Mudcat Café message #1352199 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1352199
Posted By: Nerd
09-Dec-04 - 02:30 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
John Garst's research is very interesting. I do think it's problematic, though, to at some times say that "the simpler explanation" is that there really was sand at sand Ridge cemetary and at another point eschew simple explanations for an extremely speculative and convoluted account of how Margaret became "Mary Magdalene" became "Polly Ann." Either simplicity of explanation is a virtue or it isn't, but John seems to be having both ways there.

On the "Polly Ann" thing: "Ann" is obviously necessary to rhyme with "man" in the next line, as John notes. Take away the "Ann" and you have Polly, Mary, Julie, Delia, Sary and Martha, as well as all the other names. Certainly, you couldn't get a wider variety of two syllable common American womens' names. Yet there is no Margaret (which is pronounced as two syllables ("Mar-gret") or even Peggy, the common two syllable nickname for Margaret. With these as your data, to argue that all the names derived some some real original, and that original was "Margaret" is silly. The Jamaican name provides some support, but why would they have preserved the real name only in Jamaica?

In hard science, this is good methodology: begin with a hypothesis, then do experiments to test it. But without the concreteness of experimental data, beginning with such a strong hypothesis becomes deadly: one tends to treat all data as though they support it.

This is also an example of circular reasoning. It is impossible to come to the conclusion that the song character's name was Margaret without using as one of the premises that the real John Henry had a wife named Margaret. So it could never prove anything.

Anyway, I don't think the Margaret/Polly Ann thing is particularly important or damaging to the overall argument. In making up verses about real or imagined heroes, people fill in all sorts of details they don't know. If the singer didn't know his wife's name, we don't need to "explain" how Margaret became Polly Ann. They're just made-up names.