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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,John Garst JOHN HENRY solved???? (38) RE: JOHN HENRY solved???? 26 Aug 06

I wrote here (28Mar2002):

>"white house" may be a "late" mutation.

Others have thought this possible (for example, see Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, 2nd Ed, 2000, p xxii: "The few texts that definitely predate the 1920s do not include the phrase ('white house')."

Actually, "white house" is found in the (possibly composite) version published by John A. Lomax in 1915 ("Some Types of American Folk-Song," a speech given a couple of years earlier before the American Folklore Society, Journal of American Folklore, p 14):

They brought John Henry from the white house
And took him in the tunnel to drive,
He drove so hard he broke his heart,
He laid down him hammer and he died.

Although Nelson's scenario is one in which John Henry was taken *to* the white house for burial, having him taken *from* the white house may also fit his case. Nelson identifies "white house" with the prison workshop at the old Virginia Penitentiary (Richmond), so if John Henry were leased out from there he *was* taken *from* the white house. A while back I found a text of another song in which "white house" clearly referred to a penitentiary, supporting for Nelson's idea about this.

Even so, I don't give a lot of weight to this kind of evidence. There are no really early texts. The earliest report of a fragment was published in 1909 (and the earliest longer text in 1913 (from Kentucky, manuscript, 1912). Lomax's text may date from the same period. The undated Blankenship broadside has been believed, without good reason, to have been from the period 1890-1900, but W. T. Blankenship's other known broadsides (two of them) can be dated to 1912 and 1917 from the topical events they describe. Therefore the most reasonable hypothesis is that the Blankenship "John Henry" also dates from the 1910s.

If John Henry did his thing in 1871 then all of these texts are from a time at least 38 years later. If it was 1887 instead, then they are from at least 22 years later. Both time gaps are more than enough for massive mutations in tradition. Therefore there is no text that can be warranted from its date as being "early." That doesn't necessarily mean that no "early" texts are extant. It simply means that we can't recoginize them by date. Other criteria might identify them.

The Blankenship broadside does not mention "white house." Instead, "They carried John Henry to that new burying ground." An important point remaining to be established is whether or not Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, AL, about a mile from the C & W tracks and visible across of valley, was new in 1887. The earliest remaining markers there are from the early 20th century, but there are many unmarked graves, including one lying just outside the bounding fence of the cemetery, possibly John Henry Dabney's grave. I'm not sure how to go about finding the date for the establishment of Sand Ridge Cemetery.

The 1912 KY text does not mention "white house" and has the line "That big tunnel on the C & O line / Is going to be the death of me." It could be significant that this is "big tunnel," not "Big Bend Tunnel." The two tunnels at Dunnavant, AL, are known today as "'Short' Tunnel" (Oak Mountain) and "'Long' Tunnel" (Coosa Mountain). I suspect that they have also been called "the little tunnel" and "the big tunnel." The construction of Coosa Tunnel was very difficult - it delayed the opening of the C & W by at least 6 months. Thus, I suspect that Coosa could have been referred to, in an early version of the ballad, as "that big, bad tunnel," an obvious lead-in for "that Big Bend Tunnel" in tradition.

Lomax's 1913(?) text does mention "white house," as noted above.

My suspicion is that people in the WV-VA area introduced the "white house" business, describing the leasing of Virginia Penitentiary prisoners for C & O work, after the song reached them from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, probably in about 1888. They weren't too concerned with the fact that prisoners were not leased for work on Big Bend Tunnel, where John Henry Martin was a well-known steel driver, so aspects of the Big Bend and Lewis Tunnel situations got mixed up.

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