Mudcat Café message #1353576 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1353576
Posted By: Lighter
10-Dec-04 - 07:35 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
The difficulty here, it seems to me, is that there's precious little evidence to support the speculation that a steam-drill contest took place in Alabama - or anywhere else.

If the song didn't exist, nobody would attempt to track down evidence pro or con about such a contest. What John and others have shown is that a historical drilling contest is not inconceivable. But we'd know that even without the song - we just wouldn't have reason to care.

It seems very likely to me that "Mary Magdalene," "Maggie D.," and "Marga" all represent a single original, but besides "Margaret," that original could have been any of the above, couldn't it? Or ho abiout "Madeleine" as the original? Or "Mary MacAtee"? "Margot MacAtee"? "Maggie Dean"? "Madeleine Dane"? "Mary McDaniel"? And so forth.

What is the likelihood, though, that all the textual changes actually occurred in the way John describes them? And how many educated guesses can be in error before the whole theory collapses?

How can we know that the entire song wasn't based simply on a prior rumor or legend instead of an actual event? Isn't it equally likely that John Henry (whose name could have been "John Henderson," "John Hendricks," etc.) was as much a manufactured hero as Paul Bunyan? Maybe the song's author had been a steeldriver, or knew old steel drivers, who'd speculated about whether a man could beat a steam-drill. And maybe that's all it took to write a song about "John Henry." I'm not claiming this happened, but it certainly could have, and how can we know? Could a real drilling match have taken place at some other tunnel that hasn't been adequately investigated? After all, if "Margaret Dabney" could metamorphose into "Polly Ann" (and John persuasively shows how it could), something could metamorphose into the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Road." In fact, this is exactly what John is suggesting about the "Oak Mountain Tunnel." (Clearly, phonetics is not a limiting factor in such changes. As Nerd suggests, any name could, in theory, have become almost anything else.) Have all possible American tunnels been investigated?

It's certainly frustrating that an incident so emblematic of technology versus human aspirations and limitations was not verifiable by Johnson or Chappell and remains unverified today. If the Oak Mountain Tunnel was really involved, the match took place well within living memory when Johnson and Chappell investigated. So tantalizing!

But I'm not sure that we're any closer to establishing the contest's historicity now than we were in the '30s. I agree with the idea that in cases like this, historicity is less important than how the song managed to moved from true obscurity into being a national treasure, and what people have thought about the song itself.