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GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 16 Sep 07

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

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.


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