Mudcat Café message #3512204 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #150708   Message #3512204
Posted By: GUEST,Jim Hauser
06-May-13 - 01:39 PM
Thread Name: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Subject: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Hello everyone,
I am an amateur music researcher who has never posted to Mudcat before, but I have found it to be a useful resource several times in the past. (I am a librarian by trade and do music research as a hobby.) Currently, I am researching the ballad of John Henry and would appreciate your assistance. I've identified certain versions of the ballad in which John Henry challenges or rebels against his captain or is at odds with him in some way, and I am hoping that you folks may be able to tell me of some additional versions. I hope to eventually write an article about my research, and have created a webpage which provides some details about what I've found.

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/


I've identified eight rebel versions of John Henry which are listed below. I refer to them as rebel versions because, in each one, a key, well-known and commonly appearing verse from the song which begins "John Henry said to the captain" has been transformed from a statement of resolve concerning defeating the steam drill into a statement which can be interpreted as a rebellious challenge against the captain, the man who oversaw the work of John Henry and his fellow steel drivers.

These versions appear in:
Howard Odum and Guy B. Johnson's "Negro Workaday Songs"
Guy B. Johnson's "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend"
Bruce Jackson's "Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues"
Ernest Booth's "Stealing Through Life"


Rebel Version 1 (from Booth)

John Henry tole his cap'en one day:
"A man ain't nuffin' but a man,
But 'fore ah'd let yo' hit me on the --- wid dat strap,
Ah'd die wif dis hammer in mah han' . . . "
Hey . . . hey . . . hey . . .


Rebel Version 2 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry went to captain,
Say, "Man ain't nothin' but a man.
Befo' I let you beat me down
I die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 3 (from Johnson)

John Henry told his captain,
"A man ain't nothing but a man.
Before I'd let you beat me down
I'd die with the hammer in my hand."


Rebel Version 4 (from Johnson)

John Henry said to the captain,
"A man ain't nothing but a man,
Before I let a man beat me down
I will die with my hammer in my hand."


Rebel Version 5 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry said to his captain
"Lawd, a man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I let a man beat me down
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 6 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry said to his captain,
"Man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I work from sun to sun
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 7 (from Odum & Johnson)

John Henry told his captain
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
Befo' I work from sun to sun
I'd die wid de hammer in my han'."


Rebel Version 8 (from Jackson)

John Henry told-a the Captain,
He said, "A man ain't but a man,
And before I'll stand to let you drive me down,
I will die with the hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I will die with the hammer in my hand.

In addition to the eight rebel versions, I've identified eight complaint versions of the ballad in which John Henry complains to his boss of inadequate wages or mistreatment on the job. He does not threaten his captain in these versions, but he crosses over the boundary of what white people in the Jim Crow south considered to be acceptable behavior for a black man in addressing or interacting with a white man. These versions are included on my webpage.

These versions suggest the possibility that protest and resistance were an important part of the John Henry tradition, but they have apparently been overlooked or ignored by folklorists and researchers.

Please let me know if you are aware of any other versions in which John Henry rebels against or challenges his captain.

Thanks for any help you can provide.

Jim Hauser