Mudcat Café message #1355972 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #1355972
Posted By: GUEST,John
13-Dec-04 - 05:24 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Nerd: Not quite, John. The latest research (Cecil Brown's article, so recent that it is Copyright 2005!) states that Allen was only Mr. Britt's nickname. Albert was his real given name. "Frankie and Albert" thus preserves the real names of both protagonists. Frankie herself called Albert "Al," as revealed in the many interviews she did after it was discovered that the song documented a real event. So some people called him "Al Britt," others "Allen Britt," and others "Albert Britt." Albert is a pretty logical ending place for these permutations, unlike "Polly Ann" for "Margaret," "Maggie D.," etc....

In my judgment, this is wrong. I think that Frankie sometimes called him "Albert" and sometimes "Johnny" to accommodate listeners who knew those names from the ballad. I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David. - J

Nerd: The earliest song was written by the great 1890s street songwriter Bill Dooley (also responsible for the original Stack O Lee), and was already wildly inaccurate. Dooley apparently wrote it so soon after the incident that the facts of the case had not been established; according to testimony that came out at Frankie's later lawsuits against the movie versions of her stories, Dooley was already singing and selling a version of the song the night after the shooting! At that time, only Frankie (who was in jail) knew the exact sequence of events, because the shooting and the lead up to it occurred in private. Some people like Alice Pryor, Albert's parents, and Frankie's roommate Pansy Marvin would have known parts of the sequence, but only Frankie knew the whole thing until after the trial.

(Nerd, con't): So Bill Dooley was guessing. He was also inventing what he thought was a good story, rather than telling the somewhat bizarre true story (which was that Albert returned home to Frankie after an evening with Alice Pryor, took out a knife, and began cutting Frankie for no apparent reason; she shot him in self-defense).

Absent contrary evidence, I'm willing to imagine that Dooley may have written these songs. That he wrote "Frankie" in the rush described here is harder to swallow, but it could have been. It could also have been that the earliest versions were more accurate, that later singers provided a "good story," and that the "good story" drove out the less "good" one. My inclination is toward the latter interpretation.

Sean Wilentz had copies of The Rose and the Briar and the accompanying CD sent to me by the publisher, in return for the information I provided him for his chapter on Delia (the best in the book!)   ; )

If you don't like Frankie as an example of the historic facts getting lost, try Ella Speed. Several versions have her being shot in a barroom. Actually, she was shot in her bedroom. I don't know of any version that states or implies that.

Frankie, Ella Speed, and Delia all tend to lose their cities. At least one version of Frankie puts her in St. Louis, but others have Memphis, Chicago, and a variety of others. One version of Ella Speed, a jazz recording by Edmond "Doc" Souchon, locates it in New Orleans.   No others do this. Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb thought it happened in Dallas. Most recovered versions have come from Texas. No version of Delia, of which I am aware, places it in Savannah. In the Bahamas, where it has long been popular, locals tend to assume that it describes something that happened there.

Any way you look at it, it is clear that ballads lose historical facts, either at their origins or later, and I think most often later. Thus, the absence of "Maggie," except as "Maggadee," doesn't bother me at all in relation to the hypothesis that John Henry's wife's name was Margaret. If somehow we eventually find out differently, that won't bother me either. This kind of evidence or argument is "permissive," not "demonstrative."

Incidentally, I think I should clarify the Jamaican John Henry whose woman is "Marga." The coupling of John Henry with Marga occurs in a short song that doesn't have anything to do with steel driving. The only evidence that this provides relates to the names only, John Henry and Marga, not to their activities in the song. It could be that this Jamaican song has no relationship to the saga of the steel-driving man. Certainly there are American John Henry songs about other men named John Henry. That doesn't imply, however, that this John Henry and his Marga are *not* linked, through some chain of transmission, to the steel-driving man. We don't know, but of all the names that the Jamican John Henry's woman could have had, it is striking that the one in the song *is* "Marga."