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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 06 Aug 05

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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