Mudcat Café message #3998891 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #150708   Message #3998891
Posted By: GUEST,Jim Hauser
02-Jul-19 - 02:15 PM
Thread Name: rebellion and protest in John Henry
Subject: RE: rebellion and protest in John Henry
------------- Additional info on the phrase "A man ain't nothin' but a man" and a related question about Bob Dylan -------------

Back on Feb 23, 2018, I wrote a post dealing with how the phrase "a man ain't nothin' but a man" which appears in many versions of "John Henry" was used by African Americans to assert racial equality. My post included an example of this through a discussion of the black folk song "De Black Jack and de Tall White Pine." In the time that has passed since I made that post, I have come across several more examples which I'd like to share with you. There are now a total of six examples on my website. Some details on three of them are below.

Example 1:
A black man named James Nunn used the phrase "a man ain't nothin' but a man" to assert racial equality in the book The Oral History of James Nunn, a Unique North Carolinian.   In it, he describes a time when he attended a courthouse meeting of the local county commission (pages 133-134). He and one other man were the only black attendees. Below is an excerpt from the book in which Nunn explains that he would not allow himself to be intimidated by his status as a minority, and tells himself "a man ain't nothin' but a man" to affirm his equality with the white people at the meeting.

So I went in the courthouse there and sat down. There I sat. That house full of white men and everything. What you reckon I done? I went in there and sat down and said to myself, "A man ain't nothin' but a man." And I crossed my leg and sat down just like the rest of those white folks did. And there won't but two colored ones in, and supposed to been colored, in the house.

Example 2:
A variation to the "a man ain't nothin' but a man" phrase is used to assert racial equality in an August 9, 1964 New York Times article entitled " 'Happy' Negroes Dispute Sheriff: Mississippians Write of Life in Letters to The Times." The article tells of 20 black residents of Bolivar County, Mississippi who sent letters to the New York Times in which they disputed a published remark made by Charles W. Capps, Jr., a Mississippi sheriff, that "95 percent of our blacks are happy." The article included excerpts from those letters, and one of the letters contained the following statement:

    What we want is a decent living. If the white man gets $2.50 an hour, well the Negro should get the same thing, cause a man ain't but a man and a woman ain't but a woman. 'Cause God made us all out of one blood. It don't make no difference--we're all one kind. We're all human.

The URL of the article is below.

Example 3:
Another example comes from John Lee Hooker's "Birmingham Blues" which uses a similar phrase--"a man is just a man"--to declare equality. Hooker recorded the song in response to events which occurred in Birmingham during a series of civil rights protest demonstrations in the spring of 1963. The third and fourth verses of "Birmingham Blues" are below.

I feel so bad, I read about Birmingham
I feel so bad, I read, read about Birmingham
Ah, do I know one thing: A man is just a man

God made this land
And this land
Is no one, is no one's land
And God made everybody equal. Equal. Equal.
I don't know why Birmingham
Treat, treat the people the way they do

The URL to the recording on Youtube is below.

I wonder if Bob Dylan knew or somehow sensed the meaning that the "a man ain't nothin' but a man" phrase held for African Americans. I've wondered about this because of the quote below which is from Dylan's MusiCares Person of the Year speech in February 2015.

These songs didn't come out of thin air... 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.

One of the really surprising things about all of this is that I have not been able to find any info indicating that Dylan ever recorded or performed "John Henry." I have checked with various books on Dylan and also searched online. Does anybody have any knowledge of Dylan recording or performing the ballad?

Thanks for any info or clues you may be able to provide.
Jim Hauser

The URL to Part 2 of my website which contains the complete "a man ain't nothin' but a man" discussion is below.

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