was an outdoor concert) I
formulated the following possible series of mutations:

Maggie D
(from "Margaret Dabney," nee Foston, Henry Dabney's wife)
Maggadee
Magdalene
(more familiar than "Maggadee" and "Maggie D")
Mary Magdalene
(by association - what other "Magdalene" do we all know?)
Mary Ann
(more plausible and driven by rhyme)
Polly Ann
("Polly" is a nickname for "Mary.")
xxxx Ann
(Use your favorite, Julie, Delia, Martha, Sary, Lucy)
Lucy
(Drop "Ann" from "Lucy Ann." Must make some rhyme provision.)

Many people today don't even know that "Polly" is a nickname for
"Mary," but in the 19th century and earlier almost every "Mary" was known familiarly as "Polly."

Recently I've interviewed Neal Pattman, who told me first that the
name was "Maggatee" and then "Magganatee." I and two friends listened carefully when he sang it at a concert recently and we all agreed that we heard "Maggadee." It really doesn't make any difference.   "Maggadee," "Maggatee," and "Magganatee" all sound something like "Maggie D" and "Magdalene." Neal verified that he got the name from his father's singing.

In the version of Leon R. Harris, who had never heard any name other than "Lucy," the rhyming problem is met as follows.

John Henry's woman, Lucy,
Dress she wore was blue,
Eyes like stars and teeth lak-a marble stone,
An' John Henry named his hammah "Lucy" too.

Lucy came to see him,   (Cf "George's mother came to him,
Bucket in huh han',                            A bucket in her hand.")
All th' time John Henry at his snack,
O Lucy she'd drive steel lak-a man.

If Pattman's second line is inverted from "X was her name" to the more direct, and thererfore more familiar, "Her name was X," "Maggadee" and "Magdalene" don't provide a rhyme, but "Ann" does.

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Xxxx Ann,
When John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
Xxxx Ann drove steel like a man.

That's where my "What's in a name?" analysis stood until late last week. Then I found something I'd overlooked.

In Jamaica there has been a strong "John Henry" tradition. I already knew that that tradition has preserved "Dabner" as the name of one of John Henry's bosses. Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Crystal Springs, Mississippi, was Chief Engineer of the Columbus & Western and in charge of its contruction through Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887-88.

What I found yesterday, in a 1966 article by MacEdward Leach, is that Jamaican tradition preserves the name of John Henry's wife as "Marga."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 Dec 04 - 02:45 PM

FYI:

Here's part of the version that J. W. Washington, Fort Myers,
Florida, contributed to Louis Chappell, who published it in his 1933 book (pp 116-117).

They carried John Henry down the smoky road
And put him on that long white road.
When they brought that poor boy back to town
He was lying on his cooling board.

suggesting that "white road" could be the original that mutated, in several versions of "John Henry," to "White House." I have suggested that the limestone around Leeds and Dunnavant, Alabama, might account in some way for the whiteness of a road there, perhaps surfaced in marble chips.

There is a much simpler explanation. Many version of "John Henry" state that "they buried him in the sand." Very close to the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, where John Henry is supposed to have beat a steam drill in 1887, is Sand Ridge Cemetery. The area has exposed sand on several of its southwest-to-northeast trending ridges. Surely Sand Ridge is named for this. There was, and is, a ridge road leading to that cemetery, and if it were sandy in 1887, then it would have been "white." Unfortunately, the inventoried markers at Sand Ridge Cemetery don't include one for John Henry. On the other hand, the inventory is known to be incomplete, and the cemetery contains many graves for which markers have not been found. It may be that the inventory is based on a cursory search. I intend to go over there soon and have a personal look.

At least one version of "John Henry" states that he is buried by a river. Many versions imply that his burial is within sight of the railroad. Also very close to the alleged site of the contest, the railroad crosses Shoal Creek, which meanders through a flood plain of sand. This spot will be easy to examine because the highway is very close to the track at that point.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Art Thieme
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 01:27 AM

It's good to see this thread popping up yet again. It's a great answer to those who say we don't talk about American folksongs at Mudcat. Many of the "old chestnuts" like John Henry can provide stimulating discussion when scholarly folks look deeper into the possibilities. I appreciate John's new look at a fine song. Along with the first thread on this topic I think we have some fascinating reading. I wish I was more able to imagine (see) the terrain that John Garst is referring to in his papers. I'm too use to thinking in terms of the Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. Road. The new ideas could be true for all I know. Remember what a hard time Roger Maris had when he went up against the legend that was Babe Ruth.

Art


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 02:30 PM

John Garst's research is very interesting. I do think it's problematic, though, to at some times say that "the simpler explanation" is that there really was sand at sand Ridge cemetary and at another point eschew simple explanations for an extremely speculative and convoluted account of how Margaret became "Mary Magdalene" became "Polly Ann." Either simplicity of explanation is a virtue or it isn't, but John seems to be having both ways there.

On the "Polly Ann" thing: "Ann" is obviously necessary to rhyme with "man" in the next line, as John notes. Take away the "Ann" and you have Polly, Mary, Julie, Delia, Sary and Martha, as well as all the other names. Certainly, you couldn't get a wider variety of two syllable common American womens' names. Yet there is no Margaret (which is pronounced as two syllables ("Mar-gret") or even Peggy, the common two syllable nickname for Margaret. With these as your data, to argue that all the names derived some some real original, and that original was "Margaret" is silly. The Jamaican name provides some support, but why would they have preserved the real name only in Jamaica?

In hard science, this is good methodology: begin with a hypothesis, then do experiments to test it. But without the concreteness of experimental data, beginning with such a strong hypothesis becomes deadly: one tends to treat all data as though they support it.

This is also an example of circular reasoning. It is impossible to come to the conclusion that the song character's name was Margaret without using as one of the premises that the real John Henry had a wife named Margaret. So it could never prove anything.

Anyway, I don't think the Margaret/Polly Ann thing is particularly important or damaging to the overall argument. In making up verses about real or imagined heroes, people fill in all sorts of details they don't know. If the singer didn't know his wife's name, we don't need to "explain" how Margaret became Polly Ann. They're just made-up names.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 03:34 PM

"It is impossible to come to the conclusion that the song character's name was Margaret without using as one of the premises that the real John Henry had a wife named Margaret. So it could never prove anything." - Nerd

Henry Dabney, of Copiah County, Mississippi, had a wife named Margaret, as is shown by both marriage and census records. According to the census, he was born 1850-51. He is a *candidate* for the historical John Henry, so finding a plausible series of mutations from Margaret Dabney to Polly Ann carries some logical force supporting this his candidacy. Names that are logical intermediate stages ("Maggadee," "Mary Magdalene," and "Mary Ann") are in the record, that is, they have been recovered in tradition.

Henry Dabney is also a candidate for the slave boy "Henry" mentioned by Letitia Dabney in her memoirs. During the Civil War, this slave boy was a teenager, which fits the census records for Copiah County Henry Dabney at least roughly.

The logic does not lead to the "conclusion" that the historic John Henry's wife was named "Margaret," nor does it "prove anything." If you want proof, you need direct documentation, which no one has for any candidate for the historic John Henry.

Absent such documentation, one must deal with testimony, any particular "fact" of which is likely (but not necessarily) untrue, and indirect documentation. What I've been doing is testing the testimony of several informants who placed the historic John Henry at Dunnavant, AL, in the 1880s. The testimony of C. C. Spencer is particularly rich in detail, some clearly erroneous, but much backed up by documentation that I've turned up. The documentation does not concern John Henry himself but rather Spencer's story about John Henry (that he was from Mississippi, that his "captain" was a man named "Dabner" ("Dabney"), that he worked on "Cruzee" ("Coosa") Tunnel, etc.)

My claim is not to have "concluded" or "proved" anything except that the Alabama scenario is much better supported by testimony and documentation than the West Virginia scenario. Indeed, there is so much consistent circumstantial evidence for the Alabama scenario that I think it likely to be correct.

If you think Scott Peterson was wrongly convicted because the evidence was entirely circumstantial, then you will certainly have problems with my arguments.

Anyhow, I haven't yet given up on finding direct documentation. I want to see that grave marker with "Here lies a steel driving man" on it.

When and if it is found, I'll definitely let you know.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 03:37 PM

"Yet there is no Margaret (which is pronounced as two syllables ("Mar-gret") or even Peggy, the common two syllable nickname for Margaret." - Nerd

"Maggie" was a very common nickname in the 19th century.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 05:18 PM

John G.,

I agree from your evidence that the Alabama scenario is viable. I'm just saying that showing how "Margaret" could change to "Polly Ann" doesn't really add anything, because it's all guesswork. Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps. It's not in itself evidence, and neither is it logically derived from evidence, because as I said it is logically circular--you need to know what conclusion you are coming to before you start, or else you will never get there.

Your own statement that "When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as 'Mary Magdalene,' I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible 'original,' or a relative of the 'original,' and try to check it out further" is not in fact standard practice in folklore or any other discipline. To give an example from my own area of the country, if I came across an informant who claimed that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford, I would not automatically assume that this was any more likely than the usual "Mother Leeds" or "Mrs. Shourds," nor I think would any other folklorist.   

Your contention that Maggie is a common nickname for Margaret is true, but there is no Maggie in any of the songs either. I may have missed something, but I don't think you've even established that Margaret Dabney was known as Maggie D.

I'm not saying you shouldn't "check it out further," but so far you haven't really checked it out, you've just shoehorned the name into your pre-existing hypothesis of Henry Dabney. Once again, I don't think this particularly hurts your argument overall, it just doesn't help it much.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 07:47 PM

My experience in the South is that the expression "John Henry" is widely used by whites and blacks alike to mean "signature," what Yankees call your "John Hancock." I don't know how long this has been going on, but if it goes back long enough it could be that "John Henry" in the ballad is just a made-up name for a generic character.

This is a question nobody has ever addressed. If true, any search for the "historical John Henry" becomes more difficult indeed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 11:41 AM

"My experience in the South is that the expression "John Henry" is widely used by whites and blacks alike to mean "signature," what Yankees call your "John Hancock." I don't know how long this has been going on, but if it goes back long enough it could be that "John Henry" in the ballad is just a made-up name for a generic character.

"This is a question nobody has ever addressed. If true, any search for the "historical John Henry" becomes more difficult indeed. " - Lighter

This is certainly correct. I have no idea whether or not the use of "John Henry" in the place of "John Hancock" predates 1887 or 1871, the two most-often-suggested dates for John Henry's contest with a steam drill. However, I'm not sure how significant it would be to find that the use of "John Henry" in this was *does* predate 1871. "John Henry" has been a very common given name for a long, long time. There is every reason to believe "John Henry" *could* be a generic name that was inserted into the song and legend. Neither Johnson (1929) nor Chappell (1933) thought that likely, however, and neither do I.

The post-Civil-War, Copiah-County Henry Dabney and the slave boy recalled by Letitia Dabney were known as "Henry." While these are likely the same person, we don't really know that, and neither do we know that he, or either, used a first name "John."

Conversely, the Marbury family of Leeds, Alabama, whose ancestor Ciscero Davis was a mucker working on the contruction of the C & W RR in 1887-88, preserves stories of a champion steel driver that Davis worked with. His name was "John." They don't recall "John Henry," nor do they associate John with the John Henry legend.

Even so, I think that the identification of these reports with a single individual, John Henry Dabney, it not implausible.

There are a number of reports of a well-known steel driver at Big Bend Tunnel named John Henry Martin. Some reports from the Big Bend area claim that John Henry survived his steam-drill contest. John Henry Martin is reported to have lived for many years after Big Bend was finished. My suspicion is that Martin is the key to the attachment of the John Henry legend to Big Bend.

Incidentally, there are songs about "John Henry" that have nothing to do, apparently, with the steel driver.

FWIW, "John Henry" is also used as a pet name or slang for "penis."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 03:08 PM

"I agree from your evidence that the Alabama scenario is viable. I'm just saying that showing how "Margaret" could change to "Polly Ann" doesn't really add anything, because it's all guesswork. Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps. It's not in itself evidence, and neither is it logically derived from evidence, because as I said it is logically circular--you need to know what conclusion you are coming to before you start, or else you will never get there.

Your own statement that "When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as 'Mary Magdalene,' I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible 'original,' or a relative of the 'original,' and try to check it out further" is not in fact standard practice in folklore or any other discipline. To give an example from my own area of the country, if I came across an informant who claimed that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford, I would not automatically assume that this was any more likely than the usual "Mother Leeds" or "Mrs. Shourds," nor I think would any other folklorist.   

"Your contention that Maggie is a common nickname for Margaret is true, but there is no Maggie in any of the songs either. I may have missed something, but I don't think you've even established that Margaret Dabney was known as Maggie D.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't "check it out further," but so far you haven't really checked it out, you've just shoehorned the name into your pre-existing hypothesis of Henry Dabney. Once again, I don't think this particularly hurts your argument overall, it just doesn't help it much." - Nerd

The "much" in the last of Nerd's statements makes it perfectly acceptable to me.

I've certainly not *established* that Margaret Dabney was known as "Maggie D," but that is a plausible conjecture, nor can I point to a clear "Maggie" in any recovered song. However, I think that "Maggadee" is a likely mishearing of "Maggie D." If you have some other plausible hypothesis to explain "Maggadee," I'd like to hear it.

Contrary, evidently, to the views of all real folklorists, I would want to check out "that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford" very carefully. What explanation could there be for such a complex, convoluted name, other than that it was the truth, or something related to it? Possibly it would just be someone's idea of a joke? Perhaps, but I still try to check it out.   Unless the Jersey Devil story were regarded as humorous, I would think the joke idea unlikely. I notice from reading the article at
http://theshadowlands.net/jd.htm
that there is already documentary support for "Leeds" and "Shrouds," in the sense that these are family names known from the area. Is "McChuzzleford" another?

For a while, several years ago, I used something like the following as an e-mail sig:

Laws of Tradition
(1) Nothing is lost.
(2) Nothing stays the same.

As time passes, everything that enters tradition leaves some sort of wake, even if that wake is not recognizable. That the Jersey Devil story started with the birth of a "monster" is entirely plausible, just as it is plausible that the John Henry legend started with some historical event (whether or not it was an actual contest between man and machine).

In my view of mutations in the transmission of traditions, there is a tendency for

the familiar to drive out the unfamiliar
the simple to drive out the complex
the cliched to drive out the novel
the strong narrative to drive out the weak
the emotional to drive out the matter-of-fact
the interesting to drive out the boring
etc.

As these processes take place, a ballad based on an historical incident, for example, will tend to a stable end point in which much of the original information is omitted or altered. If Lomax had not recovered a version of "Ella Speed" (the only one known to me) with lines something like

Martin was neither tall nor slender,
He was known by being a bartender (not an exact quote)

we would have been mystified by the historic fact that Louis "Bull" Martin was short and stocky and the lines in several versions that tell us that he was "long (tall) and slender." Now it is clear that an awkward negative statement got "straightened out" to something more direct,

Bill Martin, he was long and slender,
Better known by his being a bartender

I dare say that no one would have come up with the conjecture that "neither tall nor slender" preceded "he was long and slender."

The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

Mance Lipscomb's "Ella Speed" and others provide studies in how far transmission can drive a ballad from its source materials. "Frankie," I suppose, is the classic example of extreme mutations.

Anyhow, tradition is subject to something like Gresham's Law, "Bad money drives out good." I'd say that the familiar, simple, cliched, strong, emotional, and interesting drives out the unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, and boring. Thus, when you find something in tradition that *is* unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, or boring, you should check it out - it just might be from a very early version of the tradition - it might even be true, if the tradition derives from an historic event.

As to "circular reasoning": If a scenario contains unresolvable inconsistencies, it must be discarded or altered so as to remove those inconsistencies. If Henry Dabney's wife's name was Margaret and he was John Henry, then his wife's name cannot be Polly Ann. A weak, inactive resolution to this inconsistency would be to simply posit that "Margaret" isn't as "sexy" (in today's slang) as "Polly Ann," so "Polly Ann" won out. Perhaps Nerd would accept that possibility. I think that finding a plausible series of mutations that leads from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann" carries a bit more force. I don't see such a resolution of an inconsistency, regardless of how speculative it may be, as "circular reasoning." To me, "circular reasoning" involves the assumption of what is to be shown. What I am showing is a plausible path from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann." Where is the circle?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 07:35 PM

The difficulty here, it seems to me, is that there's precious little evidence to support the speculation that a steam-drill contest took place in Alabama - or anywhere else.

If the song didn't exist, nobody would attempt to track down evidence pro or con about such a contest. What John and others have shown is that a historical drilling contest is not inconceivable. But we'd know that even without the song - we just wouldn't have reason to care.

It seems very likely to me that "Mary Magdalene," "Maggie D.," and "Marga" all represent a single original, but besides "Margaret," that original could have been any of the above, couldn't it? Or ho abiout "Madeleine" as the original? Or "Mary MacAtee"? "Margot MacAtee"? "Maggie Dean"? "Madeleine Dane"? "Mary McDaniel"? And so forth.

What is the likelihood, though, that all the textual changes actually occurred in the way John describes them? And how many educated guesses can be in error before the whole theory collapses?

How can we know that the entire song wasn't based simply on a prior rumor or legend instead of an actual event? Isn't it equally likely that John Henry (whose name could have been "John Henderson," "John Hendricks," etc.) was as much a manufactured hero as Paul Bunyan? Maybe the song's author had been a steeldriver, or knew old steel drivers, who'd speculated about whether a man could beat a steam-drill. And maybe that's all it took to write a song about "John Henry." I'm not claiming this happened, but it certainly could have, and how can we know? Could a real drilling match have taken place at some other tunnel that hasn't been adequately investigated? After all, if "Margaret Dabney" could metamorphose into "Polly Ann" (and John persuasively shows how it could), something could metamorphose into the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Road." In fact, this is exactly what John is suggesting about the "Oak Mountain Tunnel." (Clearly, phonetics is not a limiting factor in such changes. As Nerd suggests, any name could, in theory, have become almost anything else.) Have all possible American tunnels been investigated?

It's certainly frustrating that an incident so emblematic of technology versus human aspirations and limitations was not verifiable by Johnson or Chappell and remains unverified today. If the Oak Mountain Tunnel was really involved, the match took place well within living memory when Johnson and Chappell investigated. So tantalizing!

But I'm not sure that we're any closer to establishing the contest's historicity now than we were in the '30s. I agree with the idea that in cases like this, historicity is less important than how the song managed to moved from true obscurity into being a national treasure, and what people have thought about the song itself.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 07:43 PM

If such a contest took place, it seems to me that it would have made the newspapers.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 02:51 PM

"If such a contest took place, it seems to me that it would have made the newspapers. " - Q

You might think so, but then consider that the location, if it was Dunnavant, was *really* out in the sticks at a time when Birmingham, 15 miles away, was still pretty small. Also consider that there are no surviving copies of several newspapers for dates that might have carried something about it. The local Shelby County newspapers pretty much neglected Dunnavant, which was relatively far from the centers of population of that county, being in the far north, near Leeds, itself not a very large village in Jefferson County. The Shelby County newspapers, as far as I have been able to peruse them, are remarkably silent on the construction of the C & W RR line through that county in 1886-87. More notice of that is found in the Birmingham newspapers, but even there articles on the C & W are few and far between. And think of this - would newspapers at that time and place be much interested in the games of common laborers, especially black ones? Oral reports tell us that contests among steel drivers were frequent, in the Birmingham area and elsewhere, that champions were highly regarded, and that betting on them was commonplace. I've looked at many pages of Birmingham newspapers for 1887-88 without spotting a single mention of any steel-driving contest.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:04 PM

It's not surprising to me that contests between human steel-drivers occurred, that people laid bets on them, and so forth. Nor that the papers would be silent about such local events out in the sticks - they probably wouldn't even have heard of them, or by the time they did, the contests would have been old news. More to the point, I doubt that many white 19th century journalists would have been professionally interested in anything that happened in a chiefly black construction camp short of a particularly heinous crime.

Personally, I must agree with John that a John-Henry type contest, particularly if impromptu, would also be unlikely to hit the papers. If such a contest really occurred, there's no reason to expect that it would have been an elaborately planned event.

Moreover, folklore being what it is, IF an impromptu match took place between a human driller and a machine, there's no particular reason to believe that the man must have died. He could have given up after twenty minutes, gotten a round of backslapping and applause and maybe a dram, and that was that. But such an event wouldn't make a very good story - or song.

How about this scenario - I got a million of 'em. A driver named John Henry or similar died on the job accidentally from a hammer blow (or almost died) hence the floating verse about "This ol' hammer killed John Henry/ Won't kill me." Hearing the verse, semiliterate chap, not necessarily Blankenship, wonders how it hapened and why laborers should be singing about it. Later, he has the inspiration to make a song.

I hate to say it, but this series of events seems to me to be quite as likely as the idea that there was a drilling contest at all.

And FWIW, documents prove there was a prizefighter named John Morrissey, the hero of two or three broadsides But no matter how hard we look, we'll never find the proof that he fought a Russian sailor in Tierra del Fuego "on a Christmas Day," as some versions tell us.

I really hate to sound so negative. I'm just a folk curmudgeon, I guess. ; )


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:28 PM

"The difficulty here, it seems to me, is that there's precious little evidence to support the speculation that a steam-drill contest took place in Alabama - or anywhere else." - Lighter

There are two self-proclaimed eye-witness accounts, that of Neal Miller at Big Bend and that of C. C. Spencer at Dunnavant.

Miller's testimony is of very poor quality. He said the the contest was just a trial of the steam drill and that it was no big deal. He didn't watch it continuously, he just looked in on it from time to time as he went about his regular job. This is what he told Guy Johnson. What he told Louis Chappell is somewhat different. In his book, Chappell doesn't mention that Miller claimed to have witness the contest. In telling Johnson and Chappell about the contest, Miller gave different names and races for John Henry's shaker (turner).

Spencer's testimony is very detailed, but it has quality issues, too. Several of his dates are too early by a few years. He said that John Henry was from Holly Springs, Mississippi, and that the steam drill contest took place during work on the AGS RR. There is no appropriate tunnel on the AGS (Coosa (Spencer's "Cruzee") Tunnel is on the C & W) and I believe that Spencer misremembered "Holly Springs" for "Crystal Springs," Copiah County, where both Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney and Henry Dabney, husband of Margaret, lived after the Civil War.

Spencer recalled a song about John Brown: "John Brown was a little boy / Sitting upon his Mother's knee / He said the Big Bend tunnel on the C. & O. Road / Will sure be the death of me." Evidently he did not connect this John Brown's death with a steel-driving contest with a steam drill. Sadly, we don't know the rest of Spencer's "John Brown" song. He declared, however, that John Brown, not John Henry, was the man of "'Big Bend tunnel fame.'" Most would probably think that Spence just got things confused, and maybe that's the case, but this makes me wonder about the possibility that "John Henry" is an adaptation of an earlier song connected with Big Bend.

In any event, Spencer got a lot of things right and partly right, including that "Dabner" was a boss on the job. Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the C & W and in charge of its design and construction. Spencer is not the only one who recalled that John Henry and Captain Dabney were from Mississippi. In 1955 Warren Musgrove published part of an interview with Mrs. C. T. Davis, who claimed that his "boss man killed him in Mississippi after he left here," implying that the boss man (Captain Dabney) and John Henry went to Mississippi after the job at Dunnavant was finished. Thlis would be natural if Mississippi were home. (I doubt the truth of Davis' allegation, however. Certainly Crystal Springs newspapers don't report any killing involving Captain Dabney, whose family is mentioned frequently in the society columns.)

Unlike Miller's, Spencer's story is rich in now-documented detail. Although none of it concerns John Henry directly, the confirmation of Spencer's details lends versimilitude to his story. I consider his testimony much more likely to be true than Miller's.

No, I can't prove that John Henry and his contest are not fiction but I think the indications are contrary to that hypothesis.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst - to Nerd
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:42 PM

"Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps." - Nerd

Let's do an experiment. You come up with a plausible (meaning logically motivated) series of mutations by which some name other than "Margaret Dabney " becomes "Polly Ann." In doing this, you must not choose a name that ties into the series I've posited for "Margaret Dabney" -> "Polly Ann." Try something like "Barbara" -> "Polly Ann." If you succeed there, try "Jane" -> "Polly Ann." I'm curious about this myself, that is, about whether or not a "series of similar assumptions and logical leaps" can do the job.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 06:27 PM

John, I think you are taking this far too personally.

I am saying the same thing, essentially, as Lighter about the names. Any name that begins with M can be transformed in one or two leaps to Magadee and produce the same list you did. Or Sarah Dean can become Sarah Dee can become Sagadee can become Magadee and produce the same list. So what?

Your "experiment" would prove nothing, precisely because you asked me NOT to relate it to any of the names on your list. Then I am to relate it--what--to no names from any of the songs? In that case what is the logical motivation? It is only by purposely relating it to your list that we can show how easily any name can become the starting point for that same chain of conjecture.

To wit:

Barbara Dane
Babby D.
Magadee

etc., etc.

I don't see this as any less plausible than your series. But I doubt if John Henry's wife was really Barbara Dane.

As for why your argument is circular:

The assumption is that she was originally called Margaret. You only make that assumption because you are trying to prove a specific hypothesis which requires that as a premise. So it is one of your premises. It is also ultimately what you are attempting to show.

A non-circular form of the same argument would begin with Polly-Ann and trace it back to "Margaret" not because you thought the historical person was named Margaret but because it was the most plausible name to give rise to Polly Ann. That is not the case. Any number of names might give rise to Polly Ann through the same series of conjectures, as Lighter and I have shown.

The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

Mance Lipscomb's "Ella Speed" and others provide studies in how far transmission can drive a ballad from its source materials. "Frankie," I suppose, is the classic example of extreme mutations.


Okay, let's take "Frankie and Albert" as an example if you want. "Frankie" and "Albert" were, to begin with, their actual names. The fact that a significant number of versions call them just that argues AGAINST your thesis, not for it. No song calls John Henry "Henry Dabney," and no song calls his wife "Margaret" or even "Maggie D." So this is exactly the opposite of (say) "Stagolee," whose name was Stag Lee, or of "Frankie and Albert," whose names were Frankie and Albert, or of "Omie Wise," whose name was Naomi Wise, etc. In these cases, some of the most common versions of the songs give them thoroughly recognizable names. Not so "John Henry."


The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

This is simply a statement that you give no weight at all to the holes in your theory, but lots of weight to its strong points. That's not the best analytical methodology, I'm afraid. For your theory about the mutations of these names in tradition to be true, there MUST have been some songs that called her "Maggie D." Why did these all disappear? Is Maggie D. somehow not familiar, interesting, or simple enough? Sounds pretty plain to me...


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM

Well actually, Nerd, the seemingly nonsensical "Maggatee," as sung, could just as easily be understood as "Maggie D." by anybody along the chain. But that wouldn't change anything because there's no way of being sure that the names are accurate. One exception -and a crucial one - is "John Henry." This name is such a constant that even a few exceptions -which don't seem to exist - would not affect the very strong likelihood, if not quite the absolute certainty, that the original song, whatever the circumstances of its composition, included the name "John Henry," almost unquestionably as the hero.

That's one point we can all agree on.

I think is the way we all wish it had gone: A dramatic American ballad, "John Henry," is discovered, in bits and pieces at first, in the South. More interesting still, more coherent, more complete, more dramatic versions emerge as collectors like the Lomaxes and others probe further into African-American singing. Maybe, like many Child ballads, there is a historical core to this song? Chappell and Johnson independently investigate.

Here's what we'd like: one or both of them turns up documented evidence that a driver named John Henry died challenging a steam drill sometime in the '70s or '80s. They're not sure when or where. Later, following the documentation, another researcher discovers a story in an obscure Alabama paper from 1887 describing the match and John Henry's death. (Maybe it turns out that he spelled his name "Hendry"; it doesn't matter.)

With historicity established, we then compare the texts to what we know of the event and comment, among other things, on the workings of the folk process and wonder about etails in the texts that don't show up in the paper - the name of Hnery/Hendry's wife, for example.
At *that* point, or so it seems to me, the "Polly Ann"/Margaret discussion becomes interesting. If we've found documentary evidence that Henry/Hendry *had* a wife, whose name for some reason was never recorded, we might be able to discover something through linguistic analysis.

That's how it all *should* have happened. But it didn't. I think John is working in reverse, if not entirely in a circle. He's found a "John Henry" (though his name wasn't "John") who was from Mississippi (as a 21st century trad singer assured him), and he's found that the man did have a wife (whose name wasn't "Polly Ann" or any of the names appearing in most of the texts, but which conceivably could have become "Polly Ann"). From this, plus similar evidence, he concludes that the drilling match almost certainly occurred.

Not only is the documentary evidence circumstantial, as John acknowledges, but it is far more tenuous than the evidence against Scott Peterson; it may well be pure coincidence. It has nothing to do with steam drills, steel drivers, a drilling match, railroad labor, etc. "Henry," as John also acknowledges, was a common name - there were plenty in Mississippi. "Dabner" is indeed close to "Dabney," but no documents evidence have surfaced to connect Captain Dabney, and Henry and Margaret Dabney with the Oak Mountain Tunnel or with driving steel on a railroad or anywhere else. Proof that there was in fact a connection would make a tremendous difference, and of course that's what John is still seeking.

A positive note is long overdue: as John says, it is indeed striking that the earliest full printing of the ballad that we have comes from Huntsville, Ala., not far from the Oak Mountain Tunnel. That immediately ups the likelihood that *if* a contest occurred, it occurred there. But in fact what it mostly suggests is only that the building of the tunnel, maybe twenty or thirty years before the appearance of the song sheet, *may* have influenced its author in some undetermined way.

By locating Blankenship's whereabouts in Huntsville, John can reason persuasively that the Oak Mountain Tunnel is as likely as the more familiar Big Bend to have had some unknown connection with the composition of the ballad. But "unknown" is the key here. We don't know what that connection was. And we can't use our ignorance to substitute for evidence.

Undoubtedly this debate between John Garst and Nerd is the most substantial analysis of the "John Henry" question since the 1930s. For that we should be greatful.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM

That's "grateful." Duh.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:01 PM

Nerd says, "Okay, let's take "Frankie and Albert" as an example if you want. "Frankie" and "Albert" were, to begin with, their actual names. The fact that a significant number of versions call them just that argues AGAINST your thesis, not for it. No song calls John Henry "Henry Dabney," and no song calls his wife "Margaret" or even "Maggie D." So this is exactly the opposite of (say) "Stagolee," whose name was Stag Lee, or of "Frankie and Albert," whose names were Frankie and Albert, or of "Omie Wise," whose name was Naomi Wise, etc. In these cases, some of the most common versions of the songs give them thoroughly recognizable names. Not so "John Henry.""

I think Nerd and I are going to have to agree to disagree about the significance of the posited chain of mutations of names, from "Maggie D" to "Maggadee" to "Mary Magdalene," etc., but we really aren't all that far apart. He seems to give it no logical weight, while I give it some but not much.

Regarding "Frankie," "Albert" = "Al Britt."   "Allen Britt" was his name, not "Albert." "Frankie" is pretty stable, although there are many versions that call her something else, mostly things ending with an "i (short)" sound. (This suggests a continuation of Nerd's line: No song mentions "Captain Dabney," but at least one mentions "Captain Tommy," an easy mutation of "Captain Dabney," and this one states further that "Virginny gave him birth," which is true of Captain Dabney.) Interestingly, she has mostly lost her last name, "Baker," although "Frankie Baker" survives as a title and appears once or twice in the texts of collected versions.   "Albert," though incorrect historically, seems to have been pretty stable until tin pan alley's "Johnny" came along. Many versions name Al Britt's other lover, but as far as I am aware, not a single one gets it exactly right and only a few come close. She was Alice Pryor. "Alice Pry" is found at least once and "Alice Bly" occurs, but things like "Nellie Bly" are common, too. Buckley finds 17 first names (Alice, Nellie, Lilly, Rachel, Alco, Susie, Nellsie, Amy, Sally, Ruth, Bad Eyes, Sara, Alkali, Ann, Alla, Maggie, Katy) and 21 last names (Fry, Bly, Fly, Lize, Bright, Dry, Spy, Flies, Pry, Rye, Slies, Blythes, Eliz, Wise, Dryer, Spry, Sly, Brude, Blight, Blide, Blies).

Some names are quite stable and others aren't. "Ella Speed" is named, or partly named (just "Ella"), in all except one of about a dozen recovered versions, that one calling her "Alice B." About as far as tradition gets from "Delia" is "Delie." "Frankie" has lasted well, even though several other names are found. These three have been pretty stable. "Alice Pryor" hasn't been, although most of her transformed last names contain a long "i" sound. "Bull Martin" became "Bill Martin," plain "Martin," and "Martin F." "Lady Margaret" has done all right over centuries, so I can't claim that "Margaret" is necessarily unstable. I suspect that it depends on context. "Maggie D" is probably inherently unstable because it is so easily misunderstood, and if you don't know that "D" is an initial, then you might hear it as Neal Pattman's father may have, as "Maggadee," which itself is easily interpreted as "Magdalene."

Another interesting point is that "Frankie," "Ella Speed," and "Delia" are main characters in their ballads. "Frankie" usually begins, "Frankie ...," and "Delia" begins, "Delia!" "Ella Speed" usually doesn't begin with her name, but it is mentioned in one of the early stanzas. John Henry's wife's/woman's name is usually relegated to a subordinate position several stanzas into the ballad, if it is mentioned at all.

Anyhow, when I brought up "Frankie," I wasn't really thinking of the names but of important historical facts. Frankie shot Allen in a bedroom. In the versions of "Frankie" that have been recovered, it is universal that Frankie goes looking for Albert, finds him with Alice somewhere ("poolroom, ballroom, barroom, depot, on 5th Street, South Clarke Street, in the alley, Hogan's alley, gallery, call house, whore house, her house, woman's house, hop joint, hotel, chink shop, his parlor, a two-story building, or in a crib" - Bruce Buckley, who examined several hundred versions), and shoots him. That's not a correct account of the historical event. She was in bed when he came home at an early morning hour. He threatened Frankie and she shot him. Alice was not present. As far as I know, these historical facts are not present in *any* of the several hundred known versions.

A similar thing happens with "Ella Speed." No recovered version places the shooting in her bedroom (it's often a barroom instead), where it actually happened.

When the historical facts are boring, something "better" gets sung.

Thus, the absence x in the known ballad record is not evidence that that x is untrue or that x was never part of the ballad.

For the record, so there is no misunderstanding of my position, here is the conclusion from the end of my article, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi" (Tributaries, 2002). Although I've found a few more pieces of the puzzle since this was published, including the "Maggadee" version of the ballad, the conclusion below represents my present position.

******
   So far, no definite documentation of John Henry himself has been found. This leaves room for argument from those who may believe that John Henry never existed or that he raced a steam drill elsewhere. However, to make such a claim one would have to disprove, explain away, or dismiss the network of evidence, detailed here, that places John Henry on the C & W in Alabama in 1887-88. In particular, one would have to argue that C. C. Spencer is not a credible witness and that he grafted a fictional tale of being an eye-witness to John Henry's death onto some arcane factual knowledge of Mississippi Dabneys, not obtained from John Henry, and the construction of the C & W.
   However, of all of the testimony gathered by Johnson and Chappell, that of Spencer is the most detailed, giving the impression of authority. He claims to have been present when John Henry raced the steam drill in Alabama. Thus, he is the "star witness" on this subject.
   When checked against facts that can be determined from other sources, Spencer's story is found to contain some errors, which threw Johnson and Chappell off the Alabama trail. Even so, these errors are reasonable for someone recounting, after forty-odd years, an experience from his teens, and they are easily corrected.
   What Spencer got right is far more impressive. Among other things, he gave the name of Coosa Mountain in Alabama; placed it near Red Mountain and Rising Fawn, Georgia; named Dabney as a railroad construction boss there; and stated that there was a Dabney plantation in Mississippi, all of which is correct.
   This lends great credibility to his story. That credibility is enhanced by the independent testimony of Barker and Cummings, by the statement of Davis that places John Henry in Mississippi, and by the persistent tradition, around Leeds, that John Henry raced a steam drill, probably outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Shelby County, Alabama, during the construction of the C & W in 1887-88.
******

As I see it, the burden of proof now lies with other views.

I'd love for someone to find some relevant, direct documentation, regardless of what it might reveal. It's been a long time since people started studying "John Henry" and it hasn't happened yet. Still ... "hope springs eternal."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:12 PM

Lighter:

Well actually, Nerd, the seemingly nonsensical "Maggatee," as sung, could just as easily be understood as "Maggie D." by anybody along the chain. But that wouldn't change anything because there's no way of being sure that the names are accurate. One exception -and a crucial one - is "John Henry." This name is such a constant that even a few exceptions -which don't seem to exist - would not affect the very strong likelihood, if not quite the absolute certainty, that the original song, whatever the circumstances of its composition, included the name "John Henry," almost unquestionably as the hero.

That's one point we can all agree on.

***********

I dunno - I've also entertained the idea that the historic man's name was "John Dabney." I think it might take a millisecond or so of hearing someone sing "John Dabney" to replace it with "John Henry." There were some black John Dabneys in Copiah County, Mississippi, in the early 20th century, perhaps earlier. The fact that the Marbury family's recollection is of a steel driver named "John," not "John Henry," would be consistent with this. Spencer, however, called him "John Henry Dabner" and two others who gave testimony for Alabama also called him "John Henry." Incidentally, Henry "Dabney" is in the 1870 census. In 1880 he is Henry "Dabner" (same wife, birth year, etc.)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:52 PM

John, it's good to know that I'm not the only living soul who's read Bruce Buckley's dissertation. I knew that would come in handy some day! What you say about it squares well with my recollection -another plus!

As you can tell, I'm fascinated by the whole John Henry story and by your new research and discoveries. At this point, I'm going to try to dig up a copy of your article (you didn't say it was online, did you?)before I comment further. There may be a point here where "coincidence" begins to ring hollow and the burden of proof falls on us skeptics, but I'm not at all sure it's been reached yet. ; )


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 06:08 PM

Not quite, John. The latest research (Cecil Brown's article, so recent that it is Copyright 2005!) states that Allen was only Mr. Britt's nickname. Albert was his real given name. "Frankie and Albert" thus preserves the real names of both protagonists. Frankie herself called Albert "Al," as revealed in the many interviews she did after it was discovered that the song documented a real event. So some people called him "Al Britt," others "Allen Britt," and others "Albert Britt." Albert is a pretty logical ending place for these permutations, unlike "Polly Ann" for "Margaret," "Maggie D.," etc.

Also, there is a simple explanation for why the true historical facts are not present in any version of Frankie. It's not because tradition distorts the facts beyond recognition. It's because the later songs were all based on the earlier songs, not on trial documents. The earliest song was written by the great 1890s street songwriter Bill Dooley (also responsible for the original Stack O Lee), and was already wildly inaccurate. Dooley apparently wrote it so soon after the incident that the facts of the case had not been established; according to testimony that came out at Frankie's later lawsuits against the movie versions of her stories, Dooley was already singing and selling a version of the song the night after the shooting! At that time, only Frankie (who was in jail) knew the exact sequence of events, because the shooting and the lead up to it occurred in private. Some people like Alice Pryor, Albert's parents, and Frankie's roommate Pansy Marvin would have known parts of the sequence, but only Frankie knew the whole thing until after the trial.

So Bill Dooley was guessing. He was also inventing what he thought was a good story, rather than telling the somewhat bizarre true story (which was that Albert returned home to Frankie after an evening with Alice Pryor, took out a knife, and began cutting Frankie for no apparent reason; she shot him in self-defense).

And that's exactly what I'm suggesting about names like Polly Ann. The singers/re-composers of the ballad of John Henry were guessing, making up or creating, if you prefer, the story elements they didn't know from history. There does not have to be a genetic line of some kind tying "Margaret" to "Polly Ann," because if a singer doesn't know the real name he or she will create a new one, and "Polly Ann" sounds much more like a product of that random process than like a logically-derived product of "Margaret Dabney."

I've also read Buckley's thesis, by the way. You can find the most recent article on Frankie and Albert in the collection The Rose and the Briar. I didn't like the first few articles in this book, and said so on a thread a couple of weeks ago, but the rest of the book has been quite good. John Garst's thorough inquiries into Delia's Gone are cited, too! Sadly, they did not ask John (or anyone else) to do a piece on John Henry.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 05:24 PM

Nerd: Not quite, John. The latest research (Cecil Brown's article, so recent that it is Copyright 2005!) states that Allen was only Mr. Britt's nickname. Albert was his real given name. "Frankie and Albert" thus preserves the real names of both protagonists. Frankie herself called Albert "Al," as revealed in the many interviews she did after it was discovered that the song documented a real event. So some people called him "Al Britt," others "Allen Britt," and others "Albert Britt." Albert is a pretty logical ending place for these permutations, unlike "Polly Ann" for "Margaret," "Maggie D.," etc....

In my judgment, this is wrong. I think that Frankie sometimes called him "Albert" and sometimes "Johnny" to accommodate listeners who knew those names from the ballad. I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David. - J

Nerd: The earliest song was written by the great 1890s street songwriter Bill Dooley (also responsible for the original Stack O Lee), and was already wildly inaccurate. Dooley apparently wrote it so soon after the incident that the facts of the case had not been established; according to testimony that came out at Frankie's later lawsuits against the movie versions of her stories, Dooley was already singing and selling a version of the song the night after the shooting! At that time, only Frankie (who was in jail) knew the exact sequence of events, because the shooting and the lead up to it occurred in private. Some people like Alice Pryor, Albert's parents, and Frankie's roommate Pansy Marvin would have known parts of the sequence, but only Frankie knew the whole thing until after the trial.

(Nerd, con't): So Bill Dooley was guessing. He was also inventing what he thought was a good story, rather than telling the somewhat bizarre true story (which was that Albert returned home to Frankie after an evening with Alice Pryor, took out a knife, and began cutting Frankie for no apparent reason; she shot him in self-defense).

Absent contrary evidence, I'm willing to imagine that Dooley may have written these songs. That he wrote "Frankie" in the rush described here is harder to swallow, but it could have been. It could also have been that the earliest versions were more accurate, that later singers provided a "good story," and that the "good story" drove out the less "good" one. My inclination is toward the latter interpretation.

Sean Wilentz had copies of The Rose and the Briar and the accompanying CD sent to me by the publisher, in return for the information I provided him for his chapter on Delia (the best in the book!)   ; )

If you don't like Frankie as an example of the historic facts getting lost, try Ella Speed. Several versions have her being shot in a barroom. Actually, she was shot in her bedroom. I don't know of any version that states or implies that.

Frankie, Ella Speed, and Delia all tend to lose their cities. At least one version of Frankie puts her in St. Louis, but others have Memphis, Chicago, and a variety of others. One version of Ella Speed, a jazz recording by Edmond "Doc" Souchon, locates it in New Orleans.   No others do this. Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb thought it happened in Dallas. Most recovered versions have come from Texas. No version of Delia, of which I am aware, places it in Savannah. In the Bahamas, where it has long been popular, locals tend to assume that it describes something that happened there.

Any way you look at it, it is clear that ballads lose historical facts, either at their origins or later, and I think most often later. Thus, the absence of "Maggie," except as "Maggadee," doesn't bother me at all in relation to the hypothesis that John Henry's wife's name was Margaret. If somehow we eventually find out differently, that won't bother me either. This kind of evidence or argument is "permissive," not "demonstrative."

Incidentally, I think I should clarify the Jamaican John Henry whose woman is "Marga." The coupling of John Henry with Marga occurs in a short song that doesn't have anything to do with steel driving. The only evidence that this provides relates to the names only, John Henry and Marga, not to their activities in the song. It could be that this Jamaican song has no relationship to the saga of the steel-driving man. Certainly there are American John Henry songs about other men named John Henry. That doesn't imply, however, that this John Henry and his Marga are *not* linked, through some chain of transmission, to the steel-driving man. We don't know, but of all the names that the Jamican John Henry's woman could have had, it is striking that the one in the song *is* "Marga."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 05:31 PM

Lighter: At this point, I'm going to try to dig up a copy of your article (you didn't say it was online, did you?) before I comment further. There may be a point here where "coincidence" begins to ring hollow and the burden of proof falls on us skeptics, but I'm not at all sure it's been reached yet. ; )

It is not online, as far as I know. A sorta long summary is at

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/alabama.html

but it doesn't contain all the evidence, just what I deemed most significant at the time I wrote the summary.

I have offprints that I can send to anyone on request.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 06:01 PM

I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David. - J

This is uncharitable at best. He does indeed cite research on page 366, including the original news story from 1899, McClure's interviews with Frankie Baker in 1935, and subsequent follow-up stories from 1942.

We've gone off course here. I do agree that historical details get lost in tradition.   I am at a loss to see how this establishes the relevance of a stream of conjecture connecting "Polly Ann" and "Margaret Dabney."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 06:39 PM

John: If our university library doesn't have the journal, I'll PM you for an offprint. Thanks.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 11:36 AM

John (quoted): I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David.

Nerd: This is uncharitable at best. He does indeed cite research on page 366, including the original news story from 1899, McClure's interviews with Frankie Baker in 1935, and subsequent follow-up stories from 1942.

John: I didn't mean to say that he didn't do any reading. I question that he read anything not seen by previous scholars, none of whom noticed that Britt's real given name was "Albert."

I have no inside information on this, just Brown's chapter, Buckley, David, Huston, Legman, etc., but if I were a betting man (which I'm not, so I'm safe!), I wouldn't hesitate to bet against "Albert." If I'm right, then Brown will have really messed up the historical record - many who read his essay won't know any better, will accept what he says, and in the popular press, and perhaps in even in some scholarly writings, Britt will become Albert "Allen" Britt.

I will become charitable when I see some evidence. Until then my guess is that Brown simply rewrote history. He seems willing to accept recollections and speculation uncritically. Thus, he stated, as if it were fact, that "By the evening after the shooting, a 'barroom bard' named Bill Dooley had already composed a ballad that came to be called 'Frankie Killed Allen."

Nerd: We've gone off course here. I do agree that historical details get lost in tradition.   I am at a loss to see how this establishes the relevance of a stream of conjecture connecting "Polly Ann" and "Margaret Dabney."

John: I suppose I'm beating a dead horse, but somewhere back there you said something to the effect that if John Henry's wife's name were "Margaret," then that, or something close to it, should have been recovered in the ballad record. It is this that I've been trying to refute with examples of loss of historic detail, as well as with the notion that "Maggadee" is pretty close and that it provides a sound link to "Mary Magdalene." I wish I could find a version with just "Magdalene" (the "missing link!)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 01:56 PM

Ah! I see where the misunderstanding came from. No, I think it is quite likely that the name could be Margaret and that no such name could ever be in the record. But if that were the case then there would by definition be no chain of transmission transforming "Margaret" into "Polly Ann."

In other words, it was your logical process of "deriving" Polly Ann from "Margaret Dabney" that required "Maggie D." to have been in tradition at some point. What I said before was, For your theory about the mutations of these names in tradition to be true, there MUST have been some songs that called her "Maggie D." The logic of this is that, if not, where did Magadee come from, and Mary magdalene? It was your contention that these were derived from "Maggie D." So someone must have heard "Maggie D." at some point, and there would have to have been a song calling her that.

That's not to say that I think there were songs calling her "Maggie D.", just that there must have been for your theory to work. If "Maggie D." were in the record, one could posit some kind of transmission chain beginning with Margaret Dabney and ending with Polly Ann with a shade more validity. Since it's not in the record, any such transmission chain becomes very shaky indeed, which means that all the statistics you give on names and their frequency become irrelevant to the question of whether the original name could have been Margaret.

If no name like "Margaret" or "Maggie D." was ever in the tradition, then it is not an issue of transmission but of the creation of a name from whole cloth for the character of John Henry's wife, which is what I've already said is the most likely scenario to give rise to "Polly Ann." And if that is the case, none of the evidence concerning Polly Ann, Mary Ann, etc, can be used to support OR deny the contention that Margaret was the original name.

So as always, my position is: sure, it could have been Margaret, because it could have been anything and you'd have the same darn "chain of transmission." But the names that do exist in the record provide no evidence that it WAS Margaret.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM

Nerd: ...If "Maggie D." were in the record, one could posit some kind of transmission chain beginning with Margaret Dabney and ending with Polly Ann with a shade more validity. Since it's not in the record....

John: "Maggadee" is in the record. Is this not essentially equivalent, aurally, to "Maggie D"?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 02:37 PM

John, you are indeed beating a dead horse and your logic gets more and more obscure.

Yes, "Maggadee" is aurally similar to "Maggie D" Your theory hinges on the proposition that it is a folk-procesed version of Maggie D.   (If it is not, then it is just a made-up name and does not support the contention that "Maggie D." is the original name.) So we'll go with the assumption that it is, which means that there must have been a song that said "Maggie D." for someone to have misheard.

Now, your own "laws" state that the simpler will trump the more complicated and the familiar will trump the strange. Seems to me "Maggie D." is simpler and more familiar than "Maggadee," so it's strange to begin with that "Maggadee" would come into existence at all. But that it should survive while "Maggie D." doesn't? This goes against the same logical "laws" that you use to derive "Polly Ann" from "Margaret Dabney."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 03:32 PM

Nerd: Seems to me "Maggie D." is simpler and more familiar than "Maggadee," so it's strange to begin with that "Maggadee" would come into existence at all.

John: I think that someone who didn't *know* that "Maggie D" was what was being sung could, and probably would, hear it as "Maggadee" and not guess that it was "Maggie D." *Neither* of these is familiar. In Neal Pattman's case, we don't know whether or not his father was as baffled about the name as Neal, who, according to his own statement, simply sings it as he heard his father do it.

What is the probability that "Maggadee" would somehow arise spontaneously?

What is a plausible source other than "Maggie D"?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 05:08 PM

About a subject such as "John Henry," every available fact has a testimonial source, a version of the ballad, a passed-around story, other hearsay, or someone's years-after-the-fact recollection. In practice, what this means is that every available fact is likely to be wrong. Nothing is inherently reliable.

How can one find the truth? "garbage in -> garbage out" Right?

Maybe, but "likely to be wrong" doesn't mean that it's all wrong. The problem them boils down to deciding which testimony is most likely to be true.

I've used the following criteria (and perhaps others that I can't recall off the top of my head).

(1) Inherent credibility.

Before checking up on any of his facts, the testimony of C. C. Spencer struck me as "dripping with authenticity" (Legman's phrase - he applied it to something else). It is an eyewitness account, it is very detailed, and Spencer was forthcoming with a second statement when Johnson asked for more. Spencer appears to have been doing his best to cooperate and help Johnson, giving many details.

The only other eye-witness account, that of Neal Miller at Big Bend, struck me in just the opposite way. It is sketchy and evasive. Further, his two testimonies differ in some details.

On these grounds alone, I give Spencer's testimony much more credence.

(2) Consistency with other personal testimony.

Spencer's testimony is supported, with no significant contradictions, by letters from F. P. Barker, Glendora Cannon Cummings, and C. S. Farquason. Barker was a steel driver who knew John Henry. Cumming's uncle "was working by John Henry and saw him when he beat the steam drill and fell dead." Farquason was an official of the Public Works Department of Jamaica. The testimonies of all three support Spencer's in various ways.

Spencer's contention that John Henry and his boss were both from Mississippi agrees with the 1955 testimony of Mrs. C. T. Davis, Leeds, Alabama.

Neal Miller's testimony is somewhat supported by some and contradicted by some. The whole of testimony from Big Bend, from many informants, about a dozen of whom were at Big Bend during its construction, is incoherent.

(3) Consistency with documentation.

Spencer and others gave facts that could be checked out. Spencer made some errors, but he got a lot right. One thing he got right was the name of one of John Henry's bosses, "Dabner." Cummings said, "Dabney," and Farquason said, "Dabner." Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the C & W, in charge of design and construction, 1887-88. Spencer got a lot more right, including that Captain Dabney was from Mississippi.

(4) Consistency with tradition.

I've scoured versions of "John Henry," looking for things that would favor Alabama over West Virginia. I've turned up about a dozen, nine of which are mentioned in my article. Individually, these don't carry much weight. Collectively, I think they are significant. Thus, the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday," is consistent with Spencer's date, "the 20th of September," when Spencer's year (1882) is corrected to the actual year of building the C & W, 1887. The phrase that puts John Henry "between them mountains" applies much better to Oak and Coosa Mountains, Alabama, than to the Big Bend area.

(5) Accomodation to documentation.

Here's where the controversial "Maggadee" argument comes in. There is a documented Copiah County, Mississippi, Henry Dabney/Dabner, who married Margaret in 1869. He is a candidate for John Henry. Margaret's name can be accomodated to the commonly occurring "Polly Ann" through a series of plausible mutations. Nerd doesn't this this necessary and doesn't see that it adds anything. I almost agree - I think it adds a smidgen.

In any event, I think that the Alabama scenario is by far the most consistent with all the information available at this time.

Die-hard Big Benders, and there are many, do not agree. I await their construction of a scenario with as many sound connections to documentation as the Alabama scenario has.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 15 Dec 04 - 02:42 AM

Good summary, John. You and I disagree only about the smidgen!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 15 Dec 04 - 03:38 PM

What should be made of the following?

Chappell includes the following in his book (p 37ff).

"...William Lawson...reports his age as eighty-five and the place of his birth as Laudin County, Virginia...During the Civil War he was on both sides...but regards himself first of all as a farmer:"

Chappell doesn't date Lawson's statment, but 1926 is a reasonable guess, so if he reported his age correctly, he would have been born about 1841. He would have been about 30 in 1871 (Big Bend Tunnel construction) and about 46 in 1887 (Oak and Coosa Tunnel construction). These are both plausible ages for a laborer on a railroad construction project.

Lawson says that he went to Big Bend "in the spring" of "the year they put the hole through" to drive steel with his brother Armstead at the east end of the tunnel. He describes how Armstead was killed in a gunfight arising from a dispute over who had made the first opening when the two sides, one tunnelling from the west and the other from the east, met. "He fell on his face. Then C. R. Mason come. They buried him on the mountainside in a government graveyard."

Lawson:
    "The hole had been put through there three or four months when John Henry was killed. He was the best steel-driver I ever saw. He was short and brown-skinned, and had a wife that was a bright colored woman. He was 35 or 36, and weighed 150 pounds.
    "When I went there they had a steam drill in the tunnel at the east end. They piped the steam in. They had a little coffee-pot engine on the outside. They didn't use it in the heading, but on the bench and on the sides.
    "John Henry drove steel with the steam drill one day, and beat it down, but got too hot and died. He fell out right at the mouth of the tunnel. They put a bucket of water on him.
    "His wife come to the tunnel that day, and they said she carried his body away, I don't know. I never saw anybody buried at the tunnel except my brother...
    "The time John Henry killed his self was his own fault, 'cause he bet the man with the steam drill he could beat him down. John Henry never let no man beat him down, but the steam drill won't no good nohow.
    "John Henry was always singing or mumbling something when he was whipping steel. He would sing over and over the same thing sometimes. He'd sing
       'My old hammer ringing in the mountains,
         Nothing but my hammer falling down.'
A colored boy 'round there added on and made up the John Henry song after he got killed, and all the muckers sang it.
    "C. R. Mason was the boss man at the tunnel. He was a good-hearted old man, but he was a tough man. He'd spit on you all the time he was talking to you...."

Chappell doesn't hold Lawson's testimony in high regard. C. R. Mason did not built Big Bend Tunnel. He built Lewis Tunnel, 50-60 miles to the east of Big Bend, in Virginia, with Virginia convict labor. Steam drills were used at Lewis but there is no evidence of their use at Big Bend. There is no "government graveyard" at Big Bend. Perhaps Mason had some kind of graveyard at Lewis. Chappell thinks that the opening of which Lawson speaks occurred in February, 1872, not the time when Lawson said he was there. Besides, Chappell reasons, a poor dirt farmer like Lawson could not have afforded to have been away from his crops from spring to fall, as he claimed.

At age 85, Lawson is recalling, in considerable detail, events from about 55 years earlier, if Big Bend or Lewis is the tunnel involved. Was it common in 1926 for an 85-year-old black laborer to have sure recall. I suspect not, as the discrepancies in Lawson's testimony show.

Even so, there is an element of his story that disturbs me.

Compare C. C. Spencer's testimony: "When the poor man with the hammer fell in the arms of his helper in a dead faint, they threw water on him and revived him, and his first words were: 'send for my wife, I am blind and dying.' They made way for his wife, who took his head in her lap and the last words he said were, 'Have I beat that old steam drill?'" Although Spencer doesn't comment on it, it is held in the tradition around Leeds, Alabama, that the contest took place just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel.

Lawson and Spencer have in common:
(a) the contest was outside the east end of a tunnel,
(b) John Henry fell,
(c) they threw water on him, and
(d) his wife came.

Like Spencer's, Lawson's account is quite detailed. Unlike Spencer's, Lawson's important details are wrong or suspect. Unlike Spencer, Lawson does not explicitly claim to have seen any of the John Henry events that he describes.

Even so, I remain unsettled about the correspondences between their stories of the contest. Some "John Henry" ballads have his woman coming to him after he fell, but I'm not aware of any (off the top of my head) than mention throwing water on him to revive him, nor do any mention the contest being held outside the east portal of a tunnel (again, off the top of my head).

Could the events Lawson describes have occurred in Alabama, the story come to West Virginia, and Lawson incorporated them into his "memories"? Could the reverse have occurred, with Spencer retelling a story from West Virginia? Could Lawson have worked on the C & W construction in Alabama and got his memories mixed up?

I think I've disregarded Lawson's testimony because Chappell thought so poorly of it. Still, the overlap between his account and Spencer's disturbs me.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 12:12 PM

I'm not sure there is much to made of the east end thing; after all, if the two tunnels had an east end and a west end each, then if the two narrators guessed which end it occurred at they had a 50% chance of guessing the same end. Secondly, the east end is NOT mentioned by Spencer, but is only free-floating in Alabama tradition. Note the sentence:

"Although Spencer doesn't comment on it, it is held in the tradition around Leeds, Alabama, that the contest took place just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel."

So when you say

"Lawson and Spencer have in common:
(a) the contest was outside the east end of a tunnel,"

you are putting words in Spencer's mouth.

It's impossible to tell by this account if people say "it happened at the east end/portal" (which would involve the words "east end/portal" and could thus result in those words entering the oral tradition of John Henry tales to emerge in the Big Bend versions) or if they just point out the spot and say "Yup, it happened right there."   

"John Henry fell."

I think it is only common sense that if a person dies from overwork while driving steel, he will fall down first rather than remain on his feet. It is hardly startling for this detail to show up in two versions of a traditional story.

Throwing water on John Henry could be a traditional motif of the legend that did not make it into the song tradition, but it is also possible that in real life, when a railroad worker collapsed of heat exhaustion (as must have happened sometimes), his co-workers threw water on him to revive him. If this is the case, then a railroad worker extemporizing the story would naturally tend to insert that detail. In other words, it could be a traditional motif or a commonsense detail of the occupational culture of railroad workers. In neither case does it make it much more likely that one of the stories is accurate.

It is still possible, of course, that one story IS more or less accurate (the Alabama one) and that the details traveled in oral tradition to the area around Big Bend. I think this would be a firmer proposition if we could show that the words "east end/portal" were used in an Alabama version. But it is certainly a possibility either way.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:07 PM

"Gi' me a cool drink of water 'fo' I die." Don't remember which version that's in, one of 'em at least.

My skeptical scenario: Lawson's story is partly based on the song. Many trad singers eagerly assure us "That's a true song." Whatever his genuine memories may have been, Lawson could well have relied on the song for details, implicitly assuming that "it's a true song."

In 1975 I met a retired East Kentucky coal miner who sang a version of "John Henry." ("That's a true song, buddy. A true song.") He assured me that his "best buddy" had known John Henry personally. John Henry was "a big colored boy" who "saved my buddy's life manys the time. He knew John Henry. Yes, knew him well. One time that shaft was about to cave in, and John Henry heard it afore anybody else. He said, 'We got to git outta here, this shaft is cavin' in,' and he saved my buddy's life. Saved his life; yes, he did. And manys the time."

Setting the coal-mining aside, this would place John Henry in his prime around or just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania."

And that doesn't compute. Was Archie's memory fooling him? Or did his best buddy fool him? Or did a self-proclaimed "John Henry" fool 'em both? We'll never know.

My imprssion is that the average poorly educated person few generations back was often unconcerned with the literal truth of whatever seemed ultimately inconsequential. If it sounded possible, and it made a good story, and would really make no difference in one's life anyway, then it might just have happened that way. Hence, say, the Iliad, and medieval tales of Arthur.   

Anyway, I'm off now to the library for John's article. I'll dig up Archie's text and post it if it's new or interesting.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM

Lighter: ...just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania"....

This is a Blankenship broadside that I don't know about, unless you meant "The Great Titanic." I know of three:

John Henry, the Steel Driving Man
The Great Titanic
Our President

Only the last of these has an address (Huntsville, Alabama) at the bottom.

I'd love to hear about more Blankenship broadsides.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:24 PM

Lighter: ...just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania"....

John: This is a Blankenship broadside that I don't know about....

Sorry. I now realize that this is a reference to "Our President."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Dec 04 - 01:42 PM

Lighter: ... In 1975 I met a retired East Kentucky coal miner who sang a version of "John Henry" ... I'll dig up Archie's text and post it if it's new or interesting.

I hope it is. I'm always on the lookout.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 17 Dec 04 - 02:33 PM

My last post reminded me of something, John. How much is known about oral versions of the legend which were NOT sung as songs? In other words, we're all naturally interested in any account that purports to be firsthand or secondhand. But what about people who just said "Oh, yeah, I know about John Henry..." and proceeded to tell a story without any claim to have known him personally? Those versions could fill in the gaps between Lawson and Spencer, for example, by showing whether the "east end of the tunnel" was a traditional oral motif. Unfortunately, I don't know the collections well enough to know where these are, but you might know where to look.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 18 Dec 04 - 10:47 AM

Both Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell elicited testimony about John Henry. Johnson advertised for information in all of the nation's biggest newspapers for African Americans, and I think that's where most of his responses came from. Chappell doesn't address his methods, but somehow he covered pretty good territory, since his book contains versions of "John Henry" from Kentucky, the U. S. S. Pittsburgh, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Both visited the vicinity of Great Bend Tunnel and interviewed a considerable number of people, including about a dozen men who had worked on the construction of that tunnel. These reports and interviews are contained in Johnson's and Chappell's books, 1929 and 1933, and many of them are repeated in Brett Williams' excellent "John Henry: A Biobibiography" (Greenwood Press, 1983), which contains chapters entitled "The Trail of John Henry," "John Henry's Career in Song," "Analyzing the John Henry Tradition," and "Tributes to John Henry in Literature and Art," among others. These three books are surely the best sources. They include many reports from people who were not first- or second-hand informants, and, as far as I can tell, most of what they have to say isn't very useful.

In addition, there are tales of John Henry among Central of Georgia employees and citizens of the Leeds, Alabama, area. Some of these are given in Central of Georgia Magazine (aka The Right Way), 1930, and in a news account published in the Atlanta paper in 1955. The latter contains a report from a woman whose daddy (as I recall) gave her the "real story" on John Henry, that he didn't die in the contest but instead was killed by his boss after they got back to Mississippi. The "back to Mississippi" part of this supports the Mississippi-Alabama scenario - I'm inclined to disregard the "killed by his boss" part, although some of the songs suggest tension between them.

Relatively few straight-out oral legends about John Henry seem to have been collected, and those I've seen tend to be tall tales.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 18 Dec 04 - 10:53 AM

Whether or not you value the posited mutation series that leads from "Maggadee" to "Polly Ann," the facts remain that "Maggadee" is what Neal Pattman sings and he claims that his father sang it that way. It may be that theirs is a line of transmission that goes back to an early time in the history of "John Henry" and that has not been influenced by other versions.

Be that as it may, "Maggadee" is so unusual that it requires explanation. Mine is that it was really "Maggie D." I'd love to hear others.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 18 Jan 05 - 01:57 PM

For a photograph of double-jack steel driving at a contest, 1907, see

http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/photos/rockdrilling.jpg

Other pictures of double-jack steel driving:

http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/shoshoni.jpg
http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/shoshoni08.jpg



For a photograph of triple-jack steel driving, ca 1928, see

http://www.canadianfishing.com/crichton/vc/136-137.jpg

Notice the precarious situation of the shaker.


For a photograph of mechanical drilling, ca 1902, see

http://www3.telus.net/chemelec/Hedley/31.jpg

Other photographs of mechanical drilling:

http://au.geocities.com/bhsilvercity/images/oldMining01.jpg
http://www.alumnifriends.mines.edu/photo_gallery/1959/38.jpg
http://www.alumnifriends.mines.edu/photo_gallery/1955/37.jpg
http://www1.superpit.com.au/images/static/gold_history/Old-Rock-Drill.jpg
http://members.iinet.net.au/~dodd/gail/miners/images/mine4.jpg
(Note "steels" resting against tunnel wall.)

At

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000280A0

begins a series of six large, high-quality mining photographs from ca 1893. Some of these show hand or mechanical drilling or both.

Another series of six begins at

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000240A0

This set includes a wonderful photograph of a triple-jack team drilling straight up!

Another great series of four begins at

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000260A0

In one of these you see the muckers at work along with two triple-jack drilling teams. Another shows muckers and a man breaking rocks with a sledge hammer. In American railroad tunnel building, steel drivers got paid much more than muckers.

The "collectbritain" site may have more drilling photographs. I find it very difficult to navigate. However, I think that if you go to

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/search/

and put "mine" in the box at the upper right, then search, you will get links to most of them.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 05 - 07:01 PM

"they buried him in the sand"
             –many versions of "John Henry"

buried him in a "cemetery" or "burying ground"
             –several versions

took John Henry up the mountain
             –one or two versions

took him on that "long white road"
             –one version

buried him between two mountains
             –two versions

Sand Ridge Cemetery, Shelby County, Alabama, is in "Back Holler," east of Dunnavant. Sand Ridge lies between Oak and Coosa Mountains, parallel southwest-to-northeast running ridges. It is a distinct ridge itself, sandy on top, that serves as the northeast boundary of, a kind of "plug" for, Dunnavant Valley.

A group of distinguished folks interested in Shelby County history met my wife and I in Leeds and set out to find John Henry's grave there on Friday afternoon, 21Jan2005.

In the beginning, Sand Ridge Road is paved, but after a while the pavement stops and the road is both sandy and white.

From Sand Ridge Cemetery, there is a clear view across a valley to the old C & W RR line outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel. "Every locomotive came rolling by / Says 'There lies a steel driving man.'"

I had expected (!) to find a nice marble tombstone reading "John Henry Dabney ... Here lies a steel driving man." I thought that Captain Dabney might have provided that for his old friend who died so far from home. Sadly, I was disappointed.

We did find what appears to be an unmarked grave *outside* the fence bounding the cemetery. One reason for a grave adjacent to, but outside of, a white cemetery is that it belongs to an African American. Sand Ridge Cemetery is populated mostly with the Isbell and Howard families, both white. The outside grave could be John Henry's.

Lt. Col. Glenn Nivens (ret. Army) says that he's heard or seen a version of "John Henry" that states that John Henry was buried "with his hammer in his hand." Since he is supposed to have been a famous steel driver in the community, that is certainly a logical possibility. Perhaps it is customary for skilled people to be buried with a tool.

There was some talk about bringing ground-penetrating radar equipment to the site to see what the contents of the outside grave look like. That lies in the future.

Sand Ridge Cemetery remains a viable possibility for the site of John Henry's grave.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 24 Jan 05 - 08:09 PM

This grave is another very interesting find, John. I assume no other segregated graves were close to the white cemetery.

Anybody seriously interested in this topic needs to read John Garst's article in the journal "Tributaries" (2002).

I still see the "Mary Magdalen" hypothesis (discussed in great detail above) as a dead end, but after studying the complete article as well as Norm Cohen's "J.H." chapter in "Long Steel Rail" (1981), I'm happy to say that John's research makes a persuasive case that the Oak Mountain Tunnel on the C & W road (easily transmuted into "C & 0") has the best claim to have been the site of such a battle.

Again, there's still no proof that "John Henry" is closely based on an actual incident, but the circumstantial evidence that John has gathered surrounding the tunnel in Alabama is fascinating and shows that spot to be overdue for further investigation.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 25 Jan 05 - 03:51 AM

My cousin, John Henry, died last fall. He had been a D.J. in the Tulsa area for many years. On Sunday nights, he had his "John Henry's Smokehouse Blues" program for years. The song "John Henry" was often a topic of questions by his listeners, and cousin Johnny was always seeking info. He also looked for the grave and talked to locals of various places who claimed they knew him, & where it was. As the trains crossed the country, the song of John Henry evidently grew longer and more varied. We'll likely never know.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 05 - 04:28 PM

I assume no other segregated graves were close to the white cemetery. - Lighter

We found only one. I don't suppose that I would have spotted it, but Ted Urquhart, a cemetery expert, did. To his practiced eye, it has the right kind of appearance, a shallow sunken trough about 15 inches wide and 3-4 feet in length. It is oriented in the same direction as the graves within the fence. We found no marker at all for the "outside" grave, while many (perhaps all) of the unidentified graves inside the fence are marked by blank stones.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM

Believe it or not! - Getting ground penetrating radar to the site is a real possibility, through the contacts of some of the folks over there in Alabama. Here's hoping!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Jan 05 - 03:57 PM

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
My cousin, John Henry, died last fall. He had been a D.J. in the Tulsa area for many years. On Sunday nights, he had his "John Henry's Smokehouse Blues" program for years. The song "John Henry" was often a topic of questions by his listeners, and cousin Johnny was always seeking info. He also looked for the grave and talked to locals of various places who claimed they knew him, & where it was. - Kaleea

Do you know where he looked for John Henry's grave?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM

Last weekend I was given a copy of part of an article, "Mountains of Dunnavant isolate,...," from the Shelby County Reporter, Thursday, October 21, 1982. The first sentence is, "Dunnavant is defined by the mountains." Two of the mountains in question are the parallel, southwest-to-northeast running ridges, Oak and Coosa Mountains, through which the Columbus & Western RR put tunnels in 1887-88.

These are the mountains that may be referred to in versions of "John Henry" that place him "'tween them mountains" or say "Let two mountains be his grave stones."

"The 800-foot ridges of Sand Mountain partially cork the valley some five miles northeast of the hub near the St. Clair line...Mountains here, mountains there. In Dunnavant, mountains are nearly everywhere." Actually, they are not *in* Dunnavant, they define it by marking the boundaries of Dunnavant Valley.

"A large drill bit, embedded for years in the rock floor of Oak Tunnel, breeds the local legend that this is where the famous John Henry met his death while racing a spiking machine. True or not, [82-year old Earl] Bowdoin swears that as a kid he saw the jutting end of the bit before it finally disappeared." A photograph of this drill, sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel, appeared in the Central of Georgia Magazine in 1930.

According to L. W. "Lonnie" Adams, at 96 believed to be the oldest man in Dunnavant in 1982, "My father used to cut timber for the steam drills they used on those tunnels."

This is the first indication I've found that steam drills were used in the construction of Oak or Coosa Tunnel.

News accounts from July, 1887, speak of a layer of very hard rock being struck when the crew was about halfway through Coosa Tunnel, slowing the work. John Henry's race with a steam drill is supposed to have been on Tuesday, September 20, 1887. It is supposed to have been arranged as a bet between a representative of a company selling steam drills and Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Chief Engineer and detailed construction supervisor for the C & W.   When the "contractor" (presumably Captain Dabney) told the steam drill salesman "that he had a Negro who could be his damned old drill any day" (quote from C. C. Spencer), "the company owning the drill offered to put it in for nothing if this man could drill more rock with the hammer than he could with his drill. And, so the contractor (Shea & Dabney) accepted the proposition."

The timing certainly fits - hard rock struck in June or July, steam drill being demonstrated in September - perhaps Captain Dabney was exploring the use of steam drills to try to keep the project from falling too far behind. Steam drills or not, Coosa Tunnel was scheduled to have been completed by about the end of 1887 but in fact it was not completed until June, 1888. Oak Tunnel had been completed earlier, but I don't know just when.

Anyhow, it is plausible that steam drills were introduced, or more added, to the project after the hard rock was struck in the middle of Coosa Tunnel.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Jan 05 - 09:11 PM

Things are becoming still more interesting. John, is there a single collected version of "John Henry" that seems to combine several of your elements, or two or three texts in a cluster from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee or Mississippi that combine to give the picture you develop?

If "between the mountains," "Cap'n Tommy," "buried him in the sand," "took him to the white house" showed up in some kind of cluster, the case would move from "conceivable" to "very likely." You see what I'm saying.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst
Date: 30 Jan 05 - 11:08 AM

Things are becoming even more interesting. John, is there a single collected version of "John Henry" that seems to combine several of your elements, or two or three texts from Alabama, Georgia, or Mississippi that combine to give the picture you develop?

If "between the mountains," "Cap'n Tommy," "buried him in the sand," "took him to the white house" showed up in a cluster, the case would move from "conceivable" to "very likely." You see what I'm saying.

- JL

The version collected by J. J. Niles contains both the "man in Chattanooga" and the "two mountains be his grave stones" lines.

Rich Amerson has "'tween them mountains."

The Blankenship broadside has John Henry's woman catching that "No. 4 train" to go "where John Henry fell dead." In 1900 IC No. 4 ran north from Crystal Springs, MS, the right start for a trip to northern Alabama. Crystal Springs was the home of Captain Dabney and, apparently, John Henry Dabney. Both C. C. Spencer and and Alabama woman interviewed in 1955 say that both Captain Dabney and John Henry were from Mississippi. The Blankenship broadside also has John Henry being buried in "that new burying ground." We don't yet know exactly when Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama, was established.

Leon R. Harris has "John Henry's cap'n Tommy / V'ginny gave him birth" - Captain Dabney was born in Virginia. Harris also describes Captain Tommy's bet on John Henry against a steam drill in terms similar to those of C. C. Spencer. "Dinnah's done when Lucy pulls th' c'od" fits with Spencer's testimony that John Henry's wife cooked. "Sun shined hot an' burnin' / Wer'n't no breeze at-tall / Sweat ran down like watah down a hill / That day John Henry let his hammah fall" could easily be a mid-September day in Alabama (Sep 20, according to Spencer).

Onah L. Spencer includes "Some say he's from Alabam" (on the way to claiming John Henry for "East Virginia" and Big Bend Tunnel). Also, "women in the West...flagged that east bound train" to go "where John Henry dropped dead" - Mississippi, the Dabneys' home, is west of Alabama. "They took John Henry to the White House / And buried him in the san' / And every locomotive come roarin' by / Says there lays that steel driving man" - this verse combines "white," "san'," and the idea that John Henry's burial site could be seen from the RR.

Gid Tanner/Riley Puckett: "Took John Henry to the white house / Rolled him in the sand"

Melvin T. Harrison: "Well, they took John Henry to the new burying ground / And they covered him up in the sand"

Miss Muriel Belton/her mother: "women in the West...caught the east-bound train" to go "where John Henry fell dead."

Uncle Dave Macon: "People out West...caught that East-bound train" to go "where John Henry's dead."

William G. Parmenter: "I can make mo' money on the A. C. and L. / Than I can on the Georgia Line" - Another version, collected by Peter Brannon in Alabama, says that John Henry was on the "Central of Georgia Rail Road." Of course, these stand in contrast to the multitude of versions with "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road." The relationship of "C & W" to "C & O" raises a suspicion that the former could have been the original.

Welby Toomey: "They took John Henry to the white house / And laid him in the sand"

Chicago, IL: "John Henry hammered in the mountains / Way in the north end of town" - This makes sense for Alabama if the "town" was Dunnavant. For West Virginia and Big Bend Tunnel, I don't think there is a town for which this makes much sense. Talcott and Hinton are east and west, respectively, of the tunnel.

Harvey Hicks: "John Henry died on a Tuesday" - C. C. Spencer said September 20, which was a Tuesday in 1887. "...east bound train" again. "They took John Henry to the white house / They put his remains in the sand"

J. L. McKnight: "John Henry's captain stepped on a rock / A piece of slate was falling down" - There is slate in the Dunnavant vicinity, I don't know about Big Bend. "Took young Henry to the white house / Rolled him in sand"

Sallie Flannery" "The girls in the west / When they heard of John Henry's death / They could not stay at home / 'I am going where John Henry used to roam.'"

W. S. Barnett: "They took poor Johnny to the steep hillside" - Sand Ridge Cemetery is atop a steep hillside.

Andy Anderson: "They took John Henry to the white house / And put him in the sand"

J. W. Washington: "John Henry was born in Mobile, Alabama" - I don't believe this, but here, at least, is an Alabama connection. "I can make more money on the L. and N. / Than I can on the C & O" - if "C & O" were really "C & W," this would make perfect sense, since the L & N was active in Alabama in 1887. I'm not sure whether or not the L & N had a presence near Big Bend at the time (1871) the C & O was under construction. "They carried John Henry down the smoky road / And put him on that long white road / When they brought that poor boy back to town / He was lying on his cooling board" - "smoky" from gray slate?
- "white" from sand or limestone?

C. J. Wallace: "They took John Henry to the white house / They rode him in a van" !

Tennessee Spears: "Monday morning on the east bound train / O Lord, John Henry's dead"

B. A. Hoover: "They took John Henry to the white house / And laid him in the stand" !

V. E. Gregory: "that Big Band Tunnel on the C & O Road" This
suggests another little exercise in word mutation. In Dunnavant, Oak Mountain Tunnel is the "short" tunnel, Coosa Mountain Tunnel is the "long" tunnel; Oak Mountain is the "little" mountain, Coosa Mountain is the "big" mountain. Oak Mountain gave no problem, evidently, in boring, but the completion of Coosa Tunnel was delayed by about 6 months by a layer of very hard rock, slowing drilling. Thus, Coosa Tunnel could have been "that big, bad tunnel." "big bad tunnel" -> "big band tunnel" -> "Big Bend Tunnel" This combines with "C & W" -> "C & O" !

Earl Miller: "people out west" caught that "east bound train" to go "where John Henry's dead"

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but it collects about everything I know of in ballad texts that might be interpreting to favor Alabama. Some of the discrimination is pretty weak, but there is a good bit of it. This is to be added to written testimony of C. C. Spencer (which is supported in many particulars by documentation), F. P. Barker, and Glendora Cannon Cummings, which is partially supported by Jamaican testimony about "Dabney." In addition, to this day people around Dunnavant, Alabama, will tell you that they've always heard that John Henry died there.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst
Date: 30 Jan 05 - 11:27 AM

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but it collects about everything I know of in ballad texts that might be interpreted to favor Alabama. - JG

I hasten to add that many versions of "John Henry" place him at "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road."   The other textual item I know of that might favor West Virginia is "white house," which Scott Nelson believes refers to a building at the Richmond penitentiary. At least one other interpretation of "white house" invokes a West Virginia building. I suspect that it originates from "white road."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Feb 05 - 04:16 PM

At

http://www.skippopscratch.com/sps3220/johnhenrylyrics

is the statement, "These lyrics for John Henry are taken from various versions of the songs. My intent is to tell the story, not to present a certain song."

Included among the selected verses are these.

John Henry told his Captain,
Bury me under the sills of the floor,
So when they get to playing good old Georgy skin,
Bet 'em fifty to a dollar more,
Fifty to a dollar more.

John Henry drove steel on the Southern
He drove steel on the C&O.
He drove steel for that Big Ben Tunnel
Steel drivin' kill John you know,
Steel drivin' kill John you know,
Well, now steel drivin' kill John you know, Lord, Lord,
Steel drivin' kill John you know.

They carried John Henry on the mountain,
Upon a mountain so high,
Last words I heard that poor boy say:
"Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die,
Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die,
Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die."

I've seen the "Georgy skin" line before, perhaps commented on it here, but this site doesn't give a provenance. Anyhow, Georgia skin might have been more likely known in Alabama than in West Virginia.

The reference to the "Southern" could favor Alabama over West Virginia, although at some point by 1917 a spur of the Southern Railway System did run into Huntington, WV.

Carrying John Henry "on the mountain" might have been to get him away from the contest site at Dunnavant or it might have been to bury him on Sand Ridge. I'm not sure if they would have had to carry him "on the mountain" at Big Bend . I'd think they might be carrying him "down the mountain" there (to get to a road by the river).

I can imagine an earlier set of lines:

John Henry drove steel on the Southern
He drove steel on the C&W.
He drove steel for that big, bad tunnel

Ain't imagination wonderful!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Feb 05 - 04:11 PM

Today I found a hitherto unrecognized couplet from "John Henry" in Newman I. White, American Negro Folk Songs (Harvard, 1928). Incidentally, I own Guy Benton Johnson's personal copy of this book, in which he put marginal notes next to all the John Henry fragments he recognized. There is no note next to this one, whose connection to "John Henry" becomes apparent only after the publication of Louis W. Chappell, John Henry, in 1933.

On pp 116-117 of Chappell appears the "John Henry" version obtained from J. W. Washington, Ft. Meyers, Florida. I've quoted it here several times before. It mentions Mobile, Alabama, (as John Henry's birthplace) and the L & N (as an alternative employer to the C & O) as well as "the Big Ben tunnel at Brinton, New Jersey"! The following verse is one I frequently cite in an effort to link "white road" with "white house," sand or limestone, and Dunnavant, Alabama.

"They carried John Henry down the smoky road
And put him on that long white road,
When they brought that poor boy back to town
He was lying on his cooling board."

White has chapters, "Work Songs - Gang Laborers," "Rural Labor," and "General and Miscellaneous Labor" containing many short fragments.

In "Gang Laborers" are included

"Captain, Captain, nothing but a man,
But 'fo' I let dat steam-drill beat me down,
I'd die wif er hammer in my hand."

and

"Poor John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Old John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Drove that steel - hic
Steel would n't stand - hic."

and versions of "This Old Hammer,"

all of which Johnson recognizes as "John Henry" related. He does not recognize the following.

"Well they took him up on the smoky road,
But dey brought him back on de coolin' board."

This was "Reported from Auburn, Ala., 1915-1916, MS. of B. Y. Pennington, as heard in Andalusia, Ala. 'Sung by Negro ditch diggers.'"

Taking "him" on the "smoky road" and putting him on a "coolin' board" connect with Washington's "John Henry." That this was recovered in Alabama is consistent with the idea that these lines are fragments of an early Alabama version of "John Henry." True, I'd take them no matter where they were found, and true, John Henry isn't mentioned in the Pennington text, but the connection is there nonetheless.

Another verse that might connect with "John Henry" is this:

"I remember last summer,
'T was de month of June,
My partner fell sprawling
An' dey laid 'im in de tomb.
Ain't dat 'nough, boys,
To grieve my mind?"

Like all those other "killed my partner" hammer songs, this is not necessarily about John Henry, but it could be. It comes from Auburn, Alabama, and was heard in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1906.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Aug 05 - 10:48 AM

Atlanta Constitution, 02Sep1913 (paraphrased):

Bill Hendricks, a granite cutter, was tried and found guilty on two counts of disorderly conduct. His neighbor, Mrs. John Meggs, charged that on both Saturday and Sunday nights he had come home drunk and "had shouted and sung bad songs." Bill's defense was that the only song he had sung was "John Henry," and that no one had ever before taken offense to it - he had sung it since childhood. Bill was allowed to recite the words for the court:

When John Henry was er little bit o' boy,
He sat on his father's knee,
An' he picked up a bit o' steel and says,
"Dad, make er steel drivin' man out o' me."

Both Bill and his sister swore that that was all there was to the song. If you wanted to make it longer, you sang that verse over and over. At his conviction, Bill "put the court on notice tht it was a piece of malice on the part of the neighbors and not their objection to 'John Henry' that caused his arrest."

Clifford Ocheltree has tracked down Bill's age for me in census records. He was born in March, 1973, making him 40 years old in September, 1913.

If Bill had been much older than 41 or so in 1913, then his childhood would have ended before 1887, when John Henry is supposed to have raced the steam drill at Dunnavant, Alabama. This would have been evidence against the 1887 event. As it turns out, however, Bill was 14 years old in 1887. One of Chappell's informants stated that when he moved to Georgia in 1888, everybody was singing it. In 1888 Bill was 15. It certainly seems plausible to me that Bill could refer to age 14-15 as part of his "childhood," so the facts turn out to be consistent with an 1887 event and genesis of the ballad.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 04 Aug 05 - 01:02 AM

I asked my cousin's wife if she remembered when Johhny went looking for the grave of the feller in the song. It was a few decades ago, but she remembers that he spent a while in Alabama. She's gonna try to dig out his research. My cousin Johnny's lyrics "rhymed":
steel drivin' man   &
       born in Alabam'
             Kaleea


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Aug 05 - 10:58 AM

I asked my cousin's wife if she remembered when Johhny went looking for the grave of the feller in the song. It was a few decades ago, but she remembers that he spent a while in Alabama. She's gonna try to dig out his research. My cousin Johnny's lyrics "rhymed":
steel drivin' man   &
       born in Alabam'
             Kaleea

Wow! Kaleea, please try to dig up everything. It sounds to me as if your cousin and I might have gone down the same path.

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 06 Aug 05 - 03:22 PM

I wrote:

>Atlanta Constitution, 02Sep1913 (paraphrased):

>Bill Hendricks, a granite cutter, was tried and found guilty on
>two counts of disorderly conduct. His neighbor, Mrs. John
>Meggs, charged that on both Saturday and Sunday nights he
>had come home drunk and "had shouted and sung bad
>songs." Bill's defense was that the only song he had sung was
>"John Henry," and that no one had ever before taken offense to
>it - he had sung it since childhood...

>Clifford Ocheltree has tracked down Bill's age for me in census
>records. He was born in March, 1973, making him 40 years old
>in September, 1913.

>If Bill had been much older than 41 or so in 1913, then his
>supposed to have raced the steam drill at Dunnavant, Alabama.
>This would have been evidence against the 1887 event. As it
>turns out, however, Bill was 14 years old in 1887. One of
>Chappell's informants stated that when he moved to Georgia in
>1888, everybody was singing it. In 1888 Bill was 15. It certainly
>seems plausible to me that Bill could refer to age 14-15 as part
>of his "childhood," so the facts turn out to be consistent with an
>1887 event and genesis of the ballad.

It is interesting to ponder the evidentiary value of this finding. It would be easy to dismiss it as having none, since it does not discriminate between 1871 and 1887 origins of "John Henry."

On the other hand, if you look at it from an informational point of view, perhaps it is significant.

When I first found the article, I didn't know Bill's age. Therefore his age had a chance of being, say, 50, in which case the information in the article could not have been consistent with an 1887 genesis of "John Henry."

When Bill's age was found to be 40, the possibility of finding an inconsistency was eliminated. This can be construed as evidence in favor of an 1887 genesis, since there was a possibility of a finding that would be inconsistent with it.

When similar reasoning is applied to an 1871 genesis, if Bill were older than about 57 in 1913 he could not have sung "John Henry" as a child. Again, being 40 is perfectly consistent with an 1871 genesis.

However, there are more ways to be 57 or younger than there are to be 41 or younger. Being 41 or younger is therefore a more restrictive test than being 57 or younger. Consequently Bill's actual age of 40 is a stronger evidence of an 1887 genesis than an 1871 genesis.

A finding of any age from 42 to 57 would have been inconsistent with an 1887 genesis but consistent with an 1871 genesis. The fact than an age in this range was not found favors 1887 over 1871.

From these perspectives, the evidentiary value of a single finding of this type is very small but not zero. The cumulative value of a large number of similar findings could be substantial.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Sep 05 - 05:51 PM

Your attention is drawn to a recent publication:

Scott Nelson
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
Volume 2, Issue 2
2005

If your institution subscribes, you may find this article at

http://docserver.ingentaconnect.com/deliver/cw/dup/15476715/v2n2/s7/p53.pdf?fmt=dirpdf&tt=10401&cl=11&ini=connect&bini=&wis=connect&ac=0&acs=32629,75000325,80004025&expires=1126971234&checksum=263B9E0541A5F8428BB2B615664D7B35&cookie=1350681344

Nelson has done a wonderful job of digging up records of the C & O pertaining to its construction, records that had been believed for many years (since ca 1925) to have been lost. His writing here is also a thing of beauty.

For me, the most important of Nelson's conclusions is that the John Henry incident did *not* occur at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV. The Big Bend site is the received wisdom from the 1920s studies of Guy B. Johnson and Louis W. Chappell, who may have been in a kind of race to affirm it as the authentic place. About 40% of the versions of "John Henry" collected by 1933 place its action at the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road," which would have been ca 1871, the building of the C & O having occurred in 1869-73.

My view of Big Bend is stated in my 2002 paper, Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi, Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, pp 91-129:

"In my opinion, the data of Johnson and Chappell make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. The evidence for this conclusion can be summarized as follows. (1) Intensive efforts to find John Henry at Big Bend failed. (2) No documentary evidence of John Henry or a contest was found. (3) The positive testimonial evidence contains significant inconsistencies. (4) The negative testimonial evidence is strong and plausible. (5) Alabama, a plausible alternative to Big Bend, is supported by substantive, coherent, and detailed reports that were not investigated satisfactorily." The failure to obtain substantive, coherent, and detailed reports favoring Big Bend is especially significant because Johnson and Chappell were able to interview a dozen or so men who had actually worked on the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. Included among the testimonies is one that claims, in essence, that the steam-drill contest could not have occurred at Big Bend because the informant was there - if it had happened he would have seen or heard about it. He is supported by a couple of others. A few others offer weak testimony favoring Big Bend.

Nelson ignores Alabama in favor of a different tunnel on the C & O line, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, "on the border between Virginia and West Virginia." This is another of the dozen or so tunnels being constructed by the C & O at the same time. Quoting Nelson:

"In the song, the tunnel where John Henry died is the Big Bend, but in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel, which was dug in the same years. Big Bend Tunnel works better as a lyric, and as many later versions of the song demonstrate, workers turned their own tunnels, or nearby tunnels, into the tunnel that killed John Henry. Thus, while the event occurred in Lewis Tunnel, it was probably first sung at Big Bend Tunnel nearby. In fact, when Johnson and Chappell were doing their research in the late 1920s, many local informants mentioned the Lewis Tunnel, dug by convicts, as the source of the song; both Johnson and Chappell failed to follow these leads...."

Nelson's confidence ("in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel") does not impress me. His entire paper is written as if his inferences and speculations are the gospel truth. I *am* impressed with the amount of work, the fact that he has found and consulted several previously unavailable resources, and the rich picture of the construction of Lewis Tunnel that he is able to paint. Also, he gives an excellent brief history of the collecting history of the song.

He errs, understandably, in citing "the first description of the song's performance" as that provided by William Aspenwall Bradley in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1915. I'm greatly impressed that he found the 1915 description - it illustrates how thorough he has been. Only a little luck allowed me to find, recently, an earlier description of "John Henry" singing, in court in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1913, p 14).

One problem with Big Bend as the John Henry site has always been that the evidence indicates that steam drills were never used there. Johnson and Chappell were well aware of this. To accommodate, it was supposed that a steam drill was brought in on a temporary basis and raced against a steel driver as a test. The argument for Big Bend might have been stronger had such an ad hoc assumption been unnecessary. Johnson and Chappell knew that steam drills *had* been used at Lewis Tunnel but did not pursue the possibility that the John Henry incident occurred there.

Nelson has taken up that cause - he believes that he has found the historic John Henry. Here is a summary of his relevant findings.

(1) Lines like "They took John Henry to the White House / And they buried him in the sand" are occasionally found in versions of "John Henry."

(2) A workshop built in 1825 on the grounds of the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) was plastered with lime, making it white. Neither this white house nor its later replacement now exist.

(3) A burial site containing about 400 bodies, stacked "sometimes two deep, with thin layer of sand between them," has been found at a location that would have been next to the white house, near a local connecting railroad along which locomotives would have come "roaring by."

(4) Virginia penitentiary convicts were used in the construction of Lewis Tunnel.

(5) Penitentiary records document John William Henry: received 1866 Nov. 16 for "Housebreak & larceny"; sentenced in Prince George County to 10 years; b Elizabeth City, NJ; age 19; height 5' 1-1/4"; left penitentiary by transfer.

(6) According to the prison register, John William Henry was "contracted out to work on the C & O railroad in 1868, charged to Capt. Goodlow, an employee of C. R. Mason, railroad contractor." The date is given as December 1.

(7) Mason was a contractor at Lewis Tunnel.

(8) A stipulation of the contract between the State of Virginia and the C & O was that each prisoner had to be returned. The penalty for a failure to return was $100. That ensured that prisoners' dead bodies would be shipped back to Richmond, to the penitentiary. If John Henry had died on the job, his body would have been shipped back for burial after marking him off a list.

(9) Beginning in August 1870, many men ("nearly 200") worked alongside steam drills (number unspecified, perhaps just one?). Both men and steam drills presented many problems, and eventually J. J. Gordon, the boss at Lewis Tunnel, ran out of boilers.

(10) In October, 1871, Gordon wrote to Chief Engineer Whitcomb, "I am very anxious to get that boiler to run Burleigh Drill in East approach. If you have done anything in regards to furnishing it please inform me, if not I will have to double on it with hammers."

(11) Gordon quit and "The steam drills left the tunnel by the end of October 1871."

(12) John William Henry is not listed among prisoners who died at the penitentiary. "He does, however, disappear from prison records by 1874, with no mention of pardon, parole, or release."

From this material, Nelson concocts a scenario, much as I have done for Alabama using other data. I have not provided *definitive* evidence of John Henry in Alabama. In contrast, Nelson appears to believe that he has solved the problem, period. I don't share his optimism. Indeed, I think that the Alabama scenario is better supported than the Lewis Tunnel scenario.

Nelson's scenario:

As a prisoner at the Virginia penitentiary in Richmond, John William Henry was sent to work under C. R. Mason, the labor contractor for the construction of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. From August 1870 to October 1871 steam and hand drilling were both employed at Lewis Tunnel. In a period leading up to October 1871, they were "apparently drilling two sets of holes in the rock face of the East approach, one with convicts, one with the Burleigh drill." This was the contest between men and machine that "John Henry" is about. After October 1871, only manual labor was used. "Men had triumphed over machines, but at a terrible cost. For two years, between the last month of steam drill operation and the completion of the tunnel - between September 1871 and September 1873 - close to one hundred convicts had died." John William Henry was among those who died. According to contract, his body was sent back to the Virginia penitentiary, where he was buried "in the sand" by the side of the white house and a local railroad track.

Here are some of the deficiencies of Nelson's scenario.

(1) Men named "John Henry" or "John Henry Something" are plentiful. As Uncle Beverly Standard (a Johnson informant) said, "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henry's." Finding a man named John William Henry in a list Virginia penitentiary inmates who were shipped off to work on the C & O at Lewis Tunnel is not unexpected and certainly isn't much evidence that he was the legendary John Henry. It is somewhat surprising that Nelson found only one.

(2) Nelson presents no evidence that John William Henry was a steel driver.

(3) At 5' 1-1/4" tall, it certainly doesn't spring to mind that John William Henry would have become a steel driver. I must admit, however, that a large frame is not necessary. My own favored candidate, John Henry Dabney, is described 5' 10-11" tall and 147-"near" 180 lb. That's not huge, but it's a bit less comical than a 5' 1-1/4" steel driver.

(4) Even if John William Henry *were* a steel driver, why would he be singled out for the ballad? In 1925 L. W. "Dad" Hill made quite an accurate report to Chappell about the building of Lewis Tunnel. Included among his statements is "Bob Jones was the best steel-driver in Lewis Tunnel, but not much better than some of the others in there with him." Hill did not mention John Henry.

(5) Nelson offers no evidence of a contest between a man, or men, and a steam drill or steam drills. I see his inference of two rows of holes, one drilled by machine and one by hand, from Gordon's statement, "I will have to double on it with hammers," as a gross misunderstanding. The common term for drilling by a two-man team, driver and shaker, is "double-jack." I see Gordon's "double" as short for "double-jack." Gordon was simply stating that the job would have to be done with hand labor.   His statement does not point to a contest between men and machines or between a man and a machine, as Nelson imagines.

(6) As with all elements of "John Henry" ballads, it is possible that "white house" is an artifact. Indeed, there is a plausible precursor to "white house" in "white road," which occurs in at least one version of "John Henry." I see "white house" as a mutation of "white road." I think that "white road" -> "white house" is a plausible mutation while "white house" -> "white road" is not. A "white road" (sand covered) leads to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks (now Norfolk Southern) near the locally traditional site of John Henry's contest with a steam drill. In my scenario John Henry is buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery or another cemetery on Sand Ridge, which is definitely sandy, accounting for "buried him in the sand." Both scenarios also account for "every locomotive come roarin' by," but I think my accounting is much less contrived than Nelson's. His railroad is not even a main line.

(7) I am not aware of any tradition or testimony that John Henry raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel. A few people interviewed did name Mason as the boss, and he was at Lewis, not Big Bend. Even so, it would be surprising, if Lewis Tunnel were the site, that it is not named in a ballad, testimony, or local tradition.

(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear.

(9) Perhaps the following is just an oversight, but the only mention of the occurrence of sand that I found in Nelson's article is in the sentence "Boxes were stacked sometimes two deep, with a thin layer of sand between them." This does not imply that the convicts were "buried in the sand," although that *would* be the case if the source of the thin layer were the soil at the burial site. Did I overlook a mention of sand at the burial site? Nelson needs to clear this up.

(10) Nelson does not address the evidence favoring Alabama. His only mention of my work is a citation of my article, his footnote 27, which reads as follows: "Both researchers (Johnson and Chappell) considered claims that the contest took place in Alabama in the 1880s, which also had a few firsthand accounts, but gave up on that site when they could find no evidence of a Cruzee mountain in Alabama. See Johnson, John Henry, 19-22; see also John Garst, 'Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,' Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92-129." Nelson does not even note that I *found* "Cruzee"/"Cursey" (Coosa) Tunnel, much less address the mass of circumstantial evidence, favoring Alabama, that I have turned up.

I hope that Nelson will now turn his considerable talent as an historian to Alabama. Perhaps he can find evidence that I have overlooked. That evidence might confirm or refute my scenario. A refutation would enhance the logical standing of his own speculations.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Sep 05 - 07:00 AM

On my browser, at least, my last posting is hard to read because the lines extend far beyond the edge of my screen, requiring the use of the slider several times to move across a line. Did I inadvertently uncheck the "Automatic Linebreaks" box?

Here is a reposting with "Automatic Linebreaks" definitely checked. I wish I knew how to delete the first posting.

******
Your attention is drawn to a recent publication:

Scott Nelson
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
Volume 2, Issue 2
2005

If your institution subscribes, you may find this article at

http://docserver.ingentaconnect.com/deliver/cw/dup/15476715/v2n2/s7/p53.pdf?fmt=dirpdf&tt=10401&cl=11&ini=connect&bini=&wis=connect&ac=0&acs=32629,75000325,80004025&expires=1126971234&checksum=263B9E0541A5F8428BB2B615664D7B35&cookie=1350681344

Nelson has done a wonderful job of digging up records of the C & O pertaining to its construction, records that had been believed for many years (since ca 1925) to have been lost. His writing here is also a thing of beauty.

For me, the most important of Nelson's conclusions is that the John Henry incident did *not* occur at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV. The Big Bend site is the received wisdom from the 1920s studies of Guy B. Johnson and Louis W. Chappell, who may have been in a kind of race to affirm it as the authentic place. About 40% of the versions of "John Henry" collected by 1933 place its action at the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road," which would have been ca 1871, the building of the C & O having occurred in 1869-73.

My view of Big Bend is stated in my 2002 paper, Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi, Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, pp 91-129:

"In my opinion, the data of Johnson and Chappell make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. The evidence for this conclusion can be summarized as follows. (1) Intensive efforts to find John Henry at Big Bend failed. (2) No documentary evidence of John Henry or a contest was found. (3) The positive testimonial evidence contains significant inconsistencies. (4) The negative testimonial evidence is strong and plausible. (5) Alabama, a plausible alternative to Big Bend, is supported by substantive, coherent, and detailed reports that were not investigated satisfactorily." The failure to obtain substantive, coherent, and detailed reports favoring Big Bend is especially significant because Johnson and Chappell were able to interview a dozen or so men who had actually worked on the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. Included among the testimonies is one that claims, in essence, that the steam-drill contest could not have occurred at Big Bend because the informant was there - if it had happened he would have seen or heard about it. He is supported by a couple of others. A few others offer weak testimony favoring Big Bend.

Nelson ignores Alabama in favor of a different tunnel on the C & O line, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, "on the border between Virginia and West Virginia." This is another of the dozen or so tunnels being constructed by the C & O at the same time. Quoting Nelson:

"In the song, the tunnel where John Henry died is the Big Bend, but in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel, which was dug in the same years. Big Bend Tunnel works better as a lyric, and as many later versions of the song demonstrate, workers turned their own tunnels, or nearby tunnels, into the tunnel that killed John Henry. Thus, while the event occurred in Lewis Tunnel, it was probably first sung at Big Bend Tunnel nearby. In fact, when Johnson and Chappell were doing their research in the late 1920s, many local informants mentioned the Lewis Tunnel, dug by convicts, as the source of the song; both Johnson and Chappell failed to follow these leads...."

Nelson's confidence ("in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel") does not impress me. His entire paper is written as if his inferences and speculations are the gospel truth. I *am* impressed with the amount of work, the fact that he has found and consulted several previously unavailable resources, and the rich picture of the construction of Lewis Tunnel that he is able to paint. Also, he gives an excellent brief history of the collecting history of the song.

He errs, understandably, in citing "the first description of the song's performance" as that provided by William Aspenwall Bradley in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1915. I'm greatly impressed that he found the 1915 description - it illustrates how thorough he has been. Only a little luck allowed me to find, recently, an earlier description of "John Henry" singing, in court in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1913, p 14).

One problem with Big Bend as the John Henry site has always been that the evidence indicates that steam drills were never used there. Johnson and Chappell were well aware of this. To accommodate, it was supposed that a steam drill was brought in on a temporary basis and raced against a steel driver as a test. The argument for Big Bend might have been stronger had such an ad hoc assumption been unnecessary. Johnson and Chappell knew that steam drills *had* been used at Lewis Tunnel but did not pursue the possibility that the John Henry incident occurred there.

Nelson has taken up that cause - he believes that he has found the historic John Henry. Here is a summary of his relevant findings.

(1) Lines like "They took John Henry to the White House / And they buried him in the sand" are occasionally found in versions of "John Henry."

(2) A workshop built in 1825 on the grounds of the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) was plastered with lime, making it white. Neither this white house nor its later replacement now exist.

(3) A burial site containing about 400 bodies, stacked "sometimes two deep, with thin layer of sand between them," has been found at a location that would have been next to the white house, near a local connecting railroad along which locomotives would have come "roaring by."

(4) Virginia penitentiary convicts were used in the construction of Lewis Tunnel.

(5) Penitentiary records document John William Henry: received 1866 Nov. 16 for "Housebreak & larceny"; sentenced in Prince George County to 10 years; b Elizabeth City, NJ; age 19; height 5' 1-1/4"; left penitentiary by transfer.

(6) According to the prison register, John William Henry was "contracted out to work on the C & O railroad in 1868, charged to Capt. Goodlow, an employee of C. R. Mason, railroad contractor." The date is given as December 1.

(7) Mason was a contractor at Lewis Tunnel.

(8) A stipulation of the contract between the State of Virginia and the C & O was that each prisoner had to be returned. The penalty for a failure to return was $100. That ensured that prisoners' dead bodies would be shipped back to Richmond, to the penitentiary. If John Henry had died on the job, his body would have been shipped back for burial after marking him off a list.

(9) Beginning in August 1870, many men ("nearly 200") worked alongside steam drills (number unspecified, perhaps just one?). Both men and steam drills presented many problems, and eventually J. J. Gordon, the boss at Lewis Tunnel, ran out of boilers.

(10) In October, 1871, Gordon wrote to Chief Engineer Whitcomb, "I am very anxious to get that boiler to run Burleigh Drill in East approach. If you have done anything in regards to furnishing it please inform me, if not I will have to double on it with hammers."

(11) Gordon quit and "The steam drills left the tunnel by the end of October 1871."

(12) John William Henry is not listed among prisoners who died at the penitentiary. "He does, however, disappear from prison records by 1874, with no mention of pardon, parole, or release."

From this material, Nelson concocts a scenario, much as I have done for Alabama using other data. I have not provided *definitive* evidence of John Henry in Alabama. In contrast, Nelson appears to believe that he has solved the problem, period. I don't share his optimism. Indeed, I think that the Alabama scenario is better supported than the Lewis Tunnel scenario.

Nelson's scenario:

As a prisoner at the Virginia penitentiary in Richmond, John William Henry was sent to work under C. R. Mason, the labor contractor for the construction of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. From August 1870 to October 1871 steam and hand drilling were both employed at Lewis Tunnel. In a period leading up to October 1871, they were "apparently drilling two sets of holes in the rock face of the East approach, one with convicts, one with the Burleigh drill." This was the contest between men and machine that "John Henry" is about. After October 1871, only manual labor was used. "Men had triumphed over machines, but at a terrible cost. For two years, between the last month of steam drill operation and the completion of the tunnel - between September 1871 and September 1873 - close to one hundred convicts had died." John William Henry was among those who died. According to contract, his body was sent back to the Virginia penitentiary, where he was buried "in the sand" by the side of the white house and a local railroad track.

Here are some of the deficiencies of Nelson's scenario.

(1) Men named "John Henry" or "John Henry Something" are plentiful. As Uncle Beverly Standard (a Johnson informant) said, "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henry's." Finding a man named John William Henry in a list Virginia penitentiary inmates who were shipped off to work on the C & O at Lewis Tunnel is not unexpected and certainly isn't much evidence that he was the legendary John Henry. It is somewhat surprising that Nelson found only one.

(2) Nelson presents no evidence that John William Henry was a steel driver.

(3) At 5' 1-1/4" tall, it certainly doesn't spring to mind that John William Henry would have become a steel driver. I must admit, however, that a large frame is not necessary. My own favored candidate, John Henry Dabney, is described 5' 10-11" tall and 147-"near" 180 lb. That's not huge, but it's a bit less comical than a 5' 1-1/4" steel driver.

(4) Even if John William Henry *were* a steel driver, why would he be singled out for the ballad? In 1925 L. W. "Dad" Hill made quite an accurate report to Chappell about the building of Lewis Tunnel. Included among his statements is "Bob Jones was the best steel-driver in Lewis Tunnel, but not much better than some of the others in there with him." Hill did not mention John Henry.

(5) Nelson offers no evidence of a contest between a man, or men, and a steam drill or steam drills. I see his inference of two rows of holes, one drilled by machine and one by hand, from Gordon's statement, "I will have to double on it with hammers," as a gross misunderstanding. The common term for drilling by a two-man team, driver and shaker, is "double-jack." I see Gordon's "double" as short for "double-jack." Gordon was simply stating that the job would have to be done with hand labor.   His statement does not point to a contest between men and machines or between a man and a machine, as Nelson imagines.

(6) As with all elements of "John Henry" ballads, it is possible that "white house" is an artifact. Indeed, there is a plausible precursor to "white house" in "white road," which occurs in at least one version of "John Henry." I see "white house" as a mutation of "white road." I think that "white road" -> "white house" is a plausible mutation while "white house" -> "white road" is not. A "white road" (sand covered) leads to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks (now Norfolk Southern) near the locally traditional site of John Henry's contest with a steam drill. In my scenario John Henry is buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery or another cemetery on Sand Ridge, which is definitely sandy, accounting for "buried him in the sand." Both scenarios also account for "every locomotive come roarin' by," but I think my accounting is much less contrived than Nelson's. His railroad is not even a main line.

(7) I am not aware of any tradition or testimony that John Henry raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel. A few people interviewed did name Mason as the boss, and he was at Lewis, not Big Bend. Even so, it would be surprising, if Lewis Tunnel were the site, that it is not named in a ballad, testimony, or local tradition.

(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear.

(9) Perhaps the following is just an oversight, but the only mention of the occurrence of sand that I found in Nelson's article is in the sentence "Boxes were stacked sometimes two deep, with a thin layer of sand between them." This does not imply that the convicts were "buried in the sand," although that *would* be the case if the source of the thin layer were the soil at the burial site. Did I overlook a mention of sand at the burial site? Nelson needs to clear this up.

(10) Nelson does not address the evidence favoring Alabama. His only mention of my work is a citation of my article, his footnote 27, which reads as follows: "Both researchers (Johnson and Chappell) considered claims that the contest took place in Alabama in the 1880s, which also had a few firsthand accounts, but gave up on that site when they could find no evidence of a Cruzee mountain in Alabama. See Johnson, John Henry, 19-22; see also John Garst, 'Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,' Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92-129." Nelson does not even note that I *found* "Cruzee"/"Cursey" (Coosa) Tunnel, much less address the mass of circumstantial evidence, favoring Alabama, that I have turned up.

I hope that Nelson will now turn his considerable talent as an historian to Alabama. Perhaps he can find evidence that I have overlooked. That evidence might confirm or refute my scenario. A refutation would enhance the logical standing of his own speculations.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Sep 05 - 07:19 AM

Still didn't work, even though "Automatic Linebreaks" was
definitely checked. What can I do to make my posting come out
readable?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Oct 05 - 04:47 PM

I must correct myself.

I wrote:

"(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear."

My leaky memory failed me. I'm not sure that any version of "John Henry" has been collected that contains "big bad tunnel." One of Chappell's versions (XXX, from Hattie Kelley, Jefferson, NC, written copy) contains "Big Band tunnel on the C and O road." Hattie, probably, was a poor speller and intended "Big Bend." However, this triggered my speculation that "big bad tunnel" could mutate readily to "Big Bend Tunnel." That an early version contained "big bad tunnel" (referring to Coosa Tunnel) is a plausible speculation, but it remains nothing more than that. I wish I *could* find a version with "big bad tunnel."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Oct 05 - 04:24 PM

Nelson accounts for verses like

They took John Henry to the White House,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man.
                              (Johnson, John Henry, p 99)

by identifying a white workshop at the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) with "White House." To me, this is plausible, but just how much reliance should we place on the occasional occurrence of "White House" in the ballad? I don't know, but here are some things to chew over.

Johnson (1929) and Chappell (1933) presented a total of 58 apparently independent versions of the ballad (two of Johnson's "belong together," in his words, reducing his contribution from 29 to 28).

Of these, 7 have JH buried in the sand at the White House. 6 have him buried in the sand at other (or unspecified) locations. In 1 of these he is buried in "the new burying ground." 5 have him buried in a burying ground/graveyard with no mention of sand. 4 mention the White House in other contexts.   1 mentions a white road, but not the White House.

Of those mentioning the White House in other contexts, 1 has JH being taken from the White House, 1 says people came from the White House to see JH, 1 has JH leaving the White House to go to the heading to drive steel, and 1 has JH buried at the White House with no mention of sand (instead, the "rode him in a van," which supplies the appropriate rhyme).

Interestingly, perhaps, only 2 of these 58 versions have the scene as Big Bend/C&O and the burial as White House/sand. None places the scene at Lewis Tunnel, favored by Nelson, nor, as far as I am aware, is there any testimony or local lore placing it there.

As I've noted before, I'm inclined to see "white road" as the precursor of "White House." I think that the mutation, "white road" to "White House," is plausible, while the reverse mutation, "White House" to "white road," is not - "White House" is simply too commonplace, attractive, and esily understood to be replaced in this manner. Early versions collected by Perrrow and Cox don't mention the "White House," nor does the Blankenship broadside. I've not yet looked over the to see when the first appearances of "White House" in the record were, but I suspect that it could be with the publication of Johnson's book (again, I don't *know* this).

I am inclined to believe that "White House" was a late development in the ballad. If so, it is not related to origins.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill
Date: 30 Dec 05 - 12:41 PM

Ok, lets go for the sad truth. John Henry was a real man. he was born in new jersey and was imprisoned for life on trumped up charges. he was then forced into labor to build the railroad. after he ided performing hard labor, he was buried on the grounds of the prison. this was next to a large white building. in the sand around the building, near the railroad tracks, many convicts bodies were buried and recently unearthed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill
Date: 30 Dec 05 - 01:59 PM

Ok, lets go for the sad truth. John Henry was a real man. he was born in new jersey and was imprisoned for life on trumped up charges. he was then forced into labor to build the railroad. after he ided performing hard labor, he was buried on the grounds of the prison. this was next to a large white building. in the sand around the building, near the railroad tracks, many convicts bodies were buried and recently unearthed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 Jan 06 - 02:37 PM

Sad enough, but unlikely to be true.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Jan 06 - 03:33 PM

I wrote:

"Sad enough, but unlikely to be true. "

I must point out that I do not challenge the documented facts that Scott Nelson has uncovered. What I think is "unlikely to be true" is the identification of John William Henry, the man for whom he found records, with the legendary steel driver. I've given my reasons earlier.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 May 06 - 04:14 PM

Contrary to my suspicion, stated above, "white house" is not a late development in the ballad, or, at least, it was already present in 1913-15. In December 1913 John A. Lomax delivered his address as retiring President of the American Folk-Lore Society at its annual meeting, held that year in New York. In the Jan-Mar issue, 1915, of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, a formal version of this address was published, Vol. XXVIII, No. CVII, pp 1-17. As far as the collecting record goes, this must be counted as an early version of "John Henry." It seems likely, however, that it is not what was sung by a single individual but rather that it is a compilation of stanzas from more than one source. Lomax's commentary on this ballad, in its entirety, reads as follows:

" Very few of the many work-songs that have had their origin among the men who have done the labor of putting down our great railway-lines have escaped printing in railway publications. The following song is sung along the Chesapeake and Ohio Road in Kentucky and West Virginia."

Evidently Lomax considered the 11, fairly coherent stanzas that followed to be a "work-song" rather than a ballad. As a version of "John Henry," it is highly unusual. (1) Its language betrays, to me at least, no sign of black influence. It is often rather stilted, reminiscent of formal poetry. "When John Henry was a little lad / A-holding of his papa's hand / Says, 'If I live until I'm twenty-one / I'm goin' to make a steel-driving man.'    As Johnny said, when he was a man / He made his words come true / He's the best steel-driver on the C & O Road / He belongs to the steel-driving crew." (2) "I hear the walking boss coming," "Before he died he said to his boss / 'O bossman! how can it be / The rock is so hard and the steel is so tough / I can feel my muscle giving way?'" Nowhere is this version is "the captain" or "his captain" mentioned. That is highly unusual. (3) "They brought John Henry from the white house." This is consistent with Scott Nelson's hypothesis that the "white house" was a penitentiary workhouse (specifically at the Virginia Penitentiary, Richmond). Other versions have John Henry's body taken *to* the white house for burial. Although the Lomax ballad is full of references to the C & O, it contains no mention of Big Bend Tunnel (just "the tunnel" and "tunnel number nine" - the C & O did not number the dozen or so tunnels they built in 1870-72). This version, therefore, does not contradict Nelson's identification of the tunnel as Lewis Tunnel, where steam drills were used (unlike Big Bend) and Virginia Penitentiary inmates were sent to labor. (4) John Henry is referred to several times as "Johnny" - this is rare. (5) "If I die a railroad-man / Go bury me under a tie / So I can hear old number four / As she goes rolling by." The Blankenship broadside also mentions train No. 4. In 1900, and perhaps in 1887, Illinois Central No. 4 ran north from New Orleans to Chicago. More specifically, it ran north from Crystal Springs, MS, where John Henry Dabney is supposed to have lived, to Jackson, MS, and other points north, where someone making the trip from Crystal Springs to Birmingham would have transferred to an east-bound train.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Jul 06 - 02:30 PM

Alert:

Scott Nelson's book is due out soon. From Amazon.com:
**********
Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry and the Untold Story of an American Legend (Cityscapes) (Hardcover)
by Scott Reynolds Nelson
------------------------------------------------------------------------
List Price:        $25.00
Price:        $15.75...

Book Description

The ballad "John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry--the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill--is a towering figure in our culture. But for over a century, no one knew who the original John Henry was--or even if there was a real John Henry.

In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson recounts the true story of the man behind the iconic American hero, telling the poignant tale of a young Virginia convict who died working on one of the most dangerous enterprises of the time, the first rail route through the Appalachian Mountains.

Using census data, penitentiary reports, and railroad company reports, Nelson reveals how John Henry, victimized by Virginia's notorious Black Codes, was shipped to the infamous Richmond Penitentiary to become prisoner number 497, and was forced to labor on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the C&O railroad. Nelson even confirms the legendary contest between John Henry and the steam drill (there was indeed a steam drill used to dig the Lewis Tunnel and the convicts in fact drilled faster).

Equally important, Nelson masterfully captures the life of the ballad of John Henry, tracing the song's evolution from the first printed score by blues legend W. C. Handy, to Carl Sandburg's use of the ballad to become the first "folk singer," to the upbeat version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. We see how the American Communist Party appropriated the image of John Henry as the idealized American worker, and even how John Henry became the precursor of such comic book super heroes as Superman or Captain America.

Attractively illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Product Details

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (September 30, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN: 0195300106
**********

I'm sure that this is an excellent book, flawed only by Nelson's misidentification of the legendary John Henry!

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Aug 06 - 04:50 PM

I've just received an advance copy of Nelson's Steel Drivin' Man. It is excellent, reflecting an enormous amount of intensive work. I recommend it highly, except that I believe that he vastly overestimates his evidence for John Henry at Lewis Tunnel. I still think the evidence for Dunnavant, Alabama, is much stronger.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Aug 06 - 02:18 PM

FWIW:

Actually, I find one other flaw with Nelson's book.

He does not address my published work (2002) or even acknowledge that it exists, even though I know he knows about it.   His literature review stops decades ago.

I initiated an interesting discussion of this kind of thing on the ballad-scholars and pre-war-blues mailing lists under the subject heading "Sloppy editing at U presses?"

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 04 Aug 06 - 08:40 PM

John, that's one hell of a flaw ! Is there not even a footnote somewhere ? (E.g., "John Garst has suggested the Oak Mountain tunnel in Alabama as the scene of.... He presents this hypothesis in....)

That's how it can be done when you need to acknowledge the work of someone you disagree with but you have no energy left to try to refute it.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Garst
Date: 17 Aug 06 - 02:39 PM

Lighter wrote:

******
John, that's one hell of a flaw ! Is there not even a footnote somewhere ? (E.g., "John Garst has suggested the Oak Mountain tunnel in Alabama as the scene of.... He presents this hypothesis in....)

That's how it can be done when you need to acknowledge the work of someone you disagree with but you have no energy left to try to refute it.
******
I have yet to find a mention of my work in any form. In his 2005 paper on the subject, Nelson cites my paper in a footnote in such a manner that no one could guess how strong the case for Alabama presented there might be. He does not address the Alabama evidence in either publication.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 04:34 PM

I had an opportunity to read Dr. John Garst's J. Henry article more than 3 years ago prior to its being published in "Tributaries"- Journal of Alabama Folklife Association. Just because an article is published does not necessarily make it true and accurate. This thesis has all the attributes of a well written academic paper and acknowledges numerous source references including several that are noted as "anonymous".   It also makes use of what I consider to be extreme convoluted logic attempting to connect some historical information and some rationalized and obtuse dots between people, local names, phonics, and possible local areas.

Dr. Garst's conclusion states "So far, no definite documentation of J. Henry has been found. This leaves room for argument from those who may believe that J. Henry never existed or that he ever raced a steam drill elsewhere. However, to make such a claim one would……..have to argue that C. C. Spencer is not a creditable witness ……he is the "star witness" on this subject. When checked against the facts that can be determined from other sources, Spencer's story is found to contain errors….."{?} Earlier the article notes that the C. C. Spencer story is not first person but second person as told in undocumented letters written to two other researchers named Johnson and Chappell circa 1929.   At best this article suggests that John Henry may have been in the Leeds, Alabama area once upon a time but does not offer any factual proof of a Leeds – John Henry connection.   In other words, the hypothesis outlined in the article is pure conjecture.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 08:00 PM

Like Don C, I find no meat within the shell when it is cracked open.
I am reminded of Charlie McCarthy's question to Edgar Bergen, who was prone to unsupported statements- "Vas you dere, Charlie?"
Without a credible witness or direct evidence, the hypotheses (on both sides) are empty shells.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Sep 06 - 01:57 PM

John knows that I am respectfully skeptical of his cautiously phrased conclusion that a steam-drill battle may have taken place in Alabama. Of course this is conjecture, but much historical writing is conjecture. The significant point is that this particular conjecture (unlike so many in ballad studies)is backed with some genuine research. It provides fresh food for thought about the "John Henry" ballad. Whether the conjecture can be confirmed is another story.

John Garst's work is also of value because it shows that the Big Bend evidence, which has been widely accepted as fact for decades, is in reality extremely weak. John has shown there is no serious evidentiary basis for insisting, as so many have done, that "John Henry fought the steam-drill at the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia."

That result may sound trivial to amateurs, but it demonstrates once again the value of sound research (which John has carried out, even if his primary conclusion remains doubtful).

Unfortunately, John's evidence is not strong enough to prove that the contest took place in Alabama either. That's bad news mainly for C&O boosters. And the PR follies described in a related thread have little to do with the substance or presentation of John Garst's article in "Tributaries."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 13 Sep 06 - 03:26 PM

I wonder if the History Detectives (on PBS) could find out anything concrete? I should think that if anyone could, it would be they.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 04:07 PM

I am familiar with Don C. Around Leeds, he appears to be well known as a writer of letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

The bone he picks, I suppose, is that I chose to quote Spencer's letters from Johnson's book and to cite them with reference to that book. That reference is far more accessible than the originals. To Don C, this becomes "second person" testimony.

The originals of C. C. Spencer's letters to Guy Johnson, and of many the other letters quoted in my article, are in special collections at the library of the University of North Carolina. I have examined them. I vouch for their contents as published by Johnson.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 04:10 PM

Correction:

Strike "many" from the first sentence of the last paragraph of my previous posting.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 09:37 PM

Hi there Dr. Garst,

How did the great origin of John Henry debate between you and Ed Cabell last month at Davis & Elkins College turn out?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Sep 06 - 05:13 PM

From Don Clowers:

>Hi there Dr. Garst,

>How did the great origin of John Henry debate between you
>and Ed Cabell last month at Davis & Elkins College turn out?

Fine.

I gave facts and let them speak for themselves.

Ed appealed to the strength of the WV tradition.

It was videotaped.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Sep 06 - 11:19 AM

Kaleea wrote:

>I wonder if the History Detectives (on PBS) could find out
>anything concrete? I should think that if anyone could, it
>would be they.

About a week ago I watched one of their programs and afterward went to their WWW site and submitted this problem to them.

So far, I have heard nothing in return.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: BK Lick
Date: 01 Oct 06 - 01:38 AM

Q wrote: "I am reminded of Charlie McCarthy's question to Edgar Bergen, who was prone to unsupported statements- 'Vas you dere, Charlie?'"

I believe it was another old time radio character who famously spoke that tag line -- Jack Pearl's Baron Munchausen would say these words to anyone who doubted his tall tale telling. Perhaps Bergen had Charlie say it too.
—BK


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 01 Oct 06 - 01:56 PM

More digression-
Charlie said it, but Bergen could have borrowed it from Jack Pearl.
Thanks for reminding me of another old radio favorite.

Looking at Google, it seems that most of Jack Pearl and many of the Bergen episodes are available on cd.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Oct 06 - 05:13 PM

Examining Scott Nelson's evidence for John W. Henry as the legendary steel driver and Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, as the place led me to a better appreciation of the evidence for John Henry Dabney and Oak/Coosa Tunnels, Alabama.

The Virginia evidence is nearly nonexistent, as I have noted previously.

The Alabama evidence is circumstantial but very coherent and amazingly detailed. Let me put the question in the negative:

If John Henry were not at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887, how would you explain away, rationally, all the testimony, documentation of related matters, and song-fragment evidence?

I think you'd have a hard time!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST, John Garst
Date: 26 Oct 06 - 06:21 PM

Thoughts on mutations in transmitted historical ballads.

(1) A ballad progresses toward one or more stable end points. A stable end point consists of attractive words, phrases, lines, and stanzas. "Attractive" means "attractive to a ballad singer." The point is that as a ballad approaches stability it will contain less and less material that a singer might drop or change in passing it on.

(2) Historical truth is often *not* a factor contributing to attractiveness. Once a ballad has left "home" (in space and time), few if any singers will know the historical facts. Even those who do will often prefer telling "a good story" to telling the truth. Even ballad authors can be susceptible to this urge.

(3) I assume, however, that historical ballad originals will always contain *some* historic truth, at least as that "truth" is known by the author.

(4) This implies that historically correct but nonattractive elements of a ballad will tend to be lost. Attractive elements will tend to be retained, whether or not they are historically correct. Therefore attractive elements should be looked on with suspicion.

(5) If you are examining ballad versions for candidates for historic truth, you should pay special attention to rare elements. A rare element must be either new or nonattractive. If it were old and attractive it would not be rare. Most new elements will be attractive; otherwise few would be inserted into the tradition.

Having John Henry buried at the "white house" is surely an attractive element, implying as it does that he was so important that his grave was put where the nation's president could stroll out to it (for inspiration, perhaps!) Therefore "white house" falls under suspicion immediately.

Further, if the white house burial had been part of the original ballad, few if any singers would have changed it, or failed to pass it on, and there would be few versions of "John Henry" that name another place of burial. In fact, there are many.

Therefore it is unlikely that "white house" was in the original "John Henry."

"White road," on the other hand, is a rare element (one version, to my knowledge). Therefore it deserves serious consideration for historic truth. Sand Ridge Cemetery borders a white (with sand) road, which fits both "white road" and "buried him in the sand." In addition, "white road" is a logical seed for mutation to "white house."

I think it likely that we will eventually find John Henry's grave on Sand Ridge, if not in Sand Ridge Cemetery then in one of the other cemeteries there. (It is said that there are two others.)

"John Henry died on a Tuesday" is also rare (one version). Therefore it may well be correct. C. C. Spencer gave the date as September 20, 1882, but other facts demand that the year be 1887. September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday. The chance of randomly finding this agreement is, of course, one in seven.

John Henry being, or being buried, "'tween them mountains" or "between two mountains" is also rare (one version each) and therefore a serious candidate for truth. This fits Dunnavant, Alabama, well. I doubt that it fits any other candidate spot as well.

"Virginny gave him birth" (speaking of "Captain Tommy") is rare (one version) and therefore a serious candidate for truth. Captain Dabney was, in fact, born in Virginia. He moved to Mississippi when less than a year old.

"John Henry went blind" is rare (one version) (truth?) So is "pain in my heart" (one version) (truth?) "Roaring in my ears" is uncommon (truth?) but found in a few versions. C. C. Spencer, self-proclaimed eyewitness, said that when John Henry Dabney revived after collapsing, he said, "I am blind and dying." Spencer's description of John Henry's death seems to Dr. Steven Harris to be a classic case of ventricular rupture: "strokes don't do this. You can get blindness with a posterior vertebral stroke, but it shouldn't kill you right off-- or make you unconscious. And unconsciouness which reverses when he person is laid down is classic for blood loss shock. As is blindness and a roaring in the ears (all low blood pressure things)... Ventricular rupture (a literal broken heart from a section giving way after a heart attack that kills that bit of tissue) is the best I can do from the description you give. And chest pain would precede, from the ischemia of the heart attack itself (though the rupture itself is often fairly painless)."

There's more of this kind of thing, but my wife calls and I must go.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Richie
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 12:19 AM

I'm not sure of the earliest version of John Henry, this is a version of Take This Hammer from 1905.

JOHN HENRY
V. SONGS CONNECTED WITH THE RAILROAD
SONGS AND RHYMES FROM THE SOUTH BY E. C. PERROW
(From East Tennessee; mountain whites; from memory; 1905)


A.If I could drive steel like John Henry,
I'd go home, Baby, I'd go home.
This ole hammer killed John Henry,
Drivin' steel, Baby, drivin' steel.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 11:18 AM

I don't know of a version of either the hammer song or the ballad dated reasonably to earlier than 1905.

Of course, there is plenty of testimony of earlier singing. Some of this testimony has the "John Henry" hammer song being sung as early as 1871 or so, the time of the building of Big Bend Tunnel. I see no reason to accept this - there is no consistent testimony placing John Henry at Big Bend or having him sung about there. I think the people who gave the testimony probably heard some hammer song at Big Bend, then later heard a John Henry verse or two sung to the same tune and subsequently conflated the earlier and later versions in their minds.

Chappell lists a few claims of "John Henry" songs being sung before 1888 but the big explosion of remembrances starts then and is dense for the years immediately following.

One man said that he moved to Georgia in 1888 and found everyone there singing "John Henry." This fits very well with 1887 as the year of John Henry's death and with Alabama as the place. Men from Mississippi worked on the Columbus & Western job and I'm sure men from Georgia did, too. After all, the Columbus & Western was owned by the Central Railroad and Banking Company of Georgia. "Columbus" is Columbus, Georgia.

I suspect that "John Henry" was already being sung in West Virginia in 1888. There is testimony that laborers who worked on the C & W went to West Virginia to work on the Elkhorn Tunnel, which was completed in 1888, as I recall. When the ballad hit the Big Bend area, people there remembered Big Bend's prominent steel driver, John Henry Martin.   They probably identified him with the legendary figure and localized the ballad to Big Bend.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Richie
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 06:26 PM

Hi John,


The first post A from 1905 resembles Take This Hammer/Nine Pound Hammer/Roll on Buddy versions

Here are the others. B and C are both Take This Hammer/Nine Pound Hammer songs. D. Is probaby John Hardy. Only E from 1912 is a version of the ballad tho not a good one.

1. is clearly John Hardy mixed with John Henry. Of particular interest is the footnote 2 and the "big tunnel on the C and O line" lyric.


JOHN HENRY
V. SONGS CONNECTED WITH THE RAILROAD
SONGS AND RHYMES FROM THE SOUTH BY E. C. PERROW


B.(From Indiana; ?; MS. of Mr. Davidson)

Did you hear that rain-crow hollering?
Sign of rain, Baby, sign of rain.
If I had forty-one dollars,
I'd go home, Baby, I'd go home.

C.(From Mississippi; ?; MS. of R. J. Slay; 1909)

This old hammer killed John Henry,
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

This old hammer killed Bill Dooley,
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

This old hammer weighs forty pounds, sah!
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

D (From Mississippi; ?; MS. of W. P. Cassedy; 1909)

John Henry got in his buggy,

And tightened up his reins,
And passed by those ladies,

Like a shower of rain.

John Henry used to sing: " I owe you some money,

I haven't got no small change,
But I'll bet you five dollars

I will see you again."

E. (From Kentucky; mountain whites; MS. of E. N. Caldwell; 1912)

When John Henry was a little boy,
Sitting on his papa's knee,
Was a-lookin down at a piece of steel,
"For a steel-driving man I want to be."

When they take John Henry down to the tunnel,
Well, they set him head for to drive;
For the rocks so tall, John Henry was so small,
Threw down his hammer, and he cried.

Well, they set John Henry on the right-hand corner,
A steam-driller was on the left;
"Before I let the steam-driller hammer me down,
I'll hammer my fool self to death.


1. A favorite number with the folk; cf. Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. xxii, p. 243.

"If I die a railroad man,

Go bury me under the rail ties,

With my pick and my shovel at my head and feet,

And my nine-pound hammer in my hand."

John Henry he come walkin' out;
He looked all around and above,
Wrapped up his hammer and paper and silk,
And sent it to the woman whom he loved.

John Henry had a lovin' little wife,

Sometimes she was dressed in red;

She went walkin' down the track, and she never looked back;

She said, "I'm goin' where my honey fell dead."

John Henry had a lovin' little wife,
Sometimes she was dressed in blue;
Went to the graveyard where his dead body lies;
"John Henry, I've always been true to you."

When John Henry was a little boy,
Sittin' on his grandpa's knee:
"That big tunnel on the C and O line
Is going to be the death of me."2

2 A note on the manuscript says, "About half of the 'John Henry' here; very long." Mr. C. B. House tells me there is a song in Clay County, Kentucky, about John Henry, a steel-driving man.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Nov 06 - 10:31 AM

A couplet from the ballad dates to 1907 or so (could be 1909), then came Perrow's version (1912) and versions collected by Lomax (ca 1912) and Combs (published much later). One stanza appears in the Atlanta Constitution in 1913.

The ballad was probably written shortly after the event that inspired it, so it dates to 1871 or 1887 if we accept Big Bend, Lewis, and Oak/Coosa Tunnels as the candidates. If 1887, then 20 years passed before anyone noticed it in print (as far as we know). If 1871, then 36 years. Obviously, the chance that 20 years would pass without such notice is greater than the chance for 36 years.

It is especially noteworthy that there is no notice of John Henry in print between 1871 and 1887.

There are several pieces of statistical evidence that favor 1887 weakly. An accumulation of pieces of weak evidence is stronger than one isolated piece.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Tweed
Date: 26 Nov 06 - 11:08 AM

Found this on the History News Network in the daily google search:

On the Trail of the Real John Henry


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 06:23 PM

There was a long discussion of John Henry on National Public Radio this weekend. How he may have been a short fellow from New Jersey, and how as time changed the possibilty of beating a steam engine (once very easy due to break downs) became much harder as the engines improved. So the song became more mythic as time passed. This may be nothing new, I didn't read the thread before I posted. I just wanted to offer a heads-up regarding that recent radio article if someone wants to go dig it up.

SRS


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 07:44 PM

The article by Garst summarizes his views, which also have appeared in Mudcat, in more detail.
Also worth reading for background is the chapter on John Henry in Norm Cohen, "Long Steel Rail," pp. 61-89, which includes a comprehensive discography of this much-recorded song.
Among the interesting items in Cohen is a copy of a printed song sheet, "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," with the name W. T. Blankenship, c. 1900 (Cohen remarks that Blankenship seemed to be working from imperfectively remembered material).
Also included is a 1929 letter from Ernest V. Stoneman discussing John Henry. Stoneman believed that the song was set in West Virginia on the C & O, "the man that the song was made about was a negro who was a East Virginian." He goes on to describe the man, and mentions his song, "John Hardy," which he says was the man's real name. The West Virginia connection, discounted by Garst, was described fully in Cox, 1925, "Folk Songs of the South," chap. 335, 'John Hardy,' pp. 175-188 (Harvard Univ.; Dover unabridged edition).


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Subject: John Henry on public radio Nov 2006
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 09:30 PM

Stilly River Sage wrote:
There was a long discussion of John Henry on National Public Radio this weekend.

I couldn't find anything on NPR, but I did find a New York program, Studio 360, American Icons, that fits your description. It turns out to be a production of PRI. From the list of people, I judge they were selected by Scott Nelson or from their appearance in his book.

I haven't listened to the program yet, but I'd be surprised if my ideas were mentioned.

Here's the credit line:

"Studio 360 is a co-production of Public Radio International and WNYC New York Public Radio, and is funded in part by Ken and Lucy Lehman, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Herman Miller and Design Within Reach. Studio 360's American Icons series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our series on creativity and science is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,mick
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 06:53 AM

The song can be interpreted in diferent ways today perhaps ,but wasn't it originally sang as a bawdy song with "steel driving man" having sexual overtones ?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 10:34 AM

You may have found it, John--I had the radio on while I worked around the house and our local station plays that program. It was part of a long interview, and Studio 360 does offer a lot of those.

SRS


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 01:47 PM

mick wrote:
The song can be interpreted in diferent ways today perhaps ,but wasn't it originally sang as a bawdy song with "steel driving man" having sexual overtones ?

My response:
Sexual interpretations have certainly been offered by singers and story-tellers, as well as academics. It makes sense to me that these were grafted onto the ballad after its inception. I doubt that it would be correct to say that "John Henry" was "originally" a bawdy song.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 07:49 PM

I just listened to Studio 360, American Icons, Friday 24Nov2006. This is the program with a brief John Henry segment.

It has excerpts from Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, Mississippi John Hurt, and some unidentified black singers.

It is mostly about black people's reactions to the song and interpretations of it in the light of the black experience.

Sherman James is quoted briefly telling about John Henry Martin, a farmer he found with all kinds of possibly stress-related disease. James coined the term "John Henryism" to describe the extra stressful lives of many American blacks.

Scott Nelson tells briefly about John William Henry. I think he also comments on the changing character of the ballad, early versions being more of a cautionary tale than a hero celebration. I'll have to think about that one.

As I suspected, my views on the historic John Henry are not mentioned.

Nelson comments that by 1890 steam drills had improved so much, from 1871, that it would have been hard for a human steel-driving team to beat one. Yet, that is exactly what eye-witnesses claimed for John Henry Dabney in Alabama in 1887. How credible are these eye-witnesses? I find C. C. Spencer's testimony to be very credible. He knew too much that can be documented to have been making his story up. I don't know why Glendora Cannon Cummings' uncle would lie to her about his having been with John Henry when he died (at Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Alabama, 1887). F. P. Barker claimed to have known John Henry when JH was working on Coosa Mountain Tunnel in 1887, and he took delight in telling how JH vowed that he would beat the steam drill and did it, then died. All three of these people put JH at the same place (Dunnavant, Alabama) and time (1887), though that time has to be figured out from other data for Spencer and Barker. Spencer said 1882 but other facts (that JH worked for a "Dabner," Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney) require 1887. Barker said "about 45 years ago, somewhere about that time," which would have been somewhere about 1882 but which really had to be, again, 1887, because that's when Coosa and Oak Tunnels were under construction. I suppose that 1887 is "somewhere about" 1882. Cummings got the year precisely correct.

The radio segment was brief and shallow, consisting largely of concise "ain't-that-something" narration and sound bites.

It makes no contribution to scholarship.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Nov 06 - 04:04 PM

You will enjoy Scott Nelson's reply to my essay at History News Network:

http://hnn.us/articles/31137.html

If the editor at HNN allows it, I will put together a response over the next week or so.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 31 Dec 06 - 02:39 PM

I have posted a couple of items in reply to Nelson's response to my essay at History News Network.

Go to

http://hnn.us/articles/31137.html

and then click on "Comments" (just below the end of Nelson's response). That will take you to a page with an apparatus for sending in comments. Above that will be a couple of links to my replies, one entitled "On the Trail of the Real John Henry" and the other "Principle of Frequent Crap and Rare Truth."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 07 - 05:07 PM

I've just noticed that Furry Lewis gives the name of John Henry's wife as "Nella Lee."

http://home.comcast.net/~ehop/Furry_Lewis-John_Henry.mp3

I don't know which of the several times Furry recorded "John Henry" this is, but it is obviously a concert recording, so it must be from his rediscovery period.

In any event, this gives a little reinforcement (some might say "very little") to Neal Pattman's version, naming John Henry's wife as "Maggadee," which sounds like "Maggie D" and may be a reference to Margaret Dabney, the wife of the Henry Dabney who appears in the Copiah County census of 1870 (and 1880 as Henry "Dabner") and who may be both the "Henry" who was Captain Dabney's father's slave and the "John Henry" of legend.

Names commonly found are "Polly Ann" and variations, but "Mary Magdalene" occurs rarely (including Lead Belly's version), "Maggadee" once, and "Nella Lee" once (to my knowledge). These last three are rhymes or near rhymes. As I have noted previously, "Maggadee" is a logical precursor of "Mary Magdalene" because "Maggadee" sounds like "Magdalene" and to many people you can't have "Magdalene" without "Mary." "Mary Magdalene" would degenerate to "Mary Ann" for a couple of reasons ("Magdalene" is too big a word; "Ann" provides a near rhyme for "sand") and "Polly" is a common nickname for "Mary." "Polly Ann" is an attractive commonplace and represents a stable end point of these name mutations.

"Nella Lee" could be another mutation of "Maggie D"/"Maggadee." They rhyme and they have the same number of syllables. "Maggadee"'s lack of familiarity and awkwardness would provide the impetus for change. "Nella Lee" sounds a lot more like a plausible name.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,observer
Date: 25 Jan 07 - 05:51 PM

Click this for a good discussion of John Henry on Old Blue Bus


About John Henry onOld Blue Bus


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Feb 07 - 05:59 PM

An excursion to Dunnavant, Alabama, on Saturday, 03Feb2007, was interesting.

We learned that ground-penetrating radar has its limitations. We didn't actually use it, but Robert Perry, an expert in its use, was along to scout the situation, and he told us quite a bit about it, in layman's terms, sort of.

We learned that the date of establishment of Sand Ridge Cemetery is tied to the date at which some members of the Howard family left an area a few miles to the east, where they have been living in proximity with the Isbell family (sometimes "Isabell"). The family historian who told us this, however, didn't have her notes with her and didn't trust her memory for exact dates. We will check that out later. She thought it possible, but was not certain, that Sand Ridge Cemetery was in existence by 1887.

We learned that the fence around Sand Ridge Cemetery was put there fairly recently. In its early days, the cemetery was simply an open area with no particular boundaries. The grave that we thought we had spotted two years ago, a few feet west of the western fence, looks less clearly like a grave than it did then. Perhaps that is due partly to erosion and partly to the filling in of pine straw, twigs, etc. Even so, it was agreed that it could be a grave.

We learned that there is a story that a black man was buried just outside the present-day fence at the northern boundary of the old section of Sand Ridge Cemetery. This spot is another candidate spot for John Henry's burial.

The ground was wet from recent rains. The road that had looked distinctively white to me two years ago looked more red (from red clay) Saturday. It was still clear, however, that the soil is sandy.

The opinion was expressed that it is unlikely that an itinerant black railroad worker would have been buried so far from that site where he died at that time and place (1887 and the backwoods about 15 miles east of Birmingham). This is a reasonable opinion but it does not cause me to give up on Sand Ridge Cemetery yet. It is likely that John Henry and Captain Dabney were close friends - they had probably known one another for 37 years, the first 15 being while John Henry was a slave, perhaps to Captain Dabney's father. I imagine that Captain Dabney might have wanted to give John Henry a good burial.

Tune in for later developments.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Feb 07 - 02:48 PM

I have sent something like the following to mailing lists.

If I understand correctly, Jennifer Howard's article on Scott Nelson and "Steel Drivin' Man," in the February 9 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, will be available at the following address for a few days.

http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=NfyQfwvDqpw6hsdckCbyrGCxjqgmtBF6

Subscribers can always find it at

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i23/23a01201.htm

Among those quoted, in addition to Nelson, are Norm Cohen, Ted Gioia, Brett Williams, and myself.

The main foci of the article are Nelson and his book. Toward the end, I am described as Nelson's "most vocal critic." Except for Nelson and myself, those interviewed, if they take any stance at all, are quoted as being neutral. Nelson is quoted taking a cheap shot at me, likening the Alabama theory to Intelligent Design.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 03:43 PM

Update, 27Feb2007:

On a recent trip to Sand Ridge Cemetery, its founding was described by a local woman who is related to those buried there. Unfortunately, she has been unable to provide a date. It remains unclear whether or not this cemetery is as old as 1887, when John Henry would have been buried.

A local archeologist with ground-penetrating radar (gpr) has taken up the search for John Henry's grave. He described for us the limitations of gpr. It will probably be some time before it is actually applied in a field situation in our search. For the moment the search for possible burial sites is taking top priority with him. He is skeptical of Sand Ridge Cemetery because it is so far (about a mile) from the railroad tracks. He imagines that dead black laborers would have been buried much closer to the tracks. I agree with this possibility but I think that John Henry and Captain Dabney were close, so I suspect that the Captain would have wanted to give John Henry a "good" burial. Sand Ridge Cemetery remains a possibility in my mind.

We have made contacts with more people with John Henry stories. One man tells us of several cemeteries near the tracks, all on private property and all accessed with difficulty. He was surprised to hear us speaking of the John Henry "legend." The way his grandfather and others spoke of John Henry, there was no "legend" to it - it was simply fact that he died at Dunnavant, Alabama. (That's the way legends are, of course.)

We have heard of a 90-year-old man with a clear mind who has lived in Dunnavant all his life. Members of our team hope to interview him soon.

We have also heard stories of headstones at places near the RR tracks. These markers have long disappeared but they are recalled. We hope to investigate these sites.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 04:57 PM

Also posted to BALLAD-L and PRE-WAR-BLUES:

At the risk of sounding something like the Jesus'-tomb people who have been getting a lot of television exposure the last couple of days, I pose some John Henry statistics. Archaeologists have pointed out that the names found in the tomb were very common at that place and time. The Jesus people have countered with probabilities from statisticians that make it sound very unlikely that this particular cluster of names would have appeared more than once. I'm skeptical of the Jesus people's claims but I find it hard to dismiss their statitics (if they are correct).

Here goes:

(1) C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson that he had died on September 20, 1882. His year has to be wrong - the only year the railroad through Dunnavant, AL, was under construction in September was 1887, the year of John Henry's death given by Glendora Cannon Cummings, who claimed (ca 1927) that her had uncle witnessed John Henry's death. Harvey Hicks (Evington, VA, ca 1930) gave Louis Chappell a version of "John Henry" containing the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday." September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday.

For a particular date, the probability matching the day of the week with a random guess is 1/7, 14%. Thus, the probability that the match that is found is not accidental is 86%.

If it is not accidental, what scenario, other than that it is truth, could account for the agreement. The only such scenario I can think of is that an untrue story including the date and day of the week made the rounds. It is hard for me to imagine how an untrue story could have originated. It is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such a detail.

My conclusion: From this, it is 86% probable that the historic John Henry died on Tuesday, September 20, 1887.

(2) Testifying some 40 years or so after the alleged events, Spencer (Salt Lake City, Utah), Cummings (Lansing, Michigan), and C. S. Farquharson (Jamaica) all gave the names of two of John Henry's bosses as "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay." In fact, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western in 1886-88. As such he was in charge of the construction of the extension from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham.

What is the probability that these agreements are accidental? I can only place it at 0%.

What is the probability that an untrue story about John Henry, containing the names "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay," made the rounds? Again, it is hard for me to imagine how such an untrue story would originate. Also again, it is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such details as these names.

My conclusion: It is nearly 100% probable that the association of John Henry with "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay" is historically correct. (I have not identified "Shea"/"Shay." There is, however, a candidate in the Birmingham City Directory.)

Two of the three people giving these names also place John Henry at Dunnavant, AL, at the time of his death. One of them gives John Henry's surname as "Dabner" and states that he was a slave to a "Dabner" and that he was from Holly Springs, Mississippi. In fact, Captain Dabney lived in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and his father had owned a slave, Henry, who was a teenager during the Civil War. A Henry Dabney/Dabner, born 1850, appears in the 1870 and 1880 censuses for Copiah County (Crystal Springs), MS, as farming. Consistent with an 1887 death, he is not found in later censuses (the 1890 census is not available because it burned).

None of the above is new - it is all in my 2002 paper, along with other evidence.

My present question is

To what extent am I fooling myself in thinking that this evidence makes it highly probable that the Alabama scenario is correct?

In the Chronicle article by Jennifer Howard, Nelson is quoted as likening the Alabama scenario to Intelligent Design. What do you think?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 06:15 PM

John, I hope you don't find my comments absurdly ill-informed. If they are, I apologize in advance. My statistical background is limited.

A 14% likelihood of pure coincidence in naming the day of the week is actually substantial. One would not care to bet on it happening, but it certainly could have. We don't know. Are there any other days of the week named in connection about JH's death? If so, the more there are, the greater the chance of coincidence operating somewhere.

Even if, as occurs to me, Spencer wrote a "7" that was misread (or misprinted) as a "2," the possibility of coincidence would remain at 14%.

The seemingly independent references to Dabner/Dabney and Say/Shea indicate that the witnesses were indeed involved in the C&W construction, as they claimed. You know from your own research that there was in fact a "John Henry" working on that tunnel. Their testimony, then, doesn't add to that. Yet their claim that John Henry fought a steam drill seems to me to require further testimony. In other words, if *all* the survivors of the tunnel job had testified, we'd expect overwhelming recollection of the "John Henry event," had it happened there. A mere three testimonies, however, self-selected from hundreds, could be explained by a rival hypothesis that a John Henry's presence at the tunnel led to the hasty conclusion - in a mere three persons - that therefore he *must be* the one in the song and the "event" *must have* taken place on the C & W. My own experience is that people can try to be helpful even to the point of autosuggestion: three witnesses could easily convince themselves that "their" John Henry was "obviously" the hero of the familiar song and then, forty years later, believe they saw the contest with their own eyes. This would be a case of independent reconstructive memory.
Unlikely? Perhaps. But far from impossible, and with maybe more than a 14% likelihood. I don't know.

Nevertheless, John, none of these skeptical, even cynical, observations refute the evidence-based suspicion that John Henry fought a steam-drill on Sept. 20, 1887, on the C&W. And a carping critic can always demand "more evidence." The case for the C&W tunnel is, I think, stronger than the case for the C&O. But it seems to me that proof is still just beyond reach. The results of your research, though, are worthy of more notice than they've gotten in the media so far. Interested newspeople have heard about the "Big Bend tunnel on the C&O road" all their lives and may assume that everyone "knows" that's where a contest occurred and that research focused on West Va. is "finally filling in the blanks."

That's show biz.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 28 Feb 07 - 03:54 AM

Lighter: Even if, as occurs to me, Spencer wrote a "7" that was misread (or misprinted) as a "2," the possibility of coincidence would remain at 14%.

Me: I have seen the original. It is clearly "1882," not "1887." Spencer gave dates for other tunnel jobs that were several years too early. He said he was about 14 years old when he knew John Henry. His testimony came 40 years later. "Holly Springs" and "1882" are not his only errors of fact but I think all of them are easily corrected and can be considered reasonable for the circumstances. He got a lot right in his testimony.

Lighter: You know from your own research that there was in fact a "John Henry" working on that tunnel.

Me: No, I don't think I do. What we have is the testimony of Spencer, Barker, Cummings, an article from 1930 citing many, an article from 1955 citing several, and lots of people still living around Leeds and Dunnavant. The veracity of other parts of the testimony of these people supports the idea that they are good witnesses, suggesting that their claims about John Henry ought to be believed. The Alabama testimony is much more coherent than the West Virginia testimony. There is no testimony (or legend) at all about John Henry in Virginia. It would be nice to have further testimony about the race with a steam drill but I think that at this date some kind of further documentation could more likely be found.

Lighter: ...a mere three persons...

Me: Three in 1927, an article in 1930 citing many, an article in 1955 citing several, many living around Leeds and Dunnavant (as noted above). What especially impresses me about the three in 1927 is that there is obviously no collusion among them. It seems extremely unlikely that they knew one another in any way. It seems even less likely that the Jamaicans who knew the names "Shea"/"Shay" and "Dabney"/"Dabner" had ever had any contact with the people from Utah and Michigan who knew the same thing.

Lighter: But it seems to me that proof is still just beyond reach. The results of your research, though, are worthy of more notice than they've gotten in the media so far. Interested newspeople have heard about the "Big Bend tunnel on the C&O road" all their lives and may assume that everyone "knows" that's where a contest occurred and that research focused on West Va. is "finally filling in the blanks."

Me: I certainly can't and don't claim "proof." My best argument, it seems to me, is to challenge critics to provide a reasonable explanation of the facts based on the assumption that John Henry was *not* in Alabama. It is the probabilities of such alternative explanations that concern me. I think those probabilities must be quite low.

Scott Nelson's research is not filling in the blanks for West Virginia. His "John Henry" was at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. Thus, he joins me in being a Big Bend skeptic. However, his reason for rejecting Big Bend is spurious, that no steam drills were used in construction there. Johnson and Chappell were both well aware of that fact and persisted in placing John Henry at Big Bend because there was testimony that a steam drill had been brought in for a test. My reason for rejecting Big Bend is the incoherence of the testimonies of the dozen or so men, interviewed by Johnson and Chappell, who had worked on Big Bend Tunnel. They split half-and-half "for" and "against" John Henry's contest having been there. Their descriptions of John Henry were widely varied. The only one who claimed to have witnessed the contest was a very poor witness - evasive, giving little detail, saying that it was no big deal and that he had just looked in once in a while. In contrast, not only is C. C. Spencer a great witness, giving extraordinary detail, but the testimony of others supports some of his. In general, there is little contradiction among the testimonies of the "Alabama" informants. As a whole, their testimonies are coherent.

My work has gotten some notice. Stephen Wade featured it on NPR three years or so ago. It has been written up regularly in the local newspapers around Leeds, AL, and Athens, GA.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 28 Feb 07 - 08:02 AM

Thanks for the clarifications, John. At least my conclusion is correct - that the Alabama case is stronger than the other guys'!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 May 07 - 04:32 PM

I wrote (27Feb2007):

**********
(1) C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson that he had died on September 20, 1882. His year has to be wrong - the only year the railroad through Dunnavant, AL, was under construction in September was 1887, the year of John Henry's death given by Glendora Cannon Cummings, who claimed (ca 1927) that her had uncle witnessed John Henry's death. Harvey Hicks (Evington, VA, ca 1930) gave Louis Chappell a version of "John Henry" containing the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday." September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday.

For a particular date, the probability matching the day of the week with a random guess is 1/7, 14%. Thus, the probability that the match that is found is not accidental is 86%.

If it is not accidental, what scenario, other than that it is truth, could account for the agreement. The only such scenario I can think of is that an untrue story including the date and day of the week made the rounds. It is hard for me to imagine how an untrue story could have originated. It is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such a detail.

My conclusion: From this, it is 86% probable that the historic John Henry died on Tuesday, September 20, 1887.
**********

Sorry. I've retracted this bit of statistical thinking in several places and I thought I'd done it here already but I just looked and discovered that I hadn't.

It is correct that

IF a choice of day of the week is random
THEN the probability of agreement with a date is 1/7 (14%).

It is *not* correct that

IF a day of the week and date agree
THEN the probability that neither is a random choice is 6/7 (86%).

The second "IF...THEN..." does not follow the the first. I erred in thinking that it did. I take it back. I'm sorry.

There *is* a probability treatment of this situation that can lead to the conclusion that agreement between day and date implies that day and date are likely true, with a probability over 80% or so, but it depends on some assumptions and it is more complex that the simple reasoning I tried to use. I thank Nathan Rose for pointing out this approach in another forum.

I still think that the probability is zero that three independent informants could come up with "Dabney"/"Dabner" as the name of John Henry's boss and there not be a true historic background. Add to this the independent fact that Captain Fred Y. Dabney *was* in charge of the construction of the C & W, the line to which two of those informants pointed, and we have a very strong case, I believe.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 May 07 - 03:57 PM

FWIW:

I found an internet claim today that one Godfrey Isbell was buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery, Shelby County, AL, in about 1882. This is the first evidence that Sand Ridge Cemetery already existed in 1887, when John Henry Dabney may have died in a nearby steel-driving contest with a steam drill.

I also examined satellite images of Sand Ridge Cemetery. All the nearby roads show up as white. There is mention of a "white road" in at least one version of the ballad "John Henry."

Thus, it remains possible that Sand Ridge Cemetery is John Henry's resting place.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Jul 07 - 11:14 AM

According to
http://www.leedsalabama.com/history/thedepot.htm

"The first Leeds Railroad Heritage and John Henry Day Celebration has been set for the weekend of September 14-16, 2007, at which time the Historic Depot and Railroad Museum will be open for visitors."

Also,

"A Historical Symposium on Saturday, September 15, will be sponsored by the Alabama Folklife Association, funded by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation. The symposium will feature a number of visiting scholars on John Henry and Dr. Marbury will present his historical research paper on the history of railroads in Leeds."

I am one of the "number of visiting scholars" and I think Scott Nelson will be another.

My talk will be on the evidence that the historic John Henry was in Alabama. Nelson's talk is supposed to be on the cultural significance of the John Henry legend.

It should be entertaining.


Y'all come!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM

The scheduled September 15, 2007 John Henry Day Celebration and associated symposium promises to be a genuine knee slapper if you happen to be a real railroad history aficionado who is into fairy tales mixed with actual railroad history. This event has been planned and executed by some local folks who are apparently so insecure or ashamed or both of Leeds' real railroad history that they must enhance it with a historical legend. The Lord willin' and Cahawba creek don't rise, I plan to be there early to get a good seat because there will surly be a standing room only crowd. I expect nothing less than an epiphany that John Henry not only helped dig the Dunnavant Tunnel but also played tackle for the 1887 Leeds Green Wave football team (based on a 0% - 100% probability).

Y'all drop by fur sure, we'll keep the light on for you.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill Oursler
Date: 30 Aug 07 - 07:47 PM

I am NOT a witness to John Henry's death! I am going on 77. tho,and can remember the old slave quarters on my Grandmother's farm. My uncles would sing "John Henry" and that's the first song I learned on my guitar. There was a small settlement near where I lived called "Henryton". it is right near the RR tracks. Oh,yes, there was a 1/4 mile tunnel right there bored out of hard rock. Some of the old folks used to say it was named after The one and only "John Henry" It was generally accepted that the steam drill race happened in Alabama.... All these articles about John were very interesting to me. Henryton is in Maryland (below the Mason-Dixon line) John Garst makes a lot of logic in his writings. I lean very hard towards Alabama as the John Henry era. Very interesting discussions........

Bill Oursler.....Las Cruces, N.M.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Sep 07 - 09:45 PM

Hi, Bill.

Well, you've got a year or so on me, but only that.

I'm interested in all versions of "John Henry," particularly those with lines or phrases that are rarely found. I think these are more likely to contain historic truth than commonplaces like "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road" and "Polly Ann."

What about it? Does the version of "John Henry" that you learned early on have any distinctive features that might be relevant to historicity?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Sep 07 - 10:19 PM

Leeds, Alabama, held its first annual "John Henry in Leeds" celebration on Saturday, September 15, 2007. It was sponsored by The Alabama Folklife Association, The Leeds Historical Society, and The Leeds Arts Council. It was held at the Community Arts Center in Leeds in an auditorium that could seat something over 100 people, perhaps 120 or 140. If I had to guess, I'd say maybe 70 people were there for the morning session and something less than that for the afternoon.

The program was opened by a local singer-songwriter, Ron Dometrovich, performing "John Henry." Then locals Joyce Cauthen (folklorist and musician and leader of the Alabama Folklife Association), Marie Cromer (writer), Carl Marbury (retired college president and descendant of African-American railroad workers who had worked on building the roads through Leeds), and Jerry Voyles (grandson of a railroad supervisor who has a film production company) made some preliminary comments.

Marie called to the podium Scott Nelson, Legum Professor (since April, 2007) of History at William and Mary and author of "Steel Drivin' Man" which gives the "truth about John Henry" by placing the historic figure at Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. Marie presented Scott with a printed citation for bravery in coming to Leeds despite holding an opinion that he knew would not be popular there.

Jerry then told something about his grandfather's journal and the John Henry legend as it came to him. He played a 5-minute John Henry video he had made for a local Fox news station.

Carl followed, speaking on "Myth, Oral Tradition, and the Historical Nature of the John Henry Legend."

After a break and a short business meeting, I followed Carl with "Evidence for John Henry in Alabama." The program said that we were "Celebrating a Local Legend" and several speakers had already commented that the John Henry legend is big enough to be claimed by any number of communities.

I followed suit, sincerely wishing Talcott, West Virginia, well with celebrating their John Henry legend. Then I stuck my neck out by saying that I consider that the evidence places the historicity of John Henry at Dunnavant, Alabama, "beyond reasonable doubt." I believe that, in a criminal court, it could convict Dunnavant of having harbored John Henry. Then I ran through this evidence and challenged anyone to account for it in any other way.

After lunch, Art Rosenbaum (banjo picker, singer, artist, and professor extraordinaire) sang a capella a version of the John Henry hammer song that he had collected in Athens, Georgia, and then sang with banjo accompaniment Uncle Dave Macon's "Death of John Henry."

Scott gave a PowerPoint presentation on "John Henry and American Culture." He did not mention my work and barely touched on his own work on the historic John Henry or on his speculations that steel driving contributed the words "rock and roll" and that John Henry was the prototype for the comics superhero, Superman. Most of his presentation was about African-American railroad workers, their white bosses, labor hazards, and John Henry songs.

Following Scott, locals were offered the opportunity to come forth with their own family stories about John Henry. One woman did.

Then the floor was opened for questions for Scott and me. We fielded a few questions each and then those who had signed up headed for a bus to go on a tour of local sites of John Henry interest.

We saw some railroad sites of non-JH interest in town and then headed south on AL 25 for Oak Mountain.

This journey is described at

http://www.frograil.com/tours/ns/centralOfGeorgia.htm#LONGTUNNEL

in sections of text provided by Casey Thomason and headed "Leeds" and "Long Tunnel."

After crossing Oak Mountain and Oak Tunnel (which could not be seen) we went south on AL 25 for about 1.75 mi to Tunnel Road, which leads to the old Columbus & Western (now Norfolk Southern) track just before it enters the north portal of Coosa Tunnel. We all got out and admired the tunnel from a safe distance from both tunnel and track.

Testimony has it that John Henry drove steel at Coosa Tunnel. His contest with a steam drill, however, is said in local tradition to have been held outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel.

On the trip back along AL 25 we were shown the probable location of the railroad construction camp, "Dunnavant's Camp," in 1887-88, when the line through Dunnavant and Leeds was built.

After seeing a few more railroad sites non-JH interest, we returned and Joyce, Scott, Art Rosenbaum, I, and 4 others headed off for beer (or whatever) and barbecue at the Original Golden Rule Barbecue in Irondale, the town just east of Birmingham along I-20.

A good time was had by all.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 18 Sep 07 - 08:08 PM

Don Clowers wrote (21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM):

********
The scheduled September 15, 2007 John Henry Day Celebration and associated symposium promises to be a genuine knee slapper if you happen to be a real railroad history aficionado who is into fairy tales mixed with actual railroad history. This event has been planned and executed by some local folks who are apparently so insecure or ashamed or both of Leeds' real railroad history that they must enhance it with a historical legend. The Lord willin' and Cahawba creek don't rise, I plan to be there early to get a good seat because there will surly be a standing room only crowd. I expect nothing less than an epiphany that John Henry not only helped dig the Dunnavant Tunnel but also played tackle for the 1887 Leeds Green Wave football team (based on a 0% - 100% probability).
********

I suppose the Lord wasn't willing or Cahawba creek rose. Neither I nor any of the Leeds people I've asked managed to detect the presence of Don Clowers at the John Henry in Leeds celebration on Saturday, September 25.

I am told, however, that the local paper published his letter to the editor a couple of days before the event and that it was in his usual style.

Where wuz you, Don? Were you there incognito? Are you a real person or just a name?

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Sep 07 - 10:41 AM

Correction to second message of 18 Sep:

"Neither I nor any of the Leeds people I've asked managed to detect the presence of Don Clowers at the John Henry in Leeds celebration on Saturday, September 25."

It was actually September 15.

September 25 is another red-letter day for me, the day of my upcoming surgery.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 21 Sep 07 - 01:12 PM

You can download a PDF file containing the text of the talk I gave in Leeds, Alabama, September 15, 2007, at the following WWW site.

http://www.alabamafolklife.org

At the left is a reproduction from the cover of the program for the John Henry in Leeds celebration. Above and below it are links to a page on that event.

Once you are at the event page, scroll down until you see my picture (on the right). Under it is the download link.

John


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Subject: Records of the Columbus & Western, 1886-88
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Feb 08 - 03:24 PM

No, I haven't found them yet. This is a progress (?) report.

Hearing, a few years ago, that the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, held vast numbers of unprocessed and unavailable records of the Central of Georgia and its predecessor, the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia, which owned outright the Columbus & Western Railway Company, for which John Henry is supposed to have worked in 1887-88, when the line was being extended from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham, I thought that these unprocessed C of G records might hold those of the C & W. I asked regularly about this of librarians at GHS but made no progress until last week, when I learned that there exists a detailed inventory of the unprocessed materials, that those materials date mostly from 1930, and that nothing about the C & W is there.

That was disappointing but even so it was progress, since I wouldn't have to be concerned with those records anymore.

Then Allen Tuten, President of the Central of Georgia Historical Society, came up with another surprise. He pointed to boxes of *processed* material that might contain C & W records even though the catalog doesn't reflect it. All the catalog points to for the C & W are a couple of legal documents.

Apparently, the catalog and finding aids for the processed C of G collection are not very detailed. This collection could contain materials relevant to the C & W for 1886-88. All I have to do is go through hundreds of banker boxes of material and 40,000 rolled-up, original-ink engineering drawings, not necessarily labeled on the outside.

I hope to get started later this month!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 Feb 08 - 04:05 PM

The image of a hammer ringing is widespread in folksong. Surely it comes from steel driving, which was a common activity in both slavery ad post-slavery times.

I've asked about this on a physics group and of an old-timer who is familiar with steel driving, but I have come up with disparate responses.

I would think that a sledgehammer hitting, say, a railroad spike, would just go "chink" (or "clink," as you wish). To me, "ringing" would be a sustained sound.

Am I wrong about the hammer and railroad spike?

When I asked this question on a physics newsgroup, I got conflicting answers. One says that hammers do indeed ring. Others say that it is the steel drill that rings.

Any authorities out there?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 09 Feb 08 - 10:15 AM

John, axes in literature are also said to "ring." In the latter case the reference is usually to the echoes of chopping within a forest of tall trees. I imagine that the "ringing" hammer is the same idea.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Mar 08 - 03:05 PM

One interpretation (? - could be authentic rather than a sound effect) of ringing during steel driving can be heard in the John Henry segment of the Disney movie "Tall Tale" (1995). There each blow of John Henry's hammer on the steel results in a prolonged "boooong!" This kind of sound would have to be emitted by the steel drill. Indeed, I've now found other references to the physics of the ringing sound of the steel drill.

Basically, compression waves move longitudinally up and down the drill. As they pass a given spot, the steel deforms (very slightly) laterally, displacing air and creating sound waves. This type of motion is said to be little affected by hands on the drill or mud in the hole, that is, these things don't damp the sound very much.

The ringing of axes in a forest is a matter, I think, of echoes. The ringing of a steel drill in a tunnel would echo, too, but I don't think that the basic ringing sound has anything to do with echoes.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Apr 08 - 06:16 PM

As posted to Ballad-L and pre-war blues lists:

FYI

I have been put in touch recently with a nephew of W. T. Blankenship, the author of the broadside, "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," ca 1910.

I have learned also that WTB had a son, Clarence, who married at age 15. So far I know nothing of Clarence's children, if he had any.

J

P.S. - Correction: rather than "author" I meant "publisher."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 15 Apr 08 - 12:08 PM

Having neither the time nor inclination to take on the supreme and daunting challenge of authentication of "John Henry's" origins, I will take the story, the song and its variants as they play on the emotions. To me, the core of the story is the triumph of spirit - of human dignity and courage - over mindless machine and repressive and controlling men.

I have heard endless variations of the song, often by performers who claim "the authentic and original" version. What I hear, after all, is still the same basic story - and it still moves me.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Apr 08 - 03:03 PM

Guest writes:

"To me, the core of the story is the triumph of spirit - of human dignity and courage - over mindless machine and repressive and controlling men."

I cannot, and would not wish to, disagree.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that is unlikely that the historic John Henry, if there was one, was thinking along these lines when he raced the steam drill. David Mamet commented, as I recall, to the effect that John Henry could not have been dumb enough to believe that beating a steam drill could stop the mechanization of rock drilling.

I suspect that John Henry raced the steam drill because his boss, Captain Dabney, asked him to. Pride must have been a factor - John Henry is said to have been a champion steel driver. Also, Captain Dabney is said to have offered financial incentives, perhaps $50/$100 and a new suit of clothes. Finally, I think friendship played a role. Captain Dabney was about 15 years old when John Henry was born, a slave to Captain Dabney's father probably, or perhaps to his uncle.

Such details don't change the message of "John Henry" as received by Guest and the rest of us.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,D. Clowers
Date: 25 Apr 08 - 04:07 AM

J. Garst wrote on Sept. 18, 2007:

"I suppose the Lord wasn't willing or Cahawba creek rose. Neither I nor any of the Leeds people I've asked managed to detect the presence of Don Clowers at the John Henry in Leeds celebration on Saturday, September 25 (sic Sept. 15)

I am told, however, that the local paper published his letter to the editor a couple of days before the event and that it was in his usual style.

Where wuz you, Don? Were you there incognito? Are you a real person or just a name?

John "

Well John to the best of my memory I had something really important to do that particular day …. I believe I had to trim my toe nails and give the dog a bath. However, I did read some local reviews of the celebration and there was nothing new just the same old song and dance with no new revelations. Still the same old hearsay, convoluted logic, suppositions and half-truths mixed with some real documented railroad facts. I admit that I can not prove that J. Henry was ever in the Leeds area, but on the other hand no one (including you) has so far been able to prove that J. Henry (of the folktale) ever existed or offered any substantial evidence of his presence within 100 miles of Leeds. Please don't quote the letter from C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson. You said it yourself….a self-proclaimed eye-witness…..this in nothing more than hearsay … its not a sworn and witnessed affidavit. However, I did recently read an issue of the B'ham News that there is some new documentation was forthcoming that "J. Henry did his thing here" in Leeds. You must know that I am breathless with anticipation about this new revelation, my personal epiphany of the realization that there is forthcoming unquestionable, irrefutable, absolute proof that J. Henry did indeed "do his thing here". These quotes are from our new Leeds Chamber of Commerce President …. you know the folks who try to lure the tourist into town.

Don

P.S. Come to think of it, I believe the Cahawba did rise that day mainly from the B.S. run off from all the J. Henry lectures.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Apr 08 - 05:39 PM

Don, it's good to hear from you again.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,cStu
Date: 17 May 08 - 06:21 PM

It just struck me that Leadbelly claims that John Henry had two women. Mary Magdalene and Polly Anne, which interestingly fits with the idea that his wife had to catch a train to get to where he died, and also that she was nearby to cradle his head when he collapsed. In his introduction to the song calls Henry a double drivin' man, but maybe that's double jivin' referring to his women?

Anyways I have found this a fascinating read and read both this page and the original this afternoon. (No mean feat)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Guest is Q
Date: 18 May 08 - 04:32 PM

Two years ago, Scott Reynolds Nelson published his prize-winning book, "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend," He has rewritten the book, with Marc Aronson, for children, "Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry," published by National Geographic. A review by Lawrence Downes appeared in the NY Times Book Review, April 13, 2008.

Some 40,000 African-Americans laid track throughout the South, and many prisoners did forced labor for the railroads. The song itself was well-covered in the book for adult readers, but not here. Information was gathered from many sources; the crayon notes of a Henry Grady, an unknown railroad carpenter, "paint a blurry picture of the strenuous, dangerous life of trackliners..."
The book is well-illustrated with photographs and drawings.
Nelson speculations are sometimes a stretch too far- "even if a railroad worker did "rock and roll" a drill between whacks of a hammer, did the term really have anything to do with the one that, many decades later, came to mean something a lot less dangerous and a lot more fun?"
"Nelson's enthusiasm for historical sleuthing would whet any reader's appetite to do the same. It pulls the neat trick of giving you a heaping serving of a story you thought you already knew, and leaving you wanting more." The legend still grows.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM

Q mentions Nelson's book for young people (it is not for younger children).

It is beautifully produced.

As far as content is concerned, however, it is the "same old same old," an identification of the "real" John Henry that is based on flimsy evidence and is almost certainly wrong.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 May 08 - 03:28 PM

cStu observes that Lead Belly sings of two of John Henry's women/wives, providing for the possibility that one was at the scene of his death and the other had to take a train to go where he fell dead.

I wonder where Lead Belly got his version. I think that he was a sponge for songs and fragments of them, which he continually incorporated into the versions he performed and recorded. I suspect that the recorded version referred to by cStu is a product of such agglomeration.

In any event, JH's women have lots of names in the ballad versions. Some indicate that his various women wore different colors of dresses. Others say that his wife/woman wore different colors on different occasions.

I've always imagined that it was his mother/sister that had to get on that "east-bound train" to "go where John Henry fell dead."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, in beautiful Leeds, Alabama
Date: 29 May 08 - 06:37 PM

RESPONSE TO: J. Garst Post dated: 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM

"Q mentions Nelson's book for young people (it is not for younger children).

It is beautifully produced.

As far as content is concerned, however, it is the "same old same old," an identification of the "real" John Henry that is based on flimsy evidence and is almost certainly wrong."

John,

Scott Reynolds Nelson's book content and reasoning can't be anymore convoluted and flakey as yours. Give the man a spare.

Don C.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Jun 08 - 12:55 PM

You need to read "Steel Drivin' Man," Don.

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Oct 08 - 09:07 PM

A third eyewitness to John Henry's contest with a steam drill and death near Dunnavant, Alabama, has turned up. His son is still living.

The other two are C. C. Spencer and an uncle of Glendora Cannon Cummings, both informants for Guy Johnson, ca 1927.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Nov 08 - 10:31 AM

After interviewing the grandson, I wrote

*****
A third eyewitness to John Henry's contest with a steam drill and death near Dunnavant, Alabama, has turned up. His son is still living.

The other two are C. C. Spencer and an uncle of Glendora Cannon Cummings, both informants for Guy Johnson, ca 1927.
*****

Now I have interviewed the son and the story is different. The son, who is now 86, says that his father did not witness John Henry's contest and death, but he had two friends (named) who did.

This evidence loses credibility somewhat by one further step of removal from the event: witnesses -> friend -> son. However, it gains an eyewitness, making four if we believe all accounts.

I got another useful bit, however, from the son. He told me that his father had said that John Henry had been brought from Mississippi. That makes the third witness to this effect, the first being C. C. Spencer (1927), the second Mrs. Davis (1955), and now this (2008).

An interesting development with C. C. Spencer is now under investigation. He appears in the 1920 census in Emery County, Utah, as a coal miner. His wife's name is Luceal.

It appears that he was in a card game on Saturday night, just before Christmas, 1922, in Mohrland, Emery County, Utah. It was a three-way game, and Spencer continously lost while another man continously won, the third man breaking even. This led to friction and Spencer wound up shooting and killing the winning gambler. There was a manhunt leading to his capture. He was convicted in 1923 and sentenced to life in prison, but in 1926 his sentence was commuted to five years. He applied for early release in 1927 and it appears that he may have received it.

A Charles C. Spencer appears in the 1930 census as a crane operator in a factory in Salt Lake City. He was married but not living with his wife.

A Charles Curtis Spencer, b. July 7, 1878, registered for the draft in 1918 in Henry County, Virginia. His wife's name is Lucinda P. Spencer.

A comparison of the signatures of Charles C. Spencer (Utah parole request) and Charles Curtis Spencer (draft registration) is inconclusive to my eyes. They look rather different (one is a thin line, the other bold; the bold one is crowded into a given space, the thin one is not crowded), but their underlying structure is similar. I need a handwriting expert, I think.

In any event, these developments add a bit of "color" to the John Henry story.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Ifor Coggan
Date: 05 Nov 08 - 03:12 PM

I am trying to find the verses of the following nonsense song. Can anyone help? The website leader contains the first two lines but I cannot find anymore of it on this site.The names being Henry John and John Henry and not Andrew

There was a man who had two sons
and these two sons were brothers
Andrew John was one son's name
John Andrew was the other.

Now these two sons they found a bike
They found it in a hollow
and everywhere the front wheel went
the back wheel had to follow.

Now these two sons they died at last
they died from eating jelly
Andrew John died on his back
John Andrew on his belly

Sung to a Welsh folk tune "Gathering the wheat"


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Dec 08 - 03:17 PM

I have just received a photograph of W. T. Blankenship, publisher of the broadside "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," perhaps during the 1910s, and his wife Josephine. It is a poor photograph, but I'm thrilled to have any!

I have discovered, and ordered a copy of, a 65-page Utah case file on C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eyewitness to John Henry's death. Spencer shot and killed a man with whom he was gambling in December, 1922.

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 01 Dec 08 - 06:08 PM

That's great John. Let us know about the Spencer report.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 06 Dec 08 - 02:26 PM

I now have a photograph of Charles C. Spencer, a mug shot - very poor quality, but perhaps an original still exists in the Utah archives, from which a better copy could be made.

Prison record for C. C. Spencer. nativity: Va married: yes age: 52   height: 5' 11"   read: checked write: checked   religion: something I can't read   other descriptive marks and scars: can't read, perhaps "tall"   commuted to 5 years on 11-20-26 terminated 2/18/28

Spencer was the first man tried for first-degree murder in the history of Emery County, Utah, according to a news account.

The Emery County Progress (newspaper, Saturday, December 30, 1922) reports that the shooting was Christmas night.

Emery County Progress (February 10, 1922): "The defendant bore himself well and betrayed no trace of the sullenness usual in so many defendants under similar circumstances. Asked what he would do were he 'sent up,' he expressed the intention of doing everything he could to help his fellows in a moral and spiritual way. It seems the defendant had done more or less missionary work among his race in the past, at one time holding the office of second degree minister in his faith. He is understood to have been an abstainer from both tobacco and drink until about a year before the shooting, but then commenced to indulge in both and to take up gambling."

The "terminated" date in the prison record suggests that Spencer was somewhat successful in his quest for an earlier release after his sentence had been commuted. He had been scheduled for release on November 20, 1928.

This shows, however, that when he wrote Guy Johnson from Salt Lake City in 1927, he was writing from prison. Johnson may have been unaware of this; he writes, "From Salt Lake City, Utah, Mr. C. C. Spencer sends a vivid account...." Spencer was incarcerated in Salt Lake City.

If the age 52 was in 1923, when he went to prison, then Spencer was b 1870-71, making him 15-17 in 1887. He wrote Johnson that he was "about 14 years old at that time." Pretty close, I'd say. I like this birth date better than the 1878 one that appears in another document.

I suspect that Spencer's sentence was reduced on account of his good behavior. Perhaps he did indeed "help his fellows in a moral and spiritual way." That might carry unusual weight in Utah.

I suppose that I'll find out more when I receive the 65-page case file. What I got yesterday was a few loose items that are separate from the case file.

This is beginning to be a rich portrait of Spencer.

I have the suspicion that the white man, the young Master of my people," in whose care Spencer was in Alabama in 1887, might have been some Virginia friend or relative of Captain Fred Dabney, John Henry's boss. Captain Dabney employed other friends and relatives on this job.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stringsinger
Date: 07 Dec 08 - 02:19 PM

"Rock and roll" has been a euphemism in the African-American lexicon for many years.
It's intent is as sure as the word "jass" which was explicit in referring to sexual intercourse.

It would probably turn up as an expression for a variety of things.

Frank


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Dec 08 - 11:19 AM

On Monday, December 22, 2008, I visited the Manuscripts Department of the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I had asked them by e-mail to copy some items for me, but they had not been able to find all of them. In particular, the didn't find two letters from C. C. Spencer and one from F. P. Barker that I thought I had seen when I was there in 2001-02, and the couldn't find a letter from Guy Johnson to Louis Chappell on which I had made notes when I was there earlier. The purpose of my visit was to look for these "lost" items.

I found the two letters from Spencer and the letter from Johnson to Chappell. I did not find the letter from Barker - it appears that it is lost or badly misfiled.

Actually, if I had known that one had to be lost, I would have chosen Barker. I think the others are more important.

The letter from Johnson to Chappell explains how Johnson came to his search for John Henry at Big Bend Tunnel, independently of Chappell. This is important because it is, as far as I know, the only defense Johnson ever gave against Chappell's allegations that Johnson had gotten his Big Bend ideas from Chappell.

The Spencer letters are important because he is a self-proclaimed eyewitness to John Henry's death. He gives many details of his story, and of these many important ones turn out to be correct (by documentation).

I got a surprise, though, in reading Spencer's letters. Up front he says (in 1927) that he believes that he may be the only living person who witnessed the deaths of both John Henry and John Hardy. Because there was confusion between John Henry and John Hardy in the 1920s, arising from John H. Cox's earlier confusion of the two, Johnson made a point of asking, in the items he placed in newspapers, for information on both men. Spencer claimed to have been present at John Henry's death in Alabama in 1887 and at John Hardy's hanging in West Virginia in 1894. In his letters, Spencer gives accurate information about John Hardy. This was at a time when no one seemed to have accurate information about him. That he was accurate about John Hardy supports his reliability as a witness and indicates that he was accurate about John Henry as well.

I now have a mug shot of C. C. Spencer, and I now know that he was 5' 11' tall. Since there are two pretty good photographs of John Hardy standing on the scaffold, showing part of the assembled crowd, perhaps there is a chance that C. C. Spencer could be found standing there. It's a slim chance, since only part of the crowd is shown and since many of the people are distant from the camera, but it is worth a good try.

Strangely, Johnson did not include Spencer's John Hardy information in his book.

I got another surprise. Major Thomas G. Dabney wrote Johnson about Dabneys in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and John Henry - he said he knew nothing of either subject. No doubt he was thrown off by the request about Holly Springs, which had been named by Spencer as John Henry's home. Spencer erred in this - it should have been Crystal Springs. If Johnson had asked Major Dabney about Dabneys and ex-slaves at Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Major Dabney would have had intimate knowledge. He would have known that his older brother, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, had lived there, and that their father, Judge Augustine Dabney, had also lived there after the Civil War. He would have been able to name all the family's slaves, which included Henry, and he probably would have known that Henry had lived near Crystal Springs. He might even have known of Henry's death while working for Captain Dabney in Alabama in 1887!

We live in a strange universe of intricate connection and near misses.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Dec 08 - 09:15 AM

I have now decided that I must expand the scope of my work on John Henry. Having some good new material on the interaction between Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell, I feel that I must look into that more closely and not just dismiss it with a few sentences as others have done. That means that I must visit the archives at West Virginia University, Chappell's papers, and try to learn a lot more about Chappell, and Johnson, too.

Right now my impression of Chappell is that he was a brilliant, highly accomplished scholar who might not have gotten the recognition he deserved at West Virginia University in a timely fashion. Eventually, it came, I think, but that is one of the matters I hope to look into.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Jan 09 - 10:44 AM

The letter from F. P. Barker to Guy Johnson, thought lost, has now been found. That means that everything I saw in the UNC archive in 2001 has now been located again, and I now have copies of a lot of things I should have copied in 2001.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Feb 09 - 08:08 PM

Actually, there are *two* letters, both short, from F. P. Barker. Johnson quotes from both in his book, *John Henry*.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Mar 09 - 03:05 PM

I have posted the following to BALLAD-L.

In John Harrington Cox's 1919 JAF article, "John Hardy," he quotes ex-Governor (1893-1897) William. A MacCorkle (1857-1930) (*not* "McCorkle," which has become the norm in folklore publications, an endless repetition of an error in Cox's article) from a 1916 letter written by the latter to H. S. Green (Charleston, WV):

"He [John Hardy] was a steel-driver, and was famous in the beginning of the building of the C. & O. Railroad. He was also a steel-driver in the beginning of the extension of the N. & W. Railroad. It was about 1872 that he was in this section."

The Norfolk & Western had several extensions. One, the Clinch Valley Extension from Bluefield to Norton, VA, was begun in 1887 and completed in 1890, about the same time that the Columbus & Western extension from Goodwater, Alabama, to Birmingham was under construction (1887-88).

MacCorkle, like many others in the VA-WV area, was convinced that John Henry and John Hardy were the same person. Thus, his comments about John Hardy's having been a steel driver are followed by statements that he was "a gambler, a roué, a drunkard, and a fierce fighter." This confusion was found in the literature until Johnson's and Chappell's books on John Henry were published. They produced substantive evidence that John Henry and John Hardy were different men, John Henry a steel driver, John Hardy a sport.

My pointa here are

(1) that MacCorkle thought that John Henry (the steel driver, not the gambler) had worked on another railroad *after* the C & O job. Obviously, he didn't think that John Henry died after a contest with a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel,

(2) that a one-letter mutation of C & W that will lead either to C & O or to N & W, the two railroads with which MacCorkle associates John Henry with, and

(3) that an N & W extension was underway at the same time as the C & W extension in Alabama.

It all adds up to a suggestion of a scenario in which the Alabama story of John Henry and the C & W went north to West Virginia/Virginia, got mixed up with the John Hardy story, and mutated to produce the belief that John Henry had worked on both the C & O and the N & W.

What is new (to me) here is the part about the N & W. Until recently, I hadn't paid enough attention to MacCorkle's story to appreciate the relationship between "N & W" and "C & W."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 Apr 09 - 03:57 PM

There is a little to add to my preceding post, about Gov. MacCorkle and the N & W.

The N & W came into existence in 1881, when the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio was renamed by new owners. Thus, it is evident that Gov. MacCorkle thought that John Henry/Hardy worked on the N & W well after the boring of Big Bend Tunnel in 1869-72.

The first extension of the N & W, to Bluefield, WV, was completed in 1883. The next, the Clinch Valley Extension, was built 1887-1890, as noted earlier.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Mark Clark
Date: 17 Jun 09 - 08:12 PM

John,

Joy Ward and I stopped by Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI, late last month on our way to Owen Sound, ON. One of Joy's purchases at Elderly was Volume 11, Number 10 (April - May 2009) of The Old-Time Herald. Imagine our delight to find your published article “John Henry In Alabama,” a revised version of your lecture at the John Henry Day Celebration in Leeds, Alabama, September 15, 2007.

I've followed your enthusiastic investigation since you began posting here in 2001 and have enjoyed every bit of it. Thank you so much for all your effort and your willingness to share it here.

You, sir, are a treasure.

      - Mark


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jun 09 - 03:12 PM

Thank you, Mark.

I'm plugging away on my book, but it is slow going for me. I guess old age has slowed me down.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Jun 09 - 05:42 PM

John,

Just you switch over to New Age, and the book will go better... ;-)

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jul 09 - 02:26 PM

Thanks for the tip, Art.

Is it time to start a new thread, Part THREE?

This one has gotten pretty long.

John
    No real need for a new thread, John. When there's too many threads on a subject, information gets split up too much. You can view long threads in pieces (click) by clicking on the number of messages or on the little "d" link on the line for the thread on the forum menu.
    John, if you'd like to manage a moderated PermaThread on the subject of John Henry, just let me know and I'll help you set it up. We have so much information here, that it would be good to have one thread that consolidates the best of it into readable form.
    Be sure to looke at these two pages:
    -Joe Offer-
    joe@mudcat.org


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: mayomick
Date: 22 Jul 09 - 04:29 PM

Could anyone explain the mechanics involved ? How much faster could a steam drill hew rock compared to a man with a nine pound hammer?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 25 Jul 09 - 12:32 PM

Hi,

They drove holes in the rock to place dynamite charges. The steam drill in 1887 that raced John Henry was probably an Ingersoll model on a tripod which stood about as tall as a man. Weights weere added to the legs and sometimes the operator stood on the legs.

The Ingersoll model first used steam and then an air compressor model. The drill could make about 400 strikes per minute.

John Henry was a steel driver, part of a three man team with a loader (changed the steel drill rods) and a shaker (turned the steel drills). The average number of strike with a sledge hammer is 80 per minute.

The steam drill could go 5 times faster.

The reason John Henry won was probably due to technical problems with the drill and an inexperienced operator.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM

I agree almost entirely with Richie. The part that seems somewhat questionable is the speed of the steam drill.

Claims and reports on that vary a great deal.

However, several sources that ought to have been well informed put the practical rate in the hardest rock at about 1 in/min.

Also in the hardest rock, good steel drivers on double-jack teams could do about 0.5 in/min.

If John Henry were an exceptional steel driver, which is what is said in ballad, legend, and testimony, perhaps he could have approached 1 in/min.

We don't know exactly how long the contest was, but it seems (from testimony and ballad) that it was an "all-day" contest under the usual working conditions. That immediately distinguishes it from the very popular Western rock-drilling competitions, in which each double-jack team drilled for a specified time, usually fifteen minutes and rarely, if ever, longer. In the Western contests, both members of a team were expert drivers and shakers, and they swapped roles every minute or less.

As late as 1901 there was double-jack team that was confident that it could beat any steam drill in a fifteen-minute contest. These contests used granite, usually from a quarry in Gunnison, CO, which was chosen because it was believed to be both very uniform and very hard. At one time around 1900, the record for a double-jack team was 55 in (in 15 min). That is nearly 4 in/min! I believe that they were right. This champion team *could* have beaten any steam drill in a 15-min contest using Gunnison granite.

How do we translate this to an 8-hour shift of a single steel driver with his shaker? I wish I knew. Should a single steel driver be able to do 50%, 25%, or 10% of what a top Western double-jack team could do in 15 min? I don't have any real idea.

What I do know is that there were exceptional individuals who did amazing things. There is a record of a single-jacker drilling 31 ft in very hard rock in an 8-hour shift. This rate is 68% of that of the world champion single-jacker, drilling for just 15 min.

If John Henry could have driven at 68% of the rate of the world champion double-jackers in Western contests, he would have drilled 147 ft in 8 hr! What he actually did, according to C. C. Spencer, was 27.5 ft, 0.69 in/min, about 19% of the rate of the world champion Western double-jack team. To me, this seems quite realistic.

Spencer says that the steam drill made only 21 ft. For 8 hr of drilling, this is only 0.525 in/min, only slightly better than the reported average for a double-jacking steel driver under ordinary working conditions in hard rock. If the drill were actually working for half of the 8-hr period, this would be reasonable. If it had been working full time, it probably would have made about 40 ft in 8 hr (1 in/min).

Thus, the steam drill would probably have won if there had been no mechanical problems. With significant mechanical problems, John Henry could have won.

It is sometimes argued that John Henry's contest could not have occurred as late as 1887-88 (when the RR in Alabama was under construction) because by then steam drills, which were tested extensively just after the Civil War at Hoosac Tunnel (MA), would have been perfected to the extent that no human steel driver could win a contest.

This argument is nonsense. It overlooks the fact that there was no improvement in speed between 1870 and 1887 - the improvements were in reliability. It also overlooks the fact that even in 1887 no steam drill was perfectly reliable. It was not uncommon for the drill steel to break or for fitchering (stuck steel due to an angled hole) to occur.

There is a contemporary record (21st or late 20th century) of an operator of a power drill being killed by being impaled by a ricocheting broken-off steel.

Fitchering was certainly still a problem in the late 1880s. The recommended procedure for releasing a stuck steel was to hammer on it sideways. If it came unstuck, then the operator had to try to redrill the hole to straighten it out. When this didn't work, the hole had to be abandoned.

John Henry's opponent had to deal with all of these potential problems, broken steels, nonlinear holes, and stuck steels.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,TJ in San Diego
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 04:41 PM

John Henry, to me, clearly shows the bifurcated, but sometimes interconnected, way in which people approach folk song and story. One one level, John Henry is a parable, as alluded to above, showcasing the classic clashes of man vs. machine, muscle vs. intellect, courage vs. cowardice, subject vs. master, etc., ad infinitum. He represents the possibilities in human integrity and spirit.

On another level, there is the scholarly group that seeks the ultimate truth, so far as it may be revealed, about such subjects as John Henry, myth vs. reality, origins, locations, birthplaces, etc., etc. From that perspective, in a way, it is not unlike method acting. The more you know of and get into your subject; getting into the skin of another, so to speak, the more truthful and compelling the performance.

I'm interested in the latter as an intellectual exercise, but lean toward the former in terms of what this song can teach. Then, again, there's the part of me that just enjoys the music; the power and energy built into the song itself.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 05:55 PM

John writes: "It is sometimes argued that John Henry's contest could not have occurred as late as 1887-88 (when the RR in Alabama was under construction) because by then steam drills, which were tested extensively just after the Civil War at Hoosac Tunnel (MA), would have been perfected to the extent that no human steel driver could win a contest."

An excellent point. Another is that a contest of the JH sort would hardly depend on any "novelty" in the steam drill. As long as the drill's capability was not self-evidently superhuman, such a contest in earnest or as merely as a challenge would always be possible.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 07:52 PM

PS to my post of 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM:

One of my favorite rare stanzas is relevant here:

John Henry said to his Captain,
"Captain, can't you see,
Your hole is choked and your steel is broke
And your hammer can't go down with me?"

These are indeed the main problems faced by steam drills (really compressed-air drills with compressors powered by steam engines).

I have argued, and I maintain, that rare stanzas/couplets/phrases are likely to reflect early versions and therefore actual history. This stanza occurs only once in the books by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell. I have not found it independently anywhere else.

The reason that something rare is likely to be early is that tradition tends to preserve the things people like to sing and to eliminate the rest. If people liked to sing the stanza above, it wouldn't be rare. It is not something that someone would have been likely to have made up out of whole cloth. Therefore it is probably a leftover from an early version, one that luckily didn't get eliminated entirely.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 08:39 PM

John, a variant was sung by John Lomax, Jr., on his Folkways "American Folksongs" (1956).

John Henry said to the white man,
"Looky yonder what I see,
Oh, your drill's done broke and your hole's done choke,
And you can't drive steel like me, O Lordy!
Can't drive steel like me!"

Lomax calls his text a composite, but he also says he assisted his father when he was collecting inside the Arkansas prison-farm system in 1934.

Lead Belly was their chauffeur. So there's no telling whether this variant is derivative or independent.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 09:17 PM

Thanks, Jon.

Here's the way it appears in the Lomaxes' *American Ballads and Folk Songs* (1934):

John Henry tol' his captain,
"Looka yonder what I see -
Yo' drill's done broke an' yo' hole's done choke,
An' you cain' drive steel like me,
Lawd, Lawd, an' you cain' drive steel like me."

This looks intermediate between what Johnson prints in 1929 and what you give from the much later recording.

This suggests some editing somewhere.

It is sad that Lomax material must be considered to be unreliable.

I suppose that somewhere in Lomax papers there may be something that could let this be sorted out.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 09:26 PM

John, Jr., may have changed "Captain" to "white man" for the sake of underscoring the situation for listeners in 1956 who'd never heard of John Henry.

Otherwise I'd say the changes were likely unconscious - whatever the ultimate source of the stanza.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 11:41 AM

Jon wrote:

"John, Jr., may have changed "Captain" to "white man" for the sake of underscoring the situation for listeners in 1956 who'd never heard of John Henry."

Indeed, "Captain" doesn't make sense, since the Captain was on John Henry's side: the Captain had bet on John Henry.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stringsinger
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 12:53 PM

A myth by any other name is still a myth.

NPR said he was a convict who was buried in the sand by the white house of a prison farm.

Fakelore is an honorable tradition in the folk field.

Norm Cohen's got it right. Who knows why "Jimmy cracked corn?"

The myth is like a song, it gets changed, added to, embellished and has many variants.

It's like asking which Neanderthal man employed the first mouthbow to make music.

My friend Adam Miller says something to the effect that knowing the real facts are not as important as the myth. I can see this point-of-view.

More important to me is what does the song tell us? Man against the machine?
Sexual prowess? Polly Ann drove steel like a man? All these things are significant.

The real John Henry might be a disappointment.

Frank Hamilton


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 03:17 PM

Frank,

For people expecting the romantic aspects of the legend to be true, the real John Henry *is* a disappointment, I'm sure.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 04:47 PM

The 'real John Henry" a composite?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Aug 09 - 03:25 PM

John Henry gave his all and his life in an effort to show that a manual rock driller could beat a powered drilling machine. This is the part of the legend that is almost universally agreed. (Around Big Bend Tunnel, many dispute that John Henry died after the contest, or even that there was a contest).

Romance takes over: John Henry was trying to defend the jobs of his co-workers by showing that manual labor was better than machine labor.

I agree with David Mamet. John Henry couldn't have been *that* stupid:
"I thought it hypocritical to celebrate John Henry's victory, for, surely, the next man couldn't beat the steam drill-John Henry himself couldn't beat it over a protracted period, and no one would be able to vanquish the next generation of the machine-and, so, our celebration of him was disingenuous." (From *Jafsie and John Henry*)

The mundane facts, as related by self-proclaimed eyewitness C. C. Spencer and others: John Henry was the champion steel driver of the Birmingham area (perhaps of the world). A salesman offered his boss, Captain Dabney, a bet: If John Henry could beat his steam drill, he would win it for the Captain. (I assume that the other side of the bet was that if John Henry lost, the Captain would buy the steam drill.) The Captain offered inducements to John Henry, $50 or $100 and a new suit of clothes if he won.

Thus, it seems that John Henry's motives in undertaking the challenge were to defend his pride, to win the prizes offered by the Captain, and to win a steam drill for the Captain.

He surely wasn't trying to show that men were better at rock drilling than machines.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Sep 09 - 04:01 PM

I have recently realized that in Scott Nelson's work on John Henry (JH), he presents no specific evidence that his candidate, John William Henry (JWH), was ever *at* Lewis Tunnel, where Nelson supposes that he died.

Nelson cites documentation to the effect that JWH was leased to work for the C & O and taken from the VA penitentiary for that purpose on December 1, 1868. JWH could have been taken to any site along the route of the C & O under construction in VA. Eventually, Nelson seems to believe, all the C & O laborers wound up at Lewis Tunnel, where a big push was mounted in 1870. Well, maybe not *all* of them - there *were* those who escaped (a big problem, according to Nelson), died (not rare), or were returned to the VA pen on account of illness (many). Nelson assumes that JWH was not one of the escapees, dead, or sick.

Nelson assumes further that JWH died at Lewis Tunnel. The only evidence for this is that he disappeared from prison records after 1873 except for a pencilled notation, "Transferred."

Nelson assumes further that JWH's corpse was sent back to the VA pen for burial. The evidence for this is an interpretation of the lease contract that is, at best, ambiguous on this point. It seems to me that it would have been pretty expensive to ship dead bodies from Lewis Tunnel to the VA pen (time, fuel, casket, ice, etc.) - I think it highly improbable.

Nelson assumes further that JWH was a steel driver. For this, he presents no evidence at all.

Nelson assumes further that JWH was involved with some kind of contest with a steam drill (or with steam drills). For this, he presents no evidence at all.

Nelson also supposes that Cal Evans witnessed John Henry's work and death at Lewis Tunnel, that he brought stories of John Henry from Lewis to Big Bend Tunnel, and that the ballad was made at Big Bend (making it the scene of the action). However, Evans was never *at* Lewis Tunnel (according to the accounts of him given by Johnson and Chappell). Further, Evans himself denied knowing anything about John Henry except what he had heard from others (Johnson, Chappell).

Overall, Nelson's reasoning seems to go something like this:

(1) JH died on the C & O because part of tradition says so.
(2) JH died at a tunnel bored with steam drills because otherwise there could not have been a contest.
(3) Lewis Tunnel was the only C & O tunnel bored with steam drills, as far as we know.
(4) Therefore JH died at Lewis Tunnel.

(5) JWH was leased to work on the C & O.
(6) JWH died on the C & O because his name disappeared from records.
(7) JWH's corpse was taken back to the VA pen because a provision of the lease contract required it.
(8) Therefore JWH was JH because his name is right; the ballad sometimes says that JH was buried in sand at a white house near a RR; and a mass grave with sand put into it, a white house, and a RR were at the VA pen.

Please chew on this, logicians. I know what I think of it, but I could always use a little help.

Note, in connection with item (2), that there is testimony that a steam drill was brought to Big Bend Tunnel for a trial. This allowed Johnson and Chappell to support Big Bend as the John Henry site.

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 07:47 PM

A news article in the Middlesboro (KY) Daily News, June 1, 1934, by Elbert McDonald, states that John Henry died in a contest with a steam drill held at Ewing, Virginia. John Henry was from Alabama and is buried somewhere near Birmingham. The railroad was the L & N.

McDonald states that it is a well-known legend in the Cumberland Valley that John Henry died at the "Seven Sisters," near Varilla, KY, "a short distance from Pineville while working on the construction of the railroad from Pineville to Harlan." The railroad reached Harlan in 1911. Later in the article he writes that John Henry's death is "mistakenly attributed to the 'Seven Sisters,'" and that it really happened at the "next construction job," at Ewing, Virginia.

McDonald's RR history seems to be a bit screwed up, since the L & N already went through Ewing in 1895 but didn't reach Harlan until 1911.

Anyhow, McDonald's John Henry was from Alabama and was buried there.

This kind of mutation in tradition is to be expected if John Henry was actually at Dunnavant, Alabama, 15 miles east of Birmingham.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 08:12 PM

I'm with Frank Hamilton on this! His last post (Stringsinger) is right on. It is all grist for the mill; ---the mill called the folk process.

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 11:47 PM

Hi John,

You as well as anyone know who tricky research can be. I'm doing a series of articles for the Old-time Herald.

What's amusing to me is that the interviews with the actual people that lived the events are incorrect.

For example Clayton McMichen said in one interview with Norm Cohen he was 11 years old when he learned the play the fiddle. In fact he was only 5 or 6- this info and who he first learned to play the fiddle from is only available though a family article which interviews his sisters and other family members.

Later in that same family article there is more misinformation because she cites an unreliable source, another relative.

Hop to get the painting done by the end of the year. I've been bogged down playing and performing constantly.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Nov 09 - 10:22 AM

Indeed, I remind myself continually that no single piece of information about John Henry, regardless of its source, can be assumed to be reliable. That said, there *is* an island of coherence in the sea of incoherence. I think that the Alabama claim is now very well supported. In my view, it is "beyond reasonable doubt."

I have come to regard the evidence gathered by Johnson and Chappell as sufficient to establish the Alabama claim, even though they failed to recognize that. All the other stuff I've found is just "icing on the cake."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 30 Dec 09 - 03:34 PM

Ronald D. Cohen
*Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States*
Carquinez Press
2010

This book has a good bit about "John Henry," but does not address origins at all, even though it mentions Johnson's, Chappell's, and Nelson's books. I am disappointed that it does not mention my work, but since origins are not addressed I suppose that it is a natural omission. Cohen is a historian, it says on the back cover, who "is the author of numerous books on folk music."

I am gratified to find that he reaches the same conclusion that I have about the importance of John Henry to the labor movement, namely, that John Henry did not become a labor icon before the 1960s, when "John Henry" appeared in Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, *Songs of Work and Freedom*, and in Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, *Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America*. "... 'John Henry' did not appear in the numerous songbooks connected with the Communist or Socialist parties in the 1930s, or even in *Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People*, compiled by Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie as the depression waned but not published until 1967" (pp 42-43).

This is contrary to Nelson's view. He interprets all muscular laborers and superheroes as John Henrys, even when there is no evidence of any such link.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Mar 10 - 02:33 PM

Louis Watson Chappell was a major figure in John Henry scholarship, producing as he did a seminal book on the subject in 1933, fours years after his rival Guy Benton Johnson had published his own book. Chappell's work is marked by an intensity and thoroughness that outdoes Johnson, who admitted in a 1975 (?) interview with Kip Lornell that Chappell's book is in "some ways very good."

Chappell's book is marred, in the view of many, by the carping attacks on John Harrington Cox and Johnson with which the Introduction, 20 pages, is chiefly concerned. If we had no other information about Chappell, we might conclude that he was an angry and bitter man.

Perhaps he was, but available online is a personal account of Chappell by Kenneth Walter Cameron, who knew him very well from 1929 to about the time of Chappell's retirement in 1952. This account presents Chappell in a much kinder light than Chappell's own works. It is available online, as PDF files, in two installments.

www.libraries.wvu.edu/wvcollection/newsletter/1985-1994/v4n2.pdf

www.libraries.wvu.edu/wvcollection/newsletter/1985-1994/v4n3.pdf


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 13 Mar 10 - 01:13 PM

Nice articles John,

The links don't work as they are but can be copied and pasted on your browser.

Love to see Chappell's collection,

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,dutch
Date: 01 Apr 10 - 02:38 PM

Very interesting read, but I think you are all over looking something.

Henry might very well have been his first name not his last, and he actually was a john named Henry. Furthermore as a former slave, he may very well have taken the surname of his former owners at emancipation, and not all of them initially took any at all; so he might very well have been a john named Henry from the Dabney's and have continued to be a laborer connected with their enterprises. One could then rephrase that to "one of Dabney's johns named Henry", but that is clumsy in short lined poetry, although very likely might have been used in conversation. So it became simply john Henry. That would certainly be a lot more palatable for general publication and for black mythic maintenance than calling him Dabney's boy Henry, although on the same order from current standpoints which didn't apply in the same way when this legend got started.

BTW Henry is a traditional name in my Dutch background but is usually shortened to Hank, moving from the French Henri to the Germanic Hendrick to the familiar Henk to the Americanized Hank. The original Dutch Hendrick has been Americanized to the English Henry, but the Hank familiar remains. It is my impression that Reconstruction Southern "Henry" did not familiarize that way, that "Henry" stood by itself, and that Southern blacks actually frowned on general familiarization of their actual names; so Henry stands someplace in this almost certainly.   

Not all steps between familiar and formal names move in straight lines. The Dutch Piet has become the English Peter and then reverted to the familiar Pete; so sometime it even moves backward. The former Dutch Claus has become the familiar American Nick by moving through the Anglicized Nicholas. I can trace all of those in my own family history.

IOW it is quite possible the his first name wasn't John at all, but his status was a working john. The idea of first name with little or no surname for former black slaves actually comes from my house abstract here in Minneapolis, where the initial owner of the property is officially listed as Sweet William. Although I don't know for sure, that doesn't sound very white and the time period is very similar to that of the John Henry folk song.

Whatever the actual case there is almost certainly a big, black man with an almost unbelievable appetite for physical labor behind the legend. I think that overlooking the wife does a disservice to the women who often filled in for sick or resting husbands to keep a claim on their jobs. That she could drive steel like a man points to quite a bit different type of labor organization than we have now, and very strongly suggests that some work forces were not as strictly segregated by sex as they became later. That her last words to him were that she had been true to him, also indicates that she hadn't been one of the camp town ladies either, but a legitimate wife, although perhaps common law, which was quite acceptable at that social status in that time. So John Henry became a legitimate man even with a formal family. Whatever her name such a legendary figure would have to have a more or less legendary wife. Her name is far less important than that she existed, although I personally prefer MaggieD, on racially based usage of the time. Were she as well known in camp as it appears, less formality would have been likely than with her husband's name, although significant effort is made into making her legitimate to add to her husband's credentials, and she is a secondary character anyway.

IMO as only a peripheral outsider to this debate, that points to Henry Dabney, former slave boy named just Henry on the Dabney plantation, as the person behind the legend, provided there was a historical basis pretty accurately portrayed by the folk song, which seems like it will remain an open question. But all the elements for myth are certainly there, whether there was an actual person behind them or not. John Henry actually emerges as one of the cleaner cut of American commoner folk heroes.

I expect that there was some sort of comparison trial between former hand labor and the introduction of increased mechanization. Some sort of test, one against the other, or the company would not have even considered expending the capital for the newer, and unproven equipment.

It would make general sense that if any part of the work crew were historically connected to any of the overseers, which was quite common for the newly emancipated former slaves, then one would put one's best against the machine in such trials if only out of some sort of antebellum pride. The folk songs say that the "captain" boasted that his john named Henry could outwork any machine, if you just change the capital of one letter in one word. That might very easily have simply been "cleaned up" for publication. That would not have been noticeable in any sung version, until well after it had been formalized in print. Almost certainly the John Henry myth was a Southern black railroad work crew legend first, probably long before any of it got written down. Editors do that sort of polishing all the time to broaden a publication's appeal. No black minstrel of the time had the cache to challenge any such publication detail any way and many of them never learned to read in the first place to even know about it, at least not in time. That would have been for the benefit of any potential white audience sensibilities.

There were such trials all over as physical labor became more and more mechanized in the late 19th Century, most of which were not considered significant enough by themselves to get publicly recorded or documented; this one is legendary and likely only so because of the race issues involved and how that was organized at the time, as well as the fact that black minstrels were far more common and folksy than their white counterparts, and have always entertained some degree of white audiences.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Apr 10 - 04:19 PM

Thank you, Guest "dutch", for your thoughtful remarks.

I had not considered the possibility that "john" could have been simply a man-designator. I am more familiar with "jack" being used in this way. In steel driving, there are "single-jacking" and "double-jacking," referring to the number of men it takes to do the job. Of course, "Jack" is a nickname for "John."

The testimony of C. C. Spencer, who claimed to have been an eye-witness to John Henry's contest and death, is as follows (February 24, 1927): "John Henry, whose real name was John H. Dabner." Thus, Spencer, who seems to have known John Henry pretty well (giving not only his name but also where he was from), thought that "John" was part of his "real name."

"Henry" was a slave to Gus Dabney, "Henry Dabney" appears in the 1870 census, and "Henry Dabner" (same vital information) appears in the 1880 census. In 1870 and 1880 Henry Dabney lived in Copiah County, Mississippi, not far from Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Gus' son, who would (as Chief Engineer) build the extension of the Columbus & Western Railway from Goodwater, Alabama, to Birmingham, the job on which Spencer's and others' testimonies place John Henry, in 1886-88.

I have no documentation that the slave "Henry" was the census "Henry" or the steel-driving "John Henry", but things seem to be sufficiently consistent to make that a likely possibility. The most out-of-whack part is that two records (1860 Slave Schedule and Letitia Dabney's memoir) have the slave "Henry" born about 1844, while two records (1870 and 1880) have the census "Henry Dabney/Dabner" born about 1850. I am inclined to believe that this discrepancy is within the likely "experimental error". Census takers simply wrote down what they were told, and people were often casual about their ages.

Steel drivers, even champions, were usually not all that big. Technique and endurance were most important. John Henry Dabney was probably about 5' 7-10" and weighed perhaps 160 lb., as best we can gather from a couple of people who claim to have known him personally.

Henry Dabney/Dabner (census) married Margaret Boston in December, 1869. Spencer tells us that John Henry "Dabner"'s wife "cooked for the men." "Margaret Dabney," of course, could give rise to "Maggie D."

I think it hyperbole that she "drove steel like a man." For someone, male or female, doing domestic work on a daily basis to pick up a hammer suddenly and start driving steel is beyond belief, IMHO. The real information in that stanza, I think, is that John Henry had been sick. If this were an undiagnosed mild heart attack that he treated with rest, that would set the stage for his death from ventricular rupture at the contest by leaving a weakened ventricular wall. His dying symptoms suggests death by bleeding from a ruptured organ, and the heart is most likely, ventricular rupture being not rare.

There are quite a few rare elements of versions of "John Henry" that are clearly consistent with the Alabama claims and that are not clearly consistent with other scenarios.

Yes, the slave "Henry" would have been well known to Captain Dabney. Consistent with this, there are both ballad lines and legends to the effect that "the Captain" was very fond of John Henry. If John Henry had grown up as part of Captain Dabney's family (in a sense), there might have been an unusual ease of conversation between them. In the ballad, John Henry pretty well speaks his mind. I'm not sure how common that would have been for black railroad construction workers in the late 1880s in Alabama, but I think that both whites and blacks would have allowed it if they had known there was a fond personal relationship between John Henry and the Captain. This may have been what allowed late 19th- and early 20th-century blacks and whites to sing the ballad.

In the earliest known text, his name was "Johnie Henry." I don't think that this affects your argument that "john" could be a man-designator; "johnny" works the same way.

There is a considerable opinion on the side of "John Henry" having been written and adapted to a tune by whites, then taken up by blacks and continued by whites. I have not made up my mind about this, and I suspect that making a compelling distinction between authors, by race, may not be possible.

There is an interesting comparison between "John Henry" and "John Hardy," a subject of early confusion. Except for Leadbelly, who probably learned it from his white friends, "John Hardy" is not found in the comprehensive book, *Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943* (Dixon, Godrich, Rye), and, as far as I know, it did not appear in any of the famous collections of black folk songs. Regardless of who wrote it, "John Hardy" has been the exclusive property of whites. "John Henry," on the other hand, has belonged to all Americans.

I value your comments. In some way or another, they will be noted in my book.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 May 10 - 02:00 PM

I have just learned of the death on May 10, 2010, of Susan Marye Dabney Rawls, of Crystal Springs, MS. Susan was a granddaughter of Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, John Henry's boss at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887. She was born October 13, 1920.

This remarkable woman was an aerial gunnery instructor during WWII!

I interviewed her several years ago. She knew nothing of her ancestor's connection with John Henry.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Sep 10 - 07:29 PM

William Turner Blankenship was born in 1876, perhaps in Marshall County, TN, where he lived in 1880.

He was married by 1900, possibly to an Attkisson, and he was blinded in an explosion, also by 1900. Further, by that date either he was divorced or his wife had died. In 1900 he lived with his parents, Theodore Blankenship and Delilah Cape Blankenship, in Weakley County, TN.

He married for the second time in 1914, in Huntsville, AL, to Mrs. T. M. Morring, who was first married to George Morring. Her maiden name is probably Tennie Maten. Tennie M. "Blankingship" died in February, 1923, in Madison County, AL.

In 1924 WTB married Josephine Green. They settled in Athens, AL. He died March 16, 1960, and is buried in Gatlin Cemetery, Limestone Co AL (Ardmore).

His nephew Rollie recalls his playing the banjo, jew's harp, and potato (ocarina, I assume). Some distant relatives think he also played fiddle, but Rollie doesn't recall this.

I've heard a number of colorful stories about the Blankenships ("they were all fiddlers") and Attkissons in the vicinity of Pulaski, TN, and Athens, AL, in what seem to have been the wild and wooly days of moonshining ("everybody made whiskey"), killing revenuers, and changing names after committing a crime. There is a hint that WTB may have been in the KKK.

Anyhow, he published broadside ballads, including "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," which I date to ca 1910.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Oct 10 - 10:52 AM

Correction:

About William Turner Blankenship -

"He was married by 1900, possibly to an Attkisson, and he was blinded in an explosion, also by 1900. Further, by that date either he was divorced or his wife had died. In 1900 he lived with his parents, Theodore Blankenship and Delilah Cape Blankenship, in Weakley County, TN."

In the 1900 census, Willie is blind, single, and lives with his parents,

BUT

in the 1910 census he is married, has been for 14 years. His son, Clarence, age 13, lives in the household with Willie and his parents.

No wife lives in the household with Willie in either 1900 or 1910.

If the 1910 census is to be believed, Willie's wife was somewhere at that time.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Oct 10 - 06:47 PM

William Turner Blankenship married, wife unknown, ca 1896; had a son, Clarence, ca 1897; and was blinded in an accidental dynamite explosion (dynamiting a tree stump) in 1897-98, when he was 21. The accident cost him his eyesight and his wife, according to recently obtained Blankenship family lore.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Dec 10 - 02:59 PM

A 91-year-old niece of William T. Blankenship, the broadside man, told me recently that "Uncle Willie," called "Blind Willie Blankenship by others, had a black musician friend from Mississippi, according to a family story. Willie was white and lived for most of his adult life in Athens or Huntsville, Alabama. He and his black friend would play together, and Willie is said to have learned "John Henry" and other songs from the black Mississippian.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 04:35 PM

In 1925 Louis Chappell interviewed C. S. "Neal" Miller, of Talcott, WV. In 1927 Guy Johnson also interviewed Miller. In the same year, Johnson corresponded with C. C. Spencer (Salt Lake City).

These two men, Miller and Spencer, are the only self-proclaimed eyewitnesses to John Henry's contest with the steam drill that Chappell and Johnson turned up. For Chappell, Miller did not make this claim, only for Johnson.

Miller placed John Henry's contest at Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, in about 1870. The tunnel was bored 1869-72.

Spencer placed John Henry at Cruzee Mountain, Alabama, in 1882. (It had to have been 1886-88, when the C & W RR was under construction.)

Johnson spurned Spencer's testimony and placed great faith in Miller's:

"At last I had found a man who not only saw John Henry but also saw the contest. Mr. Miller told me all this in a quiet and casual way as we sat on his porch at dusk. He seemed to see John Henry and the steam drill as clearly as if it were only a few years since he had seen them."

"One man against the mountain of negative evidence! Were it not for that one man the question might not be so teasing ... He had apparently had first-hand knowledge of a steam drill; yet I could not bring out by questions any evidence that he had ever had an opportunity to observe one unless it were at Big Bend Tunnel." (I note that Miller was educated, that popular periodicals of his day carried illustrations of steam drills, and that he might have seen a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel at some time after it was bored, since work of various sorts continued for years.)

Chappell grouped Miller with the Hedrick brothers, neither of whom had seen the contest. Their rather disparate testimonies were congruent enough for Chappell, who came down solidly for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.

Miller is a poor witness. He gives few details and changes elements of his story (e.g., for Chappell, Phil Henderson was the shaker; for Johnson, Jeff Davis;; for Chappell, John Henry "was later killed in the tunnel"; for Johnson, "he took sick and died from fever soon after that"). Further, he says that he didn't see much of the contest - "It was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill. There wasn't any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting on from time to time, but I didn't get excited over it especially." This is an unlikely inspiration for a legend.

Spencer is an excellent witness, giving myriads of details. Preparations for the contest lasted about three weeks - "there were about three or four hundred people present." On beating the steam drill, John Henry collapsed, was revived, and died with his head cradled in his wife's lap. This is just the kind of event that could inspired a legend.

Many of Spencer's details are confirmed in documentation (none, however, that point specifically to John Henry).

Because Miller seemed to be such a poor witness, and Spencer such as good one, I have not been especially perturbed by their conflicting testimonies. I trust Spencer a lot more than Miller.

Not so Chappell and Johnson, who made Miller's testimony a lynchpin of the case for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.

Here, now, is something that astonishes me:

Looking on the WWW into genealogy, I find that Cornelius S. Miller was born on June 25, 1861. His age in the 1880 census is 18 (really 19 - he had had a birthday three days before the enumeration). His age in the 1910 census is 56 (really 48), and in 1920 he is 66 (really 58). He told Johnson in 1927 that he was 74 - he was really 66!

Miller turned 8 in 1869, the year he told Johnson he was 17 and started working at Big Bend Tunnel. If he *did* start working there at age 17, then the year was 1878-79!

Miller was too young to have worked at Big Bend Tunnel while it was bored.

His testimony is fantasy.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: BanjoRay
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 06:00 PM

Good stuff, John - keep it up!
Ray


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 06:20 PM

A Cornelius S. Miller born abt. 1854, lived in Summers, West Virginia in 1920. 1920 Census. Spouse Cora (Census) or Anna Ramsey (LDS). LDS record give 1861 as birthdate.

A Cornelius Miller, born abt. 1855, lived in Roane, West Virginia in 1870. 1870 Census. M. Frances Hardman (LDS).

U. S. Census records. Both would have been teenagers at the time (1869-1870)

ancestry.com, family search.org.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 07:03 PM

Hi, Q.

There have been lots of men named Cornelius Miller.

Your first one is the one interviewed by Chappell and Johnson. His wife was the former Cora L. Wiseman of Ohio, b ca 1868. They married in 1888. In the 1920 census he exaggerated his age, and he did also in 1920 (census) and 1927 (to Johnson). He seems to have died between 1927 and 1930, when Cora is reported in the census as a widow. You note that an LDS record gives his birthdate as 1861. That is correct. The census records for 1910 and 1920, and his self-reported age in 1927, are not correct.

Your second Cornelius Miller is not a son of Andrew Jackson Miller, as is your first one. Chappell reports that his Cornelius Miller is a son of Andrew Jackson Miller.

For some of the details, see

http://www.fridley.net/alderson/i0003471.htm


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 07:07 PM

P.S. on Cornelius Miller.

In the 1880 census, his age is given nearly correctly. It is 18 there. Actually, he had turned 19 three days before enumeration.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:19 AM

On Cornelius Miller's birth date:

I realize that I must be careful here. We have three records, so far, indicating that he was born ca 1853. These are from 1910 (census), 1920 (census), and 1927 (statement to Guy Johnson). Against these we have the 1880 census, age listed as 18, and a birthdate, June 25, 1861, from a source cited as "Greenbrier Births, Bk1A, p62, L200." I have not seen this last source.

It appears, however, consistent with the 1880 census (almost), so the best interpretation seems to me to be that Miller systematically added about 8 years to his age beginning at some time before 1910.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 05:11 PM

One more name for John Henry's wife or woman-

Lizzie Ann; Odum and Johnson, Negro Workaday Songs, 1926, version K.
Odum and Johnson, in listing the names, add "....or whatever other Ann may be thought of as representing an attractive person."
They might have added "or whatever name that rhymes....."

There also is the "girl John Henry loved,....."

Many versions of the song are mentioned or partially quoted in this thread; here is 'version K' with Lizzie Ann. Not much new, but worth posting.

John Henry
Odum and Johnson, version K, 1926

John Henry was a little boy,
Was settin' 'roun' playin' in the san',
Two young ladies come a-ridin' by,
Say, "I want you to be my man."

John Henry was a little boy,
Settin' on his mammy's knee,
Say, "Dat ol' nine-poun' hammer
Gonna be the death o' me."

John Henry was a cruel boy,
Never did look down;
But when he start to drivin' steel,
He ever-mo' did drive it down.

John Henry went to Cap'n Monday
All worried in his min',
Say, "Give me a heavy axe,
Let me tear dis ol' mountain down."

John Henry told the captain,
"Cap'n, when you get to town,
Bring me back a ten-poun' hammer
An' I lay dis ol' sev'n-poun' down."

John Henry went to captain,
"What mo' you want me to have?
Say, han' me drink o' ol' white gin,
An' I'll be a steel-drivin' man."

John Henry had a little woman,
The dress she wore was red,
She went down de track, never look back,
Say, "I goin' where my man fall dead."

"Who gonna shoe my pretty little feet?
Mommer gonna glove my han',
Popper gonna kiss my rosy cheeks,
John Henry gonna be my man."

John Jenry 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'."

John Henry had a little woman,
Name was Lizzie Ann.
Say she got her dress from man in mine
An' her shoes from railroad man.

John Henry on right,
Steam drill on lef',
"Befo' I let steam drill beat me down
I'll drive my fool self to death.

"I drill all time,
I drill all day,
I drill all way from Rome
To Decatur in one day."

John Henry say,
"Tell my mother
If she want to see me,
Buy ticket all way to Frisco."

John Henry on way to Frisco,
Wid orders in his han',
Say, "All you rounders who want to flirt,
Here come a woman wid a hobble-skirt."

John Henry say to his captain,
Befo' he lef' town,
"If you give me 'nother drink o' yo' co'n,
I'll beat yo' steel drill down."

A good example of using verses from several songs.

Pp. 234-235, Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson, 1926, Negro Workaday Songs, University of North Carolina Press, Oxford University Press.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:02 PM

Well, Q, I've looked at that version lots of times, but there's something there I've overlooked until you posted it. I was probably misled by the lack of capitalization of "cap'n" in the original. You supplied it, and then I saw it.

"John Henry went to Cap'n Monday"

Without the capitalization, this says that on Monday John Henry went to his captain. With the capitalization, "Cap'n Monday" becomes, possibly, the man's name. The historical man was Captain Dabney. "Monday" is one of a couple of plausible mutations of "Dabney in the record, the other being "Tommy."

Thanks. That is part of what made my day.

The other part is finding death records for Cornelius Stratton "Neil" (or "Neal") Miller. His Certificate of Death indicates that he died on March 16, 1930, in Hinton, WV (probably hospitalized there, I think), of "bronchopneumonia" and "influenza," at age 68 yr, 9 mo, 13 days. Birth date: June 3, 1861.

In the spring of 1869, when he said he went to work at Big Bend Tunnel, he was about 7 yr 9-10 mo old.

Unless he was working at a tender age indeed, he did not work at the tunnel while it was being bored.

He said that he started work there at age 17. That would have been ca 1879, well after the completion of the tunnel in 1872.

I won't claim that his testimonies for Chappell and Johnson were fraudulent, though they could have been (perhaps he was pulling the legs of these professor types - he was an old farmer himself). More likely, I suppose, is that he conflated various memories.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:08 PM

Miller could have been a precocious observer-


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 11 - 09:59 AM

Q: Miller could have been a precocious observer-

or even a carrier of water and steel at age 7-11. However, those things can be mighty heavy. Other men that I know of, who said they had that job, said they were 14 or older. Miller says he was 17, and if that is true, then he started working on Big Bend Tunnel in 1878. The boring was completed in 1872.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 11 - 08:49 PM

I have found Cornelius Miller in 1870. His father, head of household, is listed as "Aop Miller," someone's lousy reading of lousy handwriting for "A. J. Miller."

Cornelius is listed as 8 years old, despite being past his birthday when the enumeration was made. I'm beginning to suspect that he was actually born in 1862, not 1861. It is hard for me to figure how an error of a year in his age could have been made when he was so young, 8 in 1870, 18 in 1880, having had his birthday already in each of those years. Maybe people just didn't care.

Anyhow, the big news is that he did not live on Hungart's ("Hungard" on official maps, its seems) Creek in 1870. He was enumerated in the Blue Sulphur Township of Greenbrier County, post office: Lewisburg. I don't know exactly where this is, but Blue Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg itself are 12-20 miles north and northeast of Talcott.

Talcott was not used as the name of the community before Big Bend Tunnel was bored. The post office there was first called "Rollinsburg," and it was on the opposite side of the Greenbrier River from Talcott.

Anyhow, Cornelius Miller did not move to Talcott in 1869, as he claimed, since in 1870 he was still living at some distance away.

To me, the best interpretation is that the family moved to Talcott ca 1879, when Cornelius was, as he said, about 17, some 7 years or so after Big Bend Tunnel had been completed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 11 - 03:36 PM

It has been pointed out to me that the instructions to census takers specify the time frame of the census, which may not coincide with that of the census taker. The census of 1870 seems to have been for June 1, 1870, which was before Cornelius Miller's 9th birthday, so he was registered as 8 years old. The same explanation applies to 1880, when he was listed as 18.

These census records are consistent with a birth date on a day in June, 1861, later than June 1.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Mar 11 - 04:58 PM

Charles C. Spencer died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 21, 1944, according to his Certificate of Death. That document gives his birth date as December 5, 1875. However, his gravestone, which can be seen at Find-A-Grave, gives his birth year as 1870. According to other records (censuses, wife's death certificate, own testimony, etc), he was born between 1867 and 1884. Throwing out the latter datum leaves a range 1867-1875. Unlike Neal Miller, Spencer was old enough, 12-20, to have been carrying water and steel on the job where he said he saw John Henry's contest. That would have been on September 20, 1887, if we accept the month and day that Spencer gave.

His death certificate carries a surprising bit of information. He was not born a Spencer but rather a Matthews. He was born in Spencer, Henry County, Virginia, of a father named "Huston Matthews" and a mother whose maiden name was "Louise Clayton." Houston Matthews appears in Henry County in the 1870 census with wife Jane. Perhaps "Louise" was another of her given names. They have no children in 1870, but in 1880 Jane is a widow with a 10-year-old son, John Matthews. No other male child has an age appropriate for him to have been the man who later called himself Charles C. Spencer. Therefore I suspect that "Charles C. Spencer" was born John Matthews on December 5, 1870. If so, he would have been 16 years old on September 20, 1887, when he said that he was "about fourteen."

Another surprising thing about C. C. Spencer is that he was a second-degree Dunkard minister. This comes from a news account and his prison record, Utah State Prison (Sugar House, where Joe Hill's last word, to the firing squad he faced, is said to have been "Fire!")

In 1927, Spencer wrote to Guy Johnson on plain paper with the return address "1400 East 21st South," the address of the Utah State Prison. Johnson apparently never realized this. Spencer was serving time for having shot and killed Pleasant Jackson, a fellow coal miner, in Mohrland, Utah, in a dispute over a card game on Christmas Eve, 1922. Spencer was in the Utah State Prison from February, 1923, to February, 1928, when he was released after having had his life sentence commuted to five years and then shortened a few months by a parole.

I have copies of Spencer's mug shots.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 May 11 - 05:19 PM

A bit more about Charles C. Spencer, eyewitness to John Henry's contest and death:

He became a first-degree Dunkard minister in Denver, Colorado, in 1910. There was an African American Dunkard (Church of the Brethren) mission there. When the pastor was removed on a morals charge, Spencer replaced him. In 1910 he had been married for nine years to Lucille Spencer.

By 1920 he was living in Mohrland, Utah, where he was a coal miner. At Christmas time, 1922, he shot and killed Pleasant Jackson during a card game. He served time in the Utah State Prison 1923-28. On his release, he remained in Salt Lake City. Lucille never lived with him again.

By 1936 he was married to Lula V. (Lavinia) Stevens Spencer and was "Rev. Charles C. Spencer," pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He was still the pastor there in 1941, after Lula had died in 1940. Calvary Baptish Church still exists. It's present pastor is ver highly educated and accomplished.

Spencer died from a stroke in 1944.

So here we have it:

preacher -> murderer -> preacher


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 May 11 - 06:28 PM

The Rev. Charles C. Spencer is said to have become the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1932. In 1937 he "established and directed a free employment bureau for Salt Lake Negroes."

http://www.kued.org/productions/voices/articles/calvary.htm


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 May 11 - 07:27 PM

Go here an click on "The Legend of John Henry" for someone's idea of what John Henry was about. This is what happens when literary types get hold of folklore. Another example, which probably inspired this one, was provided by Roark Bradford, who wrote a 1931 novel and a 1939 (as I recall) play about John Henry.


http://www.archive.org/details/DestinationFreedom


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 30 Jun 11 - 05:02 PM

In 1927 Charles C. Spencer, an African American living in Salt Lake City, Utah, sent Guy Johnson two long letters detailing his witnessing of John Henry's contest and death in Alabama. Slowly, and with much assistance, I've been finding out more about Spencer. I believe that some of it is relevant to the transmission of the legend.

1870 Born John Matthews, 05Dec, at Spencer's Store, Henry County, Virginia*
1879 (fall)-1880 (01Jun) Father, Houston Matthews, died
1880 "At school," but did not read or write
1881 Mother remarried, 15Dec, to Jake Watkins
1887 20Sep Carrying water and tools for steel drivers on the C & W
    including John Henry Dabney
    at Coosa Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Shelby County, AL
    "under the care of a white man, the young Master of my people"
    Saw John Henry's contest and death
    Knew a great deal about John Henry
1887 (late) or ca 1888 Went with crew, including John Henry's wife,
       to Mercer and McDowell Counties, WV, to work
       in the Elkhorn Tunnel (original, not present-day)
1888+ Worked with John Hardy in McDowell County, WV
1894 19Jan Witnessed hanging of John Hardy at Welch, McDowell County, WV
1900 Coal miner in Bell County, Kentucky
    Known as "Charles C. Spencer" by now and for rest of life
    Single
    Could read and write
1910 Hod carrier in Denver, CO
    Married to Lucile since ca 1901
    Elected first-degree minister, Second Church of the Brethren, Denver
    Second Church was a "Negro mission"
1915 (ca) Now second-degree minister and pastor, Second Church
1920 Coal miner in Mohrland, Emery County, Utah
    Non-union, a scab
    Still married to Lucile
1922 24Dec Shot and killed Pleasant Jackson during card game
1923 20Feb Began serving life term at Utah State Prison, Salt Lake City
    Known as "Sugar House" prison
1926 20Nov Sentence commuted to five years
1928 18Feb Released from prison
1930 Boarding in Salt Lake City
    Landlady: Lula V. Stevens
    "Crane man" in a factory
    Probably Griffin Wheel Company, where he later worked
    Still married but not living with Lucile
1932 Becomes pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Salt Lake City
    Preaches many sermons and funerals
    Active in NAACP
1935 (ca) Marries Lula V. Stevens
1937 Establishes free employment bureau for African Americans
       in Salt Lake City
1940 Lula V. Stevens Spencer dies
1941 (late) Steps down as pastor of Calvary Baptist
    Continues work at Griffin Wheel
1944 21Apr Charles C. Spencer dies, age 73+

Surely Spencer and the rest of his crew told John Henry's story often while they were in West Virginia. This is a plausible way for the legend to have arrived there. Relocalization could have converted "C & W" and/or "C of G" to "C & O" and attached the legend to Big Bend Tunnel.

Note that what is being discussed here is the legend, not the ballad. To an extent, they overlap, but by the time they were being collected the ballad had lost details that the legend maintained, such as Coosa ("Cruzee"/"Cursey") Mountain, John Henry's surname, and the name of the "Captain" (both "Dabney").

In 1934 Elbert McDonald, of Bell County, Kentucky, published a John Henry tale that places him there when he died, but also calls him a "tall, gaunt, Alabama negro," "the most powerful steel driver of the crew," who "had never tasted defeat." There is the usual contest and collapse, then John Henry's "foreman" "gathered John Henry close to his bosom" as "tears were streaming down his face." John Henry died in his arms. Spencer, who was in Bell County in 1900, is a logical person to have planted the seeds of this tale, which correctly associates John Henry with Alabama and notes a close personal relationship between John Henry and his boss, really
Captain Fred Y. Dabney, whose father had probably owned John Henry before the Civil War.

Some versions of "John Henry" ballads and work songs mention Colorado. Spencer was in Denver by 1910 and stayed until ca 1916. Letters or other communications with home folks could have planted the Colorado seed.

Spencer was very active in Salt Lake City from 1928 to 1944. He must have told his John Henry story there many times. Even so, I am not aware of a Salt Lake City John Henry tradition. If somebody on the list lives there, it might be worth trying to track down African Americans who might still recall the story. The place to begin would be with elderly members of Calvary Baptist Church, now pastored by the Rev. France A. Davis, a vigorous and accomplished many who has been very helpful to me and to whom I am grateful. The members in question should be those whose families have a history at Calvary Baptist that goes back at least to 1940, preferably to ca 1930.

Why did John Matthews change his name to Charles C. Spencer?

His father, Houston Matthews, died young, at about age 36, when his son John was nine or ten years old.# I do not know how he died. Perhaps it was ignominiously, such that John could not bear the disgrace of his surname. Perhaps he chose not to accept his stepfather's name, Watkins, either. For all we know, Jake Watkins might not have been too happy at having an 11-year-old stepson. It is hard to say, but perhaps there was a Charles Spencer whom John Matthews admired. There have been plenty of them, some of them from Henry County, Virginia. I don't know what the second "C" in "C. C. Spencer" stood for, but I guess that it might have been "Clanton," the surname of his maternal grandparents.

My next task is to make an effort, perhaps a small one, given that I feel time pressure, to find out how Houston Matthews died.

By the way, there seems to be no lack of historians and historical
accounts of Henry County, VA. I need to find some way to use them well and efficiently. One of my most recent resources has been Beverly R. Millner, an African American man who has plumbed the depths of the 1866 Cohabitation Register for Henry County and other documents and produced a gorgeous book, *Something to Build On: Genealogy of African American Families of Henry County Virginia and Surrounding Area with Surnames "A-Z"* (2006?), as well as other genealogical books on Henry County. I am grateful to him.

See http://www.myspace.com/something_to_build_on .

*I had concluded from circumstantial evidence that John Matthews, of the 1880 census, Henry County, Virginia, was probably Charles C. Spencer, but Bev Millner found documents that make this very clear. Perhaps the most important items are that the identified Jane Matthews as the former Jane Clanton, a daughter of ex-slave Louisa Clanton. This explains an error on Spencer's death certificate, where his mother is give as "Louise Clayton." Louisa Clanton was not his mother but his grandmother. The informant for the death certificate was Spencer's stepdaughter's husband, who was able to give a remarkable amount of correct information about Spencer's origin, but he erred on this point.

#Since I wrote the above, Cliff Ocheltree has discovered a record stating that "Hairston Mathews" (wife Jane) died on 07Nov1879. It is clear that this is Houston Matthews. Thanks, Cliff.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Oct 11 - 07:30 PM

One of my pet hypotheses has bit the dust.

Letitia Dabney, Fred's youngest sister, left a memoir in which mentions the family's loyal slave, "Henry." According to Letitia, Henry was born ca 1844.

The dead hypothesis is that this Henry took the surname "Dabney" after the Civil War, moved to Copiah County, where Captain Fred Dabney lived by 1880, and became the legendary steel-driving man.

I now realize that Letitia's "Henry" is probably the "Henry Page," 26, who was in the Augustine Dabney household in Raymond, Mississippi, in the 1870 census. Unless he changed his name or Spencer erred, he cannot be the "John Henry Dabner" described by Charles C. Spencer as the steel-driving man.

Thus, I cannot argue that Captain Dabney became close to John Henry as John Henry grew up in the Augustine Dabney household in Raymond.

This still leaves the Henry Dabney/Dabner (1870, 1880 censuses) of Copiah County as a candidate for the steel-driving man. This man was probably one of Thomas Dabney's 150-odd slaves at Burleigh Plantation. Fred Dabney was often there, so he probably knew many of Thomas' slaves. Indeed, in 1870 Fred is enumerated as living at or near Burleigh.

Thus, it is still possible that Fred Dabney knew John Henry Dabney in Copiah County, Mississippi, well before the boring of Coosa and Oak Tunnels for the C & W (C of G) at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887-88.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Oct 11 - 08:00 PM

John, I hate when that happens.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Oct 11 - 10:41 AM

I hate it, too, and there are still some peculiarities.

"Page" is a Burleigh Plantation slave surname. According to Susan Dabney Smedes, one of Thomas Dabney's daughters, slaves there had surnames. George Page is the best documented, being the personal body servant of Thomas Dabney.

No surnames for Augustine Dabney's slaves are mentioned in any of the three memoirs left by his children, Mary Dabney Ware, Thomas Gregory Dabney, and Letitia Dabney Miller. Augustine's slave boy Henry, however, spent considerable time in the company of Thomas' 150-odd slaves. It may be that he admired George Page and later took his surname. However, it may also be that the Henry Page whose young (19) wife cooked for Augustine Dabney in 1870 was *not* the Henry of Letitia Dabney's memoir but instead one of Thomas' ex-slaves.

However, the ages of Letitia's Henry and of Henry Page match well, and Letitia describes Henry as still working for the family in 1866.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Nov 11 - 03:02 PM

On the logic of evidence:

Two tests of a hypothesis against an item of evidence, several items, or all of the evidence.

Weak Test
Given the hypothesis, is the evidence plausible?
(The hypothesis passes the test if the answer is "Yes.")

Strong Test
Given the negation of the hypothesis ("not hypothesis"), is the evidence plausible?
(The hypothesis passes the test if the answer is "No.")

Serious hypotheses made by serious and qualified individuals will always pass the weak test against the evidence that was available at the time the hypothesis was put forth, provided that all of the evidence was considered. This is why the test is weak.

On the other hand, hypothesis framed on the basis of *part* of the available evidence, or before new evidence was found, and hypotheses of incompetents or crackpots may fail the Weak Test.

Given a hypothesis that passes the Weak Test, the Strong Test discriminates between hypothesis and not hypothesis.

The best situation is that a hypothesis passes both the Weak and Strong Tests.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Dec 11 - 03:31 PM

WV Hypothesis:
John Henry raced a steam drill and died at Big Bend Tunnel, on the C & O, in Summers County, WV, ca 1871 (1870-72).

Weak Test:
Given the WV hypothesis, is all if the John Henry evidence plausible?

The frequent appearances of Big Bend Tunnel and the C & O in versions of "John Henry" are plausible.

The Virginia evidence, such as it is, is plausible. Men named "John Henry," white houses, railroads, and steam drills were all commonplace. They need not have had anything to do with the John Henry of tradition.

The Jamaica evidence is plausible. The tradition came there from the USA.

The observed testimonial disagreements between men who had worked at Big Bend Tunnel and who had been in a position to know whether or not John Henry had been there are *not* plausible.

The Alabama evidence is *not* plausible. It is too coherent and the names involved are too rare for it to have arisen without a basis.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Jan 12 - 06:52 PM

I've been thinking a lot about how to present my arguments. Johnson and Chappell considered all the evidence at their disposal but offered no arguments. They simply stated their conclusions. Leach judged the quality of their evidence to be poor, offered some scraps from Jamaica, and allowed that Jamaica might have been the John Henry site. Nelson suffered extreme confirmation bias by considering only evidence that, in his view, supported John Henry at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. I think that all of these studies are seriously flawed, and I don't want to emulate any of them.

One obvious logical principle is that *all* of the available evidence must be considered. There is a great deal of it, so this quickly leads to a complicated presentation, even though the final conclusion may be clear cut.

I think I've found a short cut. For WV, Jamaica, or VA, consider only the evidence that supports that site. In other words, construct the best-case scenario for each site. Perhaps the evidence does not discriminate between that site and others, even in the best-case scenario. If this were true, then WV, Jamaica, and VA would not merit further consideration. I believe that it *is* true.

WV: C. S. "Neal" Miller testified that he witnessed John Henry's contest with a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel in 1870. Census records show that he did not live near Big Bend Tunnel in 1870, that he was 7-8 years old, and that he attended school. Miller's testimony is a fabrication. The testimonies of other men who claimed to have worked on Big Bend Tunnel during its construction are indirect and highly contradictory. About 40% of versions of the ballad "John Henry" published by 1933 place JH at Big Bend Tunnel, on the C & O RR, or both. Steam drills were not used in boring Big Bend Tunnel, but one could have been brought there for a trial, part of which could have been a contest with JH.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* at Big Bend Tunnel?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* at Big Bend Tunnel?
Yes. Contradictory testimonies do not depend on whether or not JH was at Big Bend Tunnel. Relocalization is so common in folksong that places they give are not reliable.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV, does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

Jamaica: A few song fragments mention John Henry, and there is testimony that he died while working there on a road or railroad in 1894-96.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* in Jamaica?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* in Jamaica?
Yes. The tradition could have been taken from the US to Jamaica by laborers. Indeed, this is highly likely. Further, there is testimony that the ballad "John Henry" was known before 1894.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was in Jamaica does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

VA: A John William Henry was a convict in the Virginia Penitentiary who was leased to work on the C & O RR. He then disappeared from the records. A stanza of the ballad "John Henry," found occasionally, states that he was taken to the "white house" and buried "in the sand" where locomotives pass by. At Virginia Penitentiary there was a white workhouse and a mass grave with a nearby railroad. Steam drills were used in boring the C & O's Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. The hypothesis is that John William Henry was a steel driver who raced a steam drill and died at Lewis Tunnel, thereby giving rise to the legend. No song or legend places JH at Lewis Tunnel.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* a steel driver who raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* a steel driver who raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel?
Yes. Men named "John Henry," white houses, sand, and railroads are all common enough for the observed correspondences with a stanza of the ballad to be pure coincidence. There is no evidence that John W. Henry was a steel driver, that he was ever at Lewis Tunnel, or that he died there.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

Before any evidence is considered, all tunnels that were bored in the South between between the Civil War and about 1888, when the ballad appeared, have equal probabilities of being the John Henry tunnel. I don't know exactly how many there were, but I'm sure there were at least 100, probably many more. Thus, the "prior probability" that JH was at Big Bend or Lewis Tunnel is no greater than 0.01. Since the evidence, in the best-case scenarios, does not discriminate between these and other sites, this evidence, after being considered, leaves the probabilities of Big Bend and Lewis Tunnels at their prior value, 0.01 or less. The prior probability for Jamaica is even smaller, and it, too, is left unchanged by consideration of the evidence that is alleged to support it.

As JH sites, Big Bend Tunnel, Jamaica, and Lewis Tunnel can be dismissed for lack of evidence.

Only one site that has been seriously considered remains: a tunnel at Dunnavant, Alabama. In that case, the evidence is more complex.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jun 12 - 03:39 PM

I have filled eleven pages with evidence for John Henry in Alabama in 1887. This is evidence only, not arguments, which will follow the evidence itself. After I finish, I think I will have to redo it all.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 30 Oct 12 - 05:18 PM

Try this for a scary portrait of steel driving.

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/earlyphotos/b/largeimage54051.html


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Dec 12 - 05:21 PM

Earlier I wrote that Furry Lewis gave John Henry's woman as "Nella Lee." Listening to Blues Masters Vol. 5, recorded July 21, 1968, at Ardent Studios, Memphis, Tennessee, I hear the name as "Neva Lee."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Jan 13 - 04:52 PM

On Furry Lewis' 1929 recording, he doesn't give a name for John Henry's wife/woman.

On his Shake 'Em On Down album (1961), he gives "Neva Lee" as John Henry's wife.

On his Blue Horizons Sessions (1968), he gives "Neva Lee" as John Henry's woman.

On his Fourth and Beale album (1969), he gives "Polly Ann" as John Henry's woman.

On his Party! At Home album (2001), he doesn't give a name.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Jan 13 - 01:39 PM

The first post in the thread, *Origins: John Henry*, was by Peter Turner on February 12, 1998.

If anyone has contact information for him, I would appreciate getting it.

Thanks.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Jan 13 - 04:13 PM

Contact information can be sent to me privately at

garst@uga.edu


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Carl Ellis
Date: 14 Jan 13 - 03:35 AM

A little pure speculation from the unqualified, for your consideration -

"John Henry had a little woman -
"Name was Peggy, an'
"When John Henry was sick,
"An a-laying in bed,
"Peggy drove steel, like a man, Lord,
"Peggy drove steel, like a man."

Possible example of a missing link between the hypothesized Margaret and Polly-Ann? And -

"Well they took John Henry to the white(s') house,
"Buried him 'neath the sand,"
&c.

If they had taken a dead or dying black laborer to a white
peoples' house, for care/reviving-if-possible, whatever, it would surely have been remarkable enough to make it into the song. If he was a champion driller and/or friend of his captain I suppose it might not have been unthinkable. Any Isabell or Howard houses in the area at the time?

I always supposed The White House was just thrown in to imply that John Henry was such an awful feller that the U.S. President would take note of his passing, but if you're trying to link it to something less fanciful, seems to me the sense "the whites' house", later losing the 's' if it even had one originally, would be an obvious candidate for consideration.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Jan 13 - 01:57 PM

Thanks for the thoughts, Carl.

Yes, that's a nice way to get Polly Ann from Margaret, through Peggy Ann, but it does not account for the occurrence of "Maggadee/Maggie D" and "Mary Magdalene," which have actually been collected. To my knowledge, "Peggy" and "Peggy Ann" have never been collected.

I suspect that there were Isbell and Howard houses in the area at the time. I have talked with some Isbells and Howards but not about white houses.

I had not thought of "white's house." It is not immediately obvious to me how I could pursue that idea.

I think that singers and hearers of "white house" immediately think "White House" and that that makes the "white house/White House" stanza attractive enough to be preserved in tradition, but a literal interpretation, that they took John Henry to the White House, is fanciful. I doubt that the white house in the song was originally a reference to the White House. Unfortunately, there too many white houses around to allow a reference to one to have much value as evidence.

I take it that you are from the Dunnavant area. Do you live there now?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 15 Jan 13 - 04:07 PM

It is commonly asserted that John Henry was trying to save his job and those of his fellow steel drivers by showing that he was better than the steam drill.

Where did this idea first appear?

I have not found it in any of the early songs or studies.

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 13 - 05:13 PM

Norm Cohen and Brett Williams, in their books (*Long Steel Rail* and *John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography*) argue against the job-saving interpretation because it is "too narrow" (Cohen) and because the story is really one of a "family tragedy" (Williams).

"For each John Henry left unemployed there will be a job for a steam-drill operator—not to mention for the factory worker who makes the steam drill and the mechanic who repairs it … The tragedy is not that the old ways of performing tasks are superannuated by newer ones, but that society finds it more convenient to discharge the old laborer than retrain him, or at least retire him in dignity." (Cohen, pp 74-75)

"It is this family context that gives John Henry his human dignity and complexity, renders his most profound statement, "A man ain't nothin' but a man," so proud and sad, and makes fictional parodies of him so often offensive. The song is a wonderful reaffirmation of the worth of a human life—a worker's in a workplace which denies it, a black man's in a context reminiscent of slavery, a southerner's during a time of bitter humiliation and drastic change—and, ultimately, of every ordinary person who through dignity and strength of will can be great. The ballad not only praises John Henry's courage and skill, but it also reminds us that the details of his personal life matter. Like all of us, he is a member of a family." (Williams, p 124)

To David Mamet, "the meaning of the song was not that he won but that he died—that the one person capable of defeating the machine is no more. The song, seemingly a paean to resistance, is, I think, more an assertion of its uselessness—'The hero died in the attempts; what do you think you could do?" (*Jafsie and John Henry*, pp 131-32)

These and similar interpretations are views of the *legend*, not of the historical John Henry. John Henry Dabney was earning his living, getting paid a little more than the typical dollar a day for black laborers in Alabama in 1887. Captain Fred Y. Dabney bet a steam-drill salesman that John Henry could beat his machine, and he offered John Henry fifty dollars and a new suit if he did it. John Henry's motives were simple: (1) to win prizes, (2) to win a steam drill for the Captain, (3) to live up to the Captain's boast, and (4) to justify his own pride.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Apr 14 - 02:31 PM

My book on John Henry is finished, but I have not yet found a publisher.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 11 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM

Heads up:

On BALLAD-L, Jim Hauser has pointed to many versions of "John Henry" in which he resists, rebels, or complains in his statements to the Captain.

Therefore John Henry can be seen as a "rebel."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Dec 14 - 03:24 PM


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