Mudcat Café message #835885 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #835885
Posted By: GUEST,
27-Nov-02 - 02:27 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
One of the earliest known versions of "John Henry" was printed as what is now known as the "Blankenship broadside," "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man." IanC has posted the text above. At the bottom of this song sheet, which is printed on one side only and which consists of the title and 12 verses of poetry (no music), is "Price 5 Cents      W. T. BLANKENSHIP".

There is no indication of date or place. Guy Johnson dated it speculatively, based on information provided by the source of his copy of the broadside, a woman living in Rome, Georgia, as "ca 1900." MacEdward Leach later suggested that it might be as late as the 1920s. Nothing is certain here.

A second Blankenship broadside, "The Great Titanic," was sold recently on eBay.   It came from an estate in Huntsville, Alabama. The Titanic sank early in the morning of April 15, 1912. This broadside was probably printed shortly thereafter. Like "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," it provides no place.

I have now found a third Blankenship broadside, "Our President," a photocopy of which comes to me from a woman living in Madison, Alabama, not far from Huntsville. Her mother made a small collection of "ballets," mostly handwritten but a few printed, in the early part of the twentieth century, and she retains this collection.

"Our President" is about the sinking of the Lusitania, May 7, 1915. It promises that "When Uncle Sam lands a million soldiers in France / The old German Kaiser will sink in a trance," so this dates it rather precisely to about the time of the entrance of the United States into WWI. The United States made a formal declaration of war on April 6, 1917 against Germany. The first United States troops arrived in France on June 27, 1917.

At the bottom of "Our President" is printed, in addition to the usual "Price 5 Cents" and "W. T. BLANKENSHIP," an address, "Huntsville, Alabama."

This solidly confirms what I had suspected for a while, that WTB operated from Huntsville; he probably lived there. I hope that this gives me a good foundation for pusuing WTB further. I've got a few other leads about him, as well.

"Our President" is such a terrible effusion that I doubt that any publisher other than the author would have printed it. Thus, I assign its authorship to WTB himself.

This tells me that WTB *did* write poetry. The logical next step in this speculation is to posit that he wrote "The Great Titanic." In my view, that is highly likely.

The text of "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," however, shows internal evidence of tradition. I agree with others that this is not likely to be the "original" of "John Henry." Even so, it might well be that WTB reworked traditional verses to produce his version.

Finally, I've noted WTB's verse 11 here before:

John Henry's woman heard he was dead,
She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
"I am going where John Henry fell dead."

In 1900, IC train No. 4 ran north from New Orleans to Chicago. If "John Henry's woman" started from Crystal Springs, MS, where his relatives lived (I think), then train No. 4 would provide the logical first leg of a trip to Leeds and Dunnavant, AL, where John Henry died (I think). After going north to Jackson, or perhaps further, the passenger would transfer to an east-bound train for Birmingham. I'm told that by 1887 there already was at least local passenger train service between Crystal Springs and points north in Mississippi, and it may well be that the route numbering (trains Nos. 1-4) was established by then and was unchanged in 1900.

If this is true, then it seems clear that the "John Henry" verse quoted above had to have been written by someone who was familiar with the Crystal Springs/Jackson train service. Logically, I think that would have been someone who lived in that area. Therefore I suspect that the author of "John Henry" was a central Mississippian.