Mudcat Café message #1354903 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1354903
Posted By: GUEST,John
12-Dec-04 - 04:01 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Nerd says, "Okay, let's take "Frankie and Albert" as an example if you want. "Frankie" and "Albert" were, to begin with, their actual names. The fact that a significant number of versions call them just that argues AGAINST your thesis, not for it. No song calls John Henry "Henry Dabney," and no song calls his wife "Margaret" or even "Maggie D." So this is exactly the opposite of (say) "Stagolee," whose name was Stag Lee, or of "Frankie and Albert," whose names were Frankie and Albert, or of "Omie Wise," whose name was Naomi Wise, etc. In these cases, some of the most common versions of the songs give them thoroughly recognizable names. Not so "John Henry.""

I think Nerd and I are going to have to agree to disagree about the significance of the posited chain of mutations of names, from "Maggie D" to "Maggadee" to "Mary Magdalene," etc., but we really aren't all that far apart. He seems to give it no logical weight, while I give it some but not much.

Regarding "Frankie," "Albert" = "Al Britt."   "Allen Britt" was his name, not "Albert." "Frankie" is pretty stable, although there are many versions that call her something else, mostly things ending with an "i (short)" sound. (This suggests a continuation of Nerd's line: No song mentions "Captain Dabney," but at least one mentions "Captain Tommy," an easy mutation of "Captain Dabney," and this one states further that "Virginny gave him birth," which is true of Captain Dabney.) Interestingly, she has mostly lost her last name, "Baker," although "Frankie Baker" survives as a title and appears once or twice in the texts of collected versions.   "Albert," though incorrect historically, seems to have been pretty stable until tin pan alley's "Johnny" came along. Many versions name Al Britt's other lover, but as far as I am aware, not a single one gets it exactly right and only a few come close. She was Alice Pryor. "Alice Pry" is found at least once and "Alice Bly" occurs, but things like "Nellie Bly" are common, too. Buckley finds 17 first names (Alice, Nellie, Lilly, Rachel, Alco, Susie, Nellsie, Amy, Sally, Ruth, Bad Eyes, Sara, Alkali, Ann, Alla, Maggie, Katy) and 21 last names (Fry, Bly, Fly, Lize, Bright, Dry, Spy, Flies, Pry, Rye, Slies, Blythes, Eliz, Wise, Dryer, Spry, Sly, Brude, Blight, Blide, Blies).

Some names are quite stable and others aren't. "Ella Speed" is named, or partly named (just "Ella"), in all except one of about a dozen recovered versions, that one calling her "Alice B." About as far as tradition gets from "Delia" is "Delie." "Frankie" has lasted well, even though several other names are found. These three have been pretty stable. "Alice Pryor" hasn't been, although most of her transformed last names contain a long "i" sound. "Bull Martin" became "Bill Martin," plain "Martin," and "Martin F." "Lady Margaret" has done all right over centuries, so I can't claim that "Margaret" is necessarily unstable. I suspect that it depends on context. "Maggie D" is probably inherently unstable because it is so easily misunderstood, and if you don't know that "D" is an initial, then you might hear it as Neal Pattman's father may have, as "Maggadee," which itself is easily interpreted as "Magdalene."

Another interesting point is that "Frankie," "Ella Speed," and "Delia" are main characters in their ballads. "Frankie" usually begins, "Frankie ...," and "Delia" begins, "Delia!" "Ella Speed" usually doesn't begin with her name, but it is mentioned in one of the early stanzas. John Henry's wife's/woman's name is usually relegated to a subordinate position several stanzas into the ballad, if it is mentioned at all.

Anyhow, when I brought up "Frankie," I wasn't really thinking of the names but of important historical facts. Frankie shot Allen in a bedroom. In the versions of "Frankie" that have been recovered, it is universal that Frankie goes looking for Albert, finds him with Alice somewhere ("poolroom, ballroom, barroom, depot, on 5th Street, South Clarke Street, in the alley, Hogan's alley, gallery, call house, whore house, her house, woman's house, hop joint, hotel, chink shop, his parlor, a two-story building, or in a crib" - Bruce Buckley, who examined several hundred versions), and shoots him. That's not a correct account of the historical event. She was in bed when he came home at an early morning hour. He threatened Frankie and she shot him. Alice was not present. As far as I know, these historical facts are not present in *any* of the several hundred known versions.

A similar thing happens with "Ella Speed." No recovered version places the shooting in her bedroom (it's often a barroom instead), where it actually happened.

When the historical facts are boring, something "better" gets sung.

Thus, the absence x in the known ballad record is not evidence that that x is untrue or that x was never part of the ballad.

For the record, so there is no misunderstanding of my position, here is the conclusion from the end of my article, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi" (Tributaries, 2002). Although I've found a few more pieces of the puzzle since this was published, including the "Maggadee" version of the ballad, the conclusion below represents my present position.

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   So far, no definite documentation of John Henry himself has been found. This leaves room for argument from those who may believe that John Henry never existed or that he raced a steam drill elsewhere. However, to make such a claim one would have to disprove, explain away, or dismiss the network of evidence, detailed here, that places John Henry on the C & W in Alabama in 1887-88. In particular, one would have to argue that C. C. Spencer is not a credible witness and that he grafted a fictional tale of being an eye-witness to John Henry's death onto some arcane factual knowledge of Mississippi Dabneys, not obtained from John Henry, and the construction of the C & W.
   However, of all of the testimony gathered by Johnson and Chappell, that of Spencer is the most detailed, giving the impression of authority. He claims to have been present when John Henry raced the steam drill in Alabama. Thus, he is the "star witness" on this subject.
   When checked against facts that can be determined from other sources, Spencer's story is found to contain some errors, which threw Johnson and Chappell off the Alabama trail. Even so, these errors are reasonable for someone recounting, after forty-odd years, an experience from his teens, and they are easily corrected.
   What Spencer got right is far more impressive. Among other things, he gave the name of Coosa Mountain in Alabama; placed it near Red Mountain and Rising Fawn, Georgia; named Dabney as a railroad construction boss there; and stated that there was a Dabney plantation in Mississippi, all of which is correct.
   This lends great credibility to his story. That credibility is enhanced by the independent testimony of Barker and Cummings, by the statement of Davis that places John Henry in Mississippi, and by the persistent tradition, around Leeds, that John Henry raced a steam drill, probably outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Shelby County, Alabama, during the construction of the C & W in 1887-88.
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As I see it, the burden of proof now lies with other views.

I'd love for someone to find some relevant, direct documentation, regardless of what it might reveal. It's been a long time since people started studying "John Henry" and it hasn't happened yet. Still ... "hope springs eternal."