Mudcat Café message #1353343 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1353343
Posted By: GUEST,
10-Dec-04 - 03:08 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
"I agree from your evidence that the Alabama scenario is viable. I'm just saying that showing how "Margaret" could change to "Polly Ann" doesn't really add anything, because it's all guesswork. Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps. It's not in itself evidence, and neither is it logically derived from evidence, because as I said it is logically circular--you need to know what conclusion you are coming to before you start, or else you will never get there.

Your own statement that "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" is not in fact standard practice in folklore or any other discipline. To give an example from my own area of the country, if I came across an informant who claimed that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford, I would not automatically assume that this was any more likely than the usual "Mother Leeds" or "Mrs. Shourds," nor I think would any other folklorist.   

"Your contention that Maggie is a common nickname for Margaret is true, but there is no Maggie in any of the songs either. I may have missed something, but I don't think you've even established that Margaret Dabney was known as Maggie D.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't "check it out further," but so far you haven't really checked it out, you've just shoehorned the name into your pre-existing hypothesis of Henry Dabney. Once again, I don't think this particularly hurts your argument overall, it just doesn't help it much." - Nerd

The "much" in the last of Nerd's statements makes it perfectly acceptable to me.

I've certainly not *established* that Margaret Dabney was known as "Maggie D," but that is a plausible conjecture, nor can I point to a clear "Maggie" in any recovered song. However, I think that "Maggadee" is a likely mishearing of "Maggie D." If you have some other plausible hypothesis to explain "Maggadee," I'd like to hear it.

Contrary, evidently, to the views of all real folklorists, I would want to check out "that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford" very carefully. What explanation could there be for such a complex, convoluted name, other than that it was the truth, or something related to it? Possibly it would just be someone's idea of a joke? Perhaps, but I still try to check it out.   Unless the Jersey Devil story were regarded as humorous, I would think the joke idea unlikely. I notice from reading the article at
that there is already documentary support for "Leeds" and "Shrouds," in the sense that these are family names known from the area. Is "McChuzzleford" another?

For a while, several years ago, I used something like the following as an e-mail sig:

Laws of Tradition
(1) Nothing is lost.
(2) Nothing stays the same.

As time passes, everything that enters tradition leaves some sort of wake, even if that wake is not recognizable. That the Jersey Devil story started with the birth of a "monster" is entirely plausible, just as it is plausible that the John Henry legend started with some historical event (whether or not it was an actual contest between man and machine).

In my view of mutations in the transmission of traditions, there is a tendency for

the familiar to drive out the unfamiliar
the simple to drive out the complex
the cliched to drive out the novel
the strong narrative to drive out the weak
the emotional to drive out the matter-of-fact
the interesting to drive out the boring

As these processes take place, a ballad based on an historical incident, for example, will tend to a stable end point in which much of the original information is omitted or altered. If Lomax had not recovered a version of "Ella Speed" (the only one known to me) with lines something like

Martin was neither tall nor slender,
He was known by being a bartender (not an exact quote)

we would have been mystified by the historic fact that Louis "Bull" Martin was short and stocky and the lines in several versions that tell us that he was "long (tall) and slender." Now it is clear that an awkward negative statement got "straightened out" to something more direct,

Bill Martin, he was long and slender,
Better known by his being a bartender

I dare say that no one would have come up with the conjecture that "neither tall nor slender" preceded "he was long and slender."

The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

Mance Lipscomb's "Ella Speed" and others provide studies in how far transmission can drive a ballad from its source materials. "Frankie," I suppose, is the classic example of extreme mutations.

Anyhow, tradition is subject to something like Gresham's Law, "Bad money drives out good." I'd say that the familiar, simple, cliched, strong, emotional, and interesting drives out the unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, and boring. Thus, when you find something in tradition that *is* unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, or boring, you should check it out - it just might be from a very early version of the tradition - it might even be true, if the tradition derives from an historic event.

As to "circular reasoning": If a scenario contains unresolvable inconsistencies, it must be discarded or altered so as to remove those inconsistencies. If Henry Dabney's wife's name was Margaret and he was John Henry, then his wife's name cannot be Polly Ann. A weak, inactive resolution to this inconsistency would be to simply posit that "Margaret" isn't as "sexy" (in today's slang) as "Polly Ann," so "Polly Ann" won out. Perhaps Nerd would accept that possibility. I think that finding a plausible series of mutations that leads from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann" carries a bit more force. I don't see such a resolution of an inconsistency, regardless of how speculative it may be, as "circular reasoning." To me, "circular reasoning" involves the assumption of what is to be shown. What I am showing is a plausible path from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann." Where is the circle?