Mudcat Café message #3895670 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #150708   Message #3895670
Posted By: GUEST
24-Dec-17 - 11:01 AM
Thread Name: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
It's been three years since I've added to this thread on racial protest and rebellion in "John Henry," and I want to let those who may be interested in my work know that I am still doing my research and finding interesting things. Some highlights are below.


The book Stars in de Elements written by an African American music professor and folklorist named Willis Laurence James has a bad man version of "John Henry" with the following verses. The lyrics are in the AAB format.

John Henry was a man didn't 'bey no law (twice)
Didn't need no gun, could whip an' man he cross.

De white man say, John Henry, do lak yo' please (twice)
Done hear 'bout yo', all de way f 'om Tennessee.

In the verses above, John Henry is a "ba-a-a-d" (i.e. great and powerful) man, so ba-a-ad that white men feared and respected him, and let him do as he pleased. Because of his badness, he is not subject to the limitations which were placed on other black men by the white system of power.   We can see him as an African American hero because he was not bound by the laws of the white man's legal system, a system which was often used as a tool to oppress black people.

John Henry?s badness allows him to be a free man. Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train (his classic book about rock ?n? roll) described the legend of Stagolee as being a fantasy of no limits, a fantasy for black people who in the Jim Crow south lived every day in a labyrinth of limitations.    The John Henry song collected by James suggests that the powerful steel driver may have conjured up that very same fantasy for black people. They may have imagined themselves to be as big and ?bad? and powerful as John Henry, so powerful that nobody, including and especially white people, would mess with them.

2. REBEL VERSION #12 (performed by an African American woman named Minerva Williams):   

Mary Wheeler collected a version from the lower Ohio River Valley in the mid-1930s which I believe has been completely unknown to all those who have researched "John Henry" in the past. I have never seen it referenced by any researcher or writer. Wheeler is the author of the book Steamboatin' Days: Folk Songs of the River Packet Era, and the book includes several versions of "John Henry" but not this one. It was performed for her by a black woman named Minerva Williams. It can be found in the Mary Wheeler Collection of the McCracken County Public Library in Paducah, Kentucky.   The two verses below are from that version. The first verse is the key verse. (I've included the second verse simply because not only is it a beautiful verse but it's also one I've never seen elsewhere--I figure that some folks on this forum might want to include it in their own versions of the ballad.) I have classified it on my website as rebel version #12.

John Henry said to the walking boss,
I'm nothin' but a man,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand.

John Henry drove steel in the mountain with his woman right by his side,
And the water came a running down John Henry's cheeks,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky.

Clicking on the link below will take you to a webpage containing a digital image of Wheeler's typewritten transcript of the complete lyrics to the song (Wheeler classified it as John Henry #3).,-


In 1959, Alan Lomax recorded a work song version of "John Henry" at Mississippi's Parchman Farm prison which was performed by an African American named Grover Wells who was accompanied by a group of unidentified prisoners who sang and struck their hoes to a steady beat throughout the song. It includes the verse below in which John Henry makes a thinly-veiled threat against his captain. The verse is a variation to one which appears in many versions of the ballad in which John Henry speaks similar lines to his shaker, the worker who held the drill in place for the steel driver as he hammered it. A link to the recording is below.

verse 2:
John Henry told his captain,
"Boss man, do you ever pray?
Well, if I miss this steel and this hammer get away
Tomorrow be your buryin' day.
Lord, Lord
Tomorrow be your buryin' day."


Bluesman Furry Lewis made a long string of "John Henry" recordings, and there is a verse which appears in at least three of them in which John Henry looks at the sun and then looks at his work partner and sees him falling dead. One of the recordings appears on the album Fourth and Beale which was recorded in 1969. The verse and a link to the recording are below. (The "falling dead" verse is the last verse of the recording.)

John Henry looked at the sun one day,
And the sun had done turned red.
And he looked back over his shoulder, Lord,
And he see'd his partner fallin' dead, dead, dead.

Of course, many of you recognize that Lewis adapted the verse from one contained in the African American Texas prison work song "Go Down Ol' Hannah." Hannah is the name that the convicts gave to the sun. Below is the verse as it appears (including parenthetical explanatory comments from the performer) in one of several versions of "Go Down Ol' Hannah" included in Bruce Jackson's book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues. It can be interpreted as a protest against convicts being forced to work in the fields of prison farms, work which was done under the blistering Texas sun for exhaustingly long hours and at a brutal pace.

Well I look at old Hannah,
She was turnin' red, ("Means it's late in the evenin'")
Well I look at my partner, ("That's the one on the row with you")
He was almost dead.


In addition to Furry Lewis's version above, another recording of the ballad which borrows a verse from a black work song is one by a black musician named Virgil Perkins which appears on the Folkways Records album Folk Music U.S.A., Volume 1. The verse and a link to the recording are below. Perkins begins the verse with John Henry making a complaint to his captain (first two lines), and then ends it with the captain's response (last two lines).

John Henry said to his captain
He said, "Captain, my hands gettin' cold."
He said, "That don't make no difference, boy, what you said.
I wanna hear that hammer roll."

The above verse is a variation to a verse (see below) found in a work song titled "Grade Song." The lyrics to "Grade Song" appear in Howard Odum's article "Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes" which was published in the year 1911 in the Journal of American Folklore. The song includes a number of short verses in which complaints and a threat are made to or about the captain. The verse also appears in a song collected by Lawrence Gellert titled "Told My Captain" which appears in his book Me and My Captain: Chain Gang Negro Songs of Protest (published in 1939).

Told my captain my han's wus cold.
"God damn yo' hans, let the wheelers roll!"


In Part Two of my website, I discuss how John Henry was a great symbol of black manhood and how black manhood was linked to the struggle for freedom. Based on this, John Henry can be seen as representing freedom to African Americans. The above badman version collected by Willis Laurence James is an example of this.

I believe that Bob Dylan himself made the same connections between John Henry and black manhood and the struggle for freedom when back in the early 1960s he wrote the first verse to ?Blowin? in the Wind.? Some 50 years after writing it, Dylan stated:

If you sang ?John Henry? as many times as me ? John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said, ?A man ain?t nothin? but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I?ll die with that hammer in my hand.? If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you?d have written ?How many roads must a man walk down?? too.

I see myself continuing my John Henry research for years to come and will be updating my website several times a year. A link to my website is below. I'll be happy to answer any questions about this post or my website. Thanks for taking the time to look at my work!

Jim Hauser