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GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 03 Aug 05

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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