Mudcat Café message #1353103 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1353103
Posted By: GUEST,John Garst
10-Dec-04 - 11:41 AM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
"My experience in the South is that the expression "John Henry" is widely used by whites and blacks alike to mean "signature," what Yankees call your "John Hancock." I don't know how long this has been going on, but if it goes back long enough it could be that "John Henry" in the ballad is just a made-up name for a generic character.

"This is a question nobody has ever addressed. If true, any search for the "historical John Henry" becomes more difficult indeed. " - Lighter

This is certainly correct. I have no idea whether or not the use of "John Henry" in the place of "John Hancock" predates 1887 or 1871, the two most-often-suggested dates for John Henry's contest with a steam drill. However, I'm not sure how significant it would be to find that the use of "John Henry" in this was *does* predate 1871. "John Henry" has been a very common given name for a long, long time. There is every reason to believe "John Henry" *could* be a generic name that was inserted into the song and legend. Neither Johnson (1929) nor Chappell (1933) thought that likely, however, and neither do I.

The post-Civil-War, Copiah-County Henry Dabney and the slave boy recalled by Letitia Dabney were known as "Henry." While these are likely the same person, we don't really know that, and neither do we know that he, or either, used a first name "John."

Conversely, the Marbury family of Leeds, Alabama, whose ancestor Ciscero Davis was a mucker working on the contruction of the C & W RR in 1887-88, preserves stories of a champion steel driver that Davis worked with. His name was "John." They don't recall "John Henry," nor do they associate John with the John Henry legend.

Even so, I think that the identification of these reports with a single individual, John Henry Dabney, it not implausible.

There are a number of reports of a well-known steel driver at Big Bend Tunnel named John Henry Martin. Some reports from the Big Bend area claim that John Henry survived his steam-drill contest. John Henry Martin is reported to have lived for many years after Big Bend was finished. My suspicion is that Martin is the key to the attachment of the John Henry legend to Big Bend.

Incidentally, there are songs about "John Henry" that have nothing to do, apparently, with the steel driver.

FWIW, "John Henry" is also used as a pet name or slang for "penis."