Mudcat Café message #3672109 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #150708   Message #3672109
Posted By: Don Firth
25-Oct-14 - 04:39 PM
Thread Name: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Jim, I've been learning and singing folk songs since 1953 and the ballad of John Henry was familiar to me right from the start. I've heard it sung by Lord only knows how many people, both live and on record—including in a concert at a Berkeley folk music festival by John Lomax Jr. And I was given a two-record set, sung and narrated by Josh White, of the legend of John Henry. I have also sung the song myself many times in a lifetime of performance.

In the versions with which I am familiar, although John Henry is black and it is assumed that the foreman is white (although I've never heard this specified), I was not particularly aware of any kind of strong racial component.

Or the foreman threatening John Henry with corporal punishment!

The conflict in the song—as I have always heard it—was between John Henry and the idea of he and his co-workers being replace by a steam drill. Hence, the contest between John Henry and the steam drill—which John Henry wins, but at the cost of his life.

A song about racism? This is the first time I've ever heard that!

Don Firth