Mudcat Café message #1019229 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1019229
Posted By: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
15-Sep-03 - 11:18 AM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
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."