Mudcat Café message #1354349 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1354349
Posted By: Lighter
11-Dec-04 - 07:32 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Well actually, Nerd, the seemingly nonsensical "Maggatee," as sung, could just as easily be understood as "Maggie D." by anybody along the chain. But that wouldn't change anything because there's no way of being sure that the names are accurate. One exception -and a crucial one - is "John Henry." This name is such a constant that even a few exceptions -which don't seem to exist - would not affect the very strong likelihood, if not quite the absolute certainty, that the original song, whatever the circumstances of its composition, included the name "John Henry," almost unquestionably as the hero.

That's one point we can all agree on.

I think is the way we all wish it had gone: A dramatic American ballad, "John Henry," is discovered, in bits and pieces at first, in the South. More interesting still, more coherent, more complete, more dramatic versions emerge as collectors like the Lomaxes and others probe further into African-American singing. Maybe, like many Child ballads, there is a historical core to this song? Chappell and Johnson independently investigate.

Here's what we'd like: one or both of them turns up documented evidence that a driver named John Henry died challenging a steam drill sometime in the '70s or '80s. They're not sure when or where. Later, following the documentation, another researcher discovers a story in an obscure Alabama paper from 1887 describing the match and John Henry's death. (Maybe it turns out that he spelled his name "Hendry"; it doesn't matter.)

With historicity established, we then compare the texts to what we know of the event and comment, among other things, on the workings of the folk process and wonder about etails in the texts that don't show up in the paper - the name of Hnery/Hendry's wife, for example.
At *that* point, or so it seems to me, the "Polly Ann"/Margaret discussion becomes interesting. If we've found documentary evidence that Henry/Hendry *had* a wife, whose name for some reason was never recorded, we might be able to discover something through linguistic analysis.

That's how it all *should* have happened. But it didn't. I think John is working in reverse, if not entirely in a circle. He's found a "John Henry" (though his name wasn't "John") who was from Mississippi (as a 21st century trad singer assured him), and he's found that the man did have a wife (whose name wasn't "Polly Ann" or any of the names appearing in most of the texts, but which conceivably could have become "Polly Ann"). From this, plus similar evidence, he concludes that the drilling match almost certainly occurred.

Not only is the documentary evidence circumstantial, as John acknowledges, but it is far more tenuous than the evidence against Scott Peterson; it may well be pure coincidence. It has nothing to do with steam drills, steel drivers, a drilling match, railroad labor, etc. "Henry," as John also acknowledges, was a common name - there were plenty in Mississippi. "Dabner" is indeed close to "Dabney," but no documents evidence have surfaced to connect Captain Dabney, and Henry and Margaret Dabney with the Oak Mountain Tunnel or with driving steel on a railroad or anywhere else. Proof that there was in fact a connection would make a tremendous difference, and of course that's what John is still seeking.

A positive note is long overdue: as John says, it is indeed striking that the earliest full printing of the ballad that we have comes from Huntsville, Ala., not far from the Oak Mountain Tunnel. That immediately ups the likelihood that *if* a contest occurred, it occurred there. But in fact what it mostly suggests is only that the building of the tunnel, maybe twenty or thirty years before the appearance of the song sheet, *may* have influenced its author in some undetermined way.

By locating Blankenship's whereabouts in Huntsville, John can reason persuasively that the Oak Mountain Tunnel is as likely as the more familiar Big Bend to have had some unknown connection with the composition of the ballad. But "unknown" is the key here. We don't know what that connection was. And we can't use our ignorance to substitute for evidence.

Undoubtedly this debate between John Garst and Nerd is the most substantial analysis of the "John Henry" question since the 1930s. For that we should be greatful.