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Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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Art Thieme 23 Aug 02 - 05:30 PM
Art Thieme 23 Aug 02 - 11:34 PM
Rick Fielding 24 Aug 02 - 10:30 AM
George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca 24 Aug 02 - 10:44 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Aug 02 - 01:21 PM
Mark Clark 24 Aug 02 - 02:19 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Aug 02 - 08:33 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 01 Sep 02 - 03:02 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 01 Sep 02 - 04:03 PM
Bobert 01 Sep 02 - 06:45 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 02 Sep 02 - 11:23 AM
Nigel Parsons 02 Sep 02 - 11:38 AM
Bobert 02 Sep 02 - 12:18 PM
GUEST 02 Sep 02 - 01:45 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 06 Sep 02 - 02:24 PM
John Minear 23 Sep 02 - 07:50 AM
IanC 01 Oct 02 - 10:47 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:13 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:34 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 05 Oct 02 - 10:58 AM
IanC 07 Oct 02 - 04:22 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 27 Nov 02 - 02:27 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 15 Sep 03 - 11:18 AM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Dec 04 - 02:45 PM
GUEST,Art Thieme 09 Dec 04 - 01:27 AM
Nerd 09 Dec 04 - 02:30 PM
GUEST,John Garst 09 Dec 04 - 03:34 PM
GUEST 09 Dec 04 - 03:37 PM
Nerd 09 Dec 04 - 05:18 PM
Lighter 09 Dec 04 - 07:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 Dec 04 - 11:41 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 10 Dec 04 - 03:08 PM
Lighter 10 Dec 04 - 07:35 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Dec 04 - 07:43 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Dec 04 - 02:51 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 04:04 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Dec 04 - 04:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst - to Nerd 11 Dec 04 - 04:42 PM
Nerd 11 Dec 04 - 06:27 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM
Lighter 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM
GUEST,John 12 Dec 04 - 04:01 PM
GUEST,John 12 Dec 04 - 04:12 PM
Lighter 12 Dec 04 - 04:52 PM
Nerd 12 Dec 04 - 06:08 PM
GUEST,John 13 Dec 04 - 05:24 PM
GUEST,John 13 Dec 04 - 05:31 PM
Nerd 13 Dec 04 - 06:01 PM
Lighter 13 Dec 04 - 06:39 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 11:36 AM
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Subject: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Aug 02 - 05:30 PM

As an old girlfriend said to me before we jumped into bed ther first time, "Yes, 'cause we both need this!!!"

John Garst, please re-post your last message in the old PART ONE of this thread. (I'm assuming it was from you---but my computer just about crashed before getting in there.)

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Aug 02 - 11:34 PM

I started this seriously to continue the other too long thread.

Art


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 10:30 AM

Guess I'd better re-fresh my memory with that other thread Art, but just so you'll be able to sleep properly. Hmmmmm, you want the 'origin' of John Henry eh? Well here's my best guess:

It seems I remember that some said he was born in Texas....but ya know, others said he was born in Maine...but golly Art, I don't give a gosh darn where that poor boy was born, because he most undoubtedly was a steel driving man, lord lord (as you choose to see him/her) yes indeed, let me re-iterate, he WAS a steel driving man.

My apologies folks. I'll leave your thread alone now. It's been a good one!

Cheers

Rick


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 10:44 AM

This thread is continued from Origin of John Henry


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 01:21 PM

Reposted in Part TWO, as requested:

A synopsis of my recent (2002) Tributaries article has been posted on the John Henry pages at

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/index.html

It summarizes what I consider to be the most important evidence, but it is much less complete than the article itself.

An 1895 photograph of Coosa Mountain Tunnel is also posted (taken from my article) and a 1930 photograph of "John Henry's last steel drill," sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, will probably be posted there late next week, about August 30 or so, 2002.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Mark Clark
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 02:19 PM

Thanks, Art, for continuing this thread. And thank you John for sharing your research and suspicions with us here. This is fascenating and I I'm anxious to see how John's theories are accepted.

John, you mentioned Art Rosenbaum in one of your posts. Are you in contact with Art? I still remember Art from his days in Iowa City. Please tell him hi for me. And tell him Al Murphy says hi as well. Al and I were talking about Art just the other day. I still listen to the album Art and Al put out many years ago.

      - Mark


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 08:33 PM

> Thanks, Art, for continuing this thread. And thank you > John for sharing your research and suspicions with us > here. This is fascenating and I'm anxious to see how > John's theories are accepted.

To give a little hint of what I expect from some quarters, let me quote a little aphorism I read a few years ago in, I think, a software engineering journal. This was offered as advice to a young professional.

"Always freely discuss your work with others, without fearing that your ideas might be stolen. If your ideas are any good, you will have to cram them down people's throats."

> John, you mentioned Art Rosenbaum in one of your posts. > Are you in contact with Art?

Sure, he's a professor at my institution, the University of Georgia. In fact, he was just recently awarded a nice chair here. A couple of years ago he bought a No. 7 Whyte Laydie. Realizing that this made his older Wildwood his third- string banjo (his newer Wildwood now being second string), I approached him about buying it and he sold it to me. It is now my first-stringer.

> I still remember Art from his days in Iowa City. > Please tell him hi for me. And tell him Al > Murphy says hi as well. Al and I were talking about > Art just the other day. I still listen to the album > Art and Al put out many years ago. > > - Mark Clark

He will be thrilled to hear from both of you in such a roundabout way.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 03:02 PM

I'm told that a 5-6 minute segment on "John Henry" is scheduled to broadcast on NPR on "Morning Edition" on Labor Day. There might be a few seconds of me, stating some of the evidence for John Henry in Alabama. There will be a corresponding WWW site set up by NPR.

I think that the segment will be made available eventually for internet listening.

Stephen Wade is the author/producer of the program.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 04:03 PM

The NPR "John Henry" WWW site is already there:

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/johnhenry/index.html


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Bobert
Date: 01 Sep 02 - 06:45 PM

I think that the greatest part of the story is that it can be interpreted on different levels and perspectives; man vrs. machine, spirit vrs. intellect, boss (ruling class) vrs. worker (slave), courage vrs. cowardace, etc. I think this is why the legend is just that and why it continues to be be told and sung.

I hope this doesn't seem to simplified but, hey, that's the way I appreciate John Henry.

As to the birthplace, I'd have to guess either Virginia, Wst Virginia or Tennessee becayse of the anount of coal mining in those states. Coal mining and tuneeling were very similar. A driver and a shaker and something that went boom. Not tto high tech. So I would guess that John Henry, if he actaylly existed, was from a mining area.

BTW, in 1873, the longest tuneel ever dug was opened in Richmond, Virginia. The Churchill Tunnel, over 3900 feet long, was opened that year afetr two years of sweat and blood. In 1925 ut collapsed on a work tyain killing the engineer, the fireman and a still inknow number of black laborers whose bodies are still in the tunnel...

Bobert


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 11:23 AM

Bobert says:

"I think that the greatest part of the story is that it can be interpreted on different levels and perspectives; man vrs. machine, spirit vrs. intellect, boss (ruling class) vrs. worker (slave), courage vrs. cowardace, etc. I think this is why the legend is just that and why it continues to be be told and sung.

"I hope this doesn't seem to simplified but, hey, that's the way I appreciate John Henry."

Good insight.

"As to the birthplace, I'd have to guess either Virginia, Wst Virginia or Tennessee becayse of the anount of coal mining in those states. Coal mining and tuneeling were very similar. A driver and a shaker and something that went boom. Not tto high tech. So I would guess that John Henry, if he actaylly existed, was from a mining area."

Alabama is noted for its extensive coal, iron ore, and limestone deposits and the steel industry, centered around Bessemer, that exploits them.

"BTW, in 1873, the longest tuneel ever dug was opened in Richmond, Virginia. The Churchill Tunnel, over 3900 feet long, was opened that year afetr two years of sweat and blood. In 1925 ut collapsed on a work tyain killing the engineer, the fireman and a still inknow number of black laborers whose bodies are still in the tunnel... "

Big Bend Tunnel West Virginia Completed 1872 6,560 feet

Hoosac Tunnel Northwestern Massachusetts Completed 1874 25,081 feet

Mr. Cenis Tunnel Swiss Alps Completed 1871 40,135 feet


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Subject: Lyr Add: JOHN HENRY / HENRY JOHN
From: Nigel Parsons
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 11:38 AM

Searching The DT for "John Henry" brings up a lot, but not the following:

JOHN HENRY / HENRY JOHN
(Trad?)

There was a man, who had two sons,
And these two sons were brothers.
John Henry was the name of one,
And Henry John, the other.

Now these two sons they found a bike.
They found it in a hollow.
And wheresoe'r the front wheel went,
The back would surely follow.

Now these two sons, they bought a cow,
They milked it with a spanner.
The milk came out in shilling tins,
The smaller ones, a tanner

Now these two sons took ill, and died.
They died from eating jelly.
John Henry died upon his back,
And Henry John, his belly.

Tune: Begeilio'r Gwenyth Gwyn (Mi sydd fachgen) Verse only (no chorus)
This song was learned in my youth, at wolf cub campfires (C 1960)
Shilling: 12 old pence (1/20th of one pound)
Tanner: 6 Old pence
Jelly: a gelatinised fruit cup, not the U.S. version of jam.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Bobert
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 12:18 PM

garst; Ol' Bobert stands corrected on the date of the Big Bend Tunnels completion. Thanks fir getting my historical wiring fixed on that one.

I had just finished reading a doctorial theseis on the Churchill Tunnel written by Dr. Walter Griggs and must have either misread or misremembered. Either way, thanks...

Bobert


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 02 Sep 02 - 01:45 PM

Bobert: "Ol' Bobert stands corrected on the date of the Big Bend Tunnels completion. Thanks fir getting my historical wiring fixed on that one."

Actually, some sources give 1869 and others 1870 for the beginning of Big Bend Tunnel construction, and some give 1872 and others 1873 as the completion date.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 06 Sep 02 - 02:24 PM

Most recorded versions of "John Henry" are pretty upbeat, whether by blacks or whites. However, a couple that deviate from this pattern have come to my attention recently.

First, Fiddlin' John Carson, whose version is believed to have been the first to have been recorded. His magnificent (IMHO) 1924 performance can be heard at

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/johnhenry/index.html

Second, Wise Jones, recorded in Fayettville, Arkansas, 1958. To me, this performance sounds like a true lament. It can be heard at

http://www.smsu.edu/folksong/maxhunter/0006/


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: John Minear
Date: 23 Sep 02 - 07:50 AM

I was just over in Berea, KY last week to look at some dulcimers and on the way, my wife and I stopped in Hinton and Talcott, West Virginia, to visit the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&0 Road. I don't know about John Henry, but it sure was ghostly standing in the mouth of that old tunnel! I could certainly imagine that as the sight of John Henry's work and his contest. It was a powerful experience. And speaking of imagination, I recommend Colson Whitehead's book JOHN HENRY DAYS. It's strange but fascinating, a story about the release of the commemorative stamp and the first "John Henry Days". But he manages to get everybody who has ever been important to the John Henry saga (West Virginia version) into the story. It focuses on some itinerant journalists, and is set in the present, but includes John Henry and his shaker, Lil' Bob, the steam drill, the guy who first made up the song, the guy who wrote it down and marketed it, the guy who recorded it, and Guy Johnson, the black scholar who went in search of John Henry in the '20's. There are also ghosts, cemeteries, postal employees and a stamp collector and a guy who has the largest collection of John Henry memorabilia in the world. It is fascinating how Whitehead weaves all of this together and manages to cover most of what is known about the West Virginia end of the John Henry story. It's also a story about a certain kind and breed of journalism, and a little slow getting started, at least for me, but once it's rolling it's worth it. T.


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Subject: Lyr Add: JOHN HENRY THE STEEL DRIVING MAN
From: IanC
Date: 01 Oct 02 - 10:47 AM

A couple of years ago (on the previous thread), I said I had a copy of the Blankenship broadside, which I could scan. I finally got round to scanning it, but can't at the moment put it on my web site as the FTP is down. In the meanwhile, here's a transcript of it.

JOHN HENRY THE STEEL DRIVING MAN

John Henry was a railroad man
He worked from six till five,
"Raise 'em up hollow and let 'em drop down,
I'll beat you to the bottom or die."

John Henry said to his captain:
"You are nothing but a common man.
Before this steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."

John Henry said to the Sinkers:
"You must listen to my call,
Before this steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll jar these mountains till they fall."

John Henry's captain said to him:
"I believe these mountains are caving in"
John Henry said to the captain:
"That's my hammer you hear in the wind."

John Henry he said to the captain:
"Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain
Oh captain will you walk in?"

John Henry's captain came to him
With fifty dollars in his hand,
He laid his hand on his shoulder and said:
"This belongs to a steel driving man."

John Henry was hammering on the right side,
The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He's hammered his fool self to death.

They carried John Henry to the mountains,
From his shoulder his hammer would ring.
She caught on fire by a little blue blaze
I believe these old mountains are caving in.

John Henry was lying on his death bed,
He turned over on his side,
And these were the last words John Henry said,
"Bring me a cool drink of water before I die."

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Pollie Ann,
He hugged and kissed her just before he died,
Saying "Pollie do the very best you can."

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."

They carried John Henry to that new burying ground
His wife all dressed in blue.
She laid her hand on John Henry's cold face,
"John Henry I've been true to you."

Price 5 Cents W. T. BLANKENSHIP.

:-)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:13 AM

Turtle Old Man writes of Colson Whitehead's book JOHN HENRY DAYS and its treatment of Guy Johnson, the black scholar who went in search of John Henry in the '20's.

It is true that the fictional Guy Johnson, in JOHN HENRY DAYS, is black.

The historic Guy Benton Johnson, Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, was a gentlemanly southern white. He made a career of studies of race relations, and his wife related that he was once almost fired on account of his liberal views of black people.

IanC says he has a copy of the Blankenship broadside. If this is an original, then it is only the second that I know to exist, and it should be safeguarded.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:34 AM

IanC,

If you have an original Blankenship broadside, do you see any aspect of it that might allow dating? The copy at UNC has been pasted onto a stiff board backing. If yours has not been treated this way, perhaps you can hold it up to light and find a watermark.

I'd like to correspond directly about this. Please e-mail me.

Thanks.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 05 Oct 02 - 10:58 AM

From the Blankenship broadside:

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 reviewing work on "Casey Jones," I've been reminded that Cayce was killed as he drove the Illinois Central's train No. 1, the Cannonball Express. No. 1 ran south from Chicago to New Orleans. No. 4 was the return trip, running north over the same route. Cayce was the engineer for a section of each of these runs.

John Henry is said to have been born a slave near Raymond, Crystal Springs, and Jackson, Mississippi. Presumably, many of his friends and relatives lived there. I don't know when the IC put in the Memphis-New Orleans run and started calling it "No. 1" and "No. 4," but if it was as early as 1887, then it is plausible that someone might have started a train trip from Crystal Springs, MS, which is on the IC line, to Birmingham, AL, by staring north on the Cannonball, the No. 4 train, just as the Blankenship broadside says.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: IanC
Date: 07 Oct 02 - 04:22 AM

John

Sorry - it's a photocopy of the one in Johnson! Details are in another thread!

:-)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 27 Nov 02 - 02:27 PM

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.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 15 Sep 03 - 11:18 AM

For evidence that John Henry Dabney, from Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Copiah County, raced a steam drill outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887, see my article, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi," Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, 2002.

I quote from that article:

"The 1870 census lists a Henry Dabney, black, twenty years old, "works on farm," living with his wife Margaret in Copiah County, Mississippi, a specific candidate for John Henry. Henry Dabney married Margaret Foston on November 4, 1869, in Copiah County, Mississippi (marriage records)."

We all "know" that the name of John Henry's wife/woman was "Polly Ann," don't we? That is almost universal nowadays. It couldn't have been "Margaret," could it? Here is evidence from collected information that it *could* have been.

Of 60 "John Henry" ballads published by 1933 (29 in Johnson, 30 in Chappell, 1 in Central of Georgia Magazine for October, 1930):

Polly Ann    15*
Mary Ann       3
Julie Ann      3
Delia Ann      1
Sary Ann       1
Martha Ann    1
Lucy          1**
Mary Magdalene 1
Ida Red       1

*Obvious variants are included: Paule Ann, Paul E. Ann, Poly Ann, etc.
**The informant was an amateur "John Henry" specialist who claimed that he had never heard any other name for John Henry's "woman."

I think that the following are characteristics of oral transmisstion:

(1) There will be substitutions prompted by mishearing, misrecall, and mental associations.
(2) The familiar will replace the unfamiliar.
(3) The simpler will replace the more complex.
(4) The plausible will replace the implausible.
(5) Better rhymes will replace faulty ones.

(6) The recent versions of a very popular ballad will less valuable
than older ones, as far as historicity is concerned, because the recent versions will have been changed substantially by the processes listed above. As change occurs, a ballad will tend toward a stable end point, that is, changes will have occurred that removed all of the earlier needs for change.

"Polly Ann" strikes me as too familiar to be the correct historic
name. Instead, it is probably a nearly stable end point.

When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as "Mary Magdalene," I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible "original," or a relative of the "original," and try to check it out further.

"Mary Magdalene" puzzled me for several years. Here is the way it was in a version sent to Guy B. Johnson in ca 1927.

John Henry, he had a woman,
Her name was Mary Magdalene.
She would go to the tunnel and sing for John,
Just to hear John Henry's hammer ring.

Note the direct statement, "Her name was Mary Magdalene," and the interesting near-rhyme: "-lene" / "ring."

Here the matter rested, in my mind, until about this time last year (2002), when I heard Neal Pattman, a local blues singer, in concert.   In his concerts he almost always does "John Henry," the first song he ever learned, he says, which he got from his father. Prior to that evening, I'd never heard him sing a verse that names John Henry's "woman." Such a verse is absent from Neal's text of "John Henry" as given by Art Rosenbaum in his and Margo's book, Folk Visions and Voices, and it is absent from his "John Henry" recording issued by Global Village (now on CD: CD 226).

That evening I sat bolt upright at full attention when I thought I heard Neal sing something like:

John Henry had a little woman,
Maggadee was her name,
When John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
Maggadee drove steel like a man.

"Maggadee" sounds a lot like "Magdalene" and a lot like "Maggie D."   As I sat there on our blanket (this was an outdoor concert) I
formulated the following possible series of mutations:

Maggie D
(from "Margaret Dabney," nee Foston, Henry Dabney's wife)
Maggadee
Magdalene
(more familiar than "Maggadee" and "Maggie D")
Mary Magdalene
(by association - what other "Magdalene" do we all know?)
Mary Ann
(more plausible and driven by rhyme)
Polly Ann
("Polly" is a nickname for "Mary.")
xxxx Ann
(Use your favorite, Julie, Delia, Martha, Sary, Lucy)
Lucy
(Drop "Ann" from "Lucy Ann." Must make some rhyme provision.)

Many people today don't even know that "Polly" is a nickname for
"Mary," but in the 19th century and earlier almost every "Mary" was known familiarly as "Polly."

Recently I've interviewed Neal Pattman, who told me first that the
name was "Maggatee" and then "Magganatee." I and two friends listened carefully when he sang it at a concert recently and we all agreed that we heard "Maggadee." It really doesn't make any difference.   "Maggadee," "Maggatee," and "Magganatee" all sound something like "Maggie D" and "Magdalene." Neal verified that he got the name from his father's singing.

In the version of Leon R. Harris, who had never heard any name other than "Lucy," the rhyming problem is met as follows.

John Henry's woman, Lucy,
Dress she wore was blue,
Eyes like stars and teeth lak-a marble stone,
An' John Henry named his hammah "Lucy" too.

Lucy came to see him,   (Cf "George's mother came to him,
Bucket in huh han',                            A bucket in her hand.")
All th' time John Henry at his snack,
O Lucy she'd drive steel lak-a man.

If Pattman's second line is inverted from "X was her name" to the more direct, and thererfore more familiar, "Her name was X," "Maggadee" and "Magdalene" don't provide a rhyme, but "Ann" does.

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Xxxx Ann,
When John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
Xxxx Ann drove steel like a man.

That's where my "What's in a name?" analysis stood until late last week. Then I found something I'd overlooked.

In Jamaica there has been a strong "John Henry" tradition. I already knew that that tradition has preserved "Dabner" as the name of one of John Henry's bosses. Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Crystal Springs, Mississippi, was Chief Engineer of the Columbus & Western and in charge of its contruction through Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887-88.

What I found yesterday, in a 1966 article by MacEdward Leach, is that Jamaican tradition preserves the name of John Henry's wife as "Marga."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 Dec 04 - 02:45 PM

FYI:

Here's part of the version that J. W. Washington, Fort Myers,
Florida, contributed to Louis Chappell, who published it in his 1933 book (pp 116-117).

They carried John Henry down the smoky road
And put him on that long white road.
When they brought that poor boy back to town
He was lying on his cooling board.

suggesting that "white road" could be the original that mutated, in several versions of "John Henry," to "White House." I have suggested that the limestone around Leeds and Dunnavant, Alabama, might account in some way for the whiteness of a road there, perhaps surfaced in marble chips.

There is a much simpler explanation. Many version of "John Henry" state that "they buried him in the sand." Very close to the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, where John Henry is supposed to have beat a steam drill in 1887, is Sand Ridge Cemetery. The area has exposed sand on several of its southwest-to-northeast trending ridges. Surely Sand Ridge is named for this. There was, and is, a ridge road leading to that cemetery, and if it were sandy in 1887, then it would have been "white." Unfortunately, the inventoried markers at Sand Ridge Cemetery don't include one for John Henry. On the other hand, the inventory is known to be incomplete, and the cemetery contains many graves for which markers have not been found. It may be that the inventory is based on a cursory search. I intend to go over there soon and have a personal look.

At least one version of "John Henry" states that he is buried by a river. Many versions imply that his burial is within sight of the railroad. Also very close to the alleged site of the contest, the railroad crosses Shoal Creek, which meanders through a flood plain of sand. This spot will be easy to examine because the highway is very close to the track at that point.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Art Thieme
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 01:27 AM

It's good to see this thread popping up yet again. It's a great answer to those who say we don't talk about American folksongs at Mudcat. Many of the "old chestnuts" like John Henry can provide stimulating discussion when scholarly folks look deeper into the possibilities. I appreciate John's new look at a fine song. Along with the first thread on this topic I think we have some fascinating reading. I wish I was more able to imagine (see) the terrain that John Garst is referring to in his papers. I'm too use to thinking in terms of the Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. Road. The new ideas could be true for all I know. Remember what a hard time Roger Maris had when he went up against the legend that was Babe Ruth.

Art


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 02:30 PM

John Garst's research is very interesting. I do think it's problematic, though, to at some times say that "the simpler explanation" is that there really was sand at sand Ridge cemetary and at another point eschew simple explanations for an extremely speculative and convoluted account of how Margaret became "Mary Magdalene" became "Polly Ann." Either simplicity of explanation is a virtue or it isn't, but John seems to be having both ways there.

On the "Polly Ann" thing: "Ann" is obviously necessary to rhyme with "man" in the next line, as John notes. Take away the "Ann" and you have Polly, Mary, Julie, Delia, Sary and Martha, as well as all the other names. Certainly, you couldn't get a wider variety of two syllable common American womens' names. Yet there is no Margaret (which is pronounced as two syllables ("Mar-gret") or even Peggy, the common two syllable nickname for Margaret. With these as your data, to argue that all the names derived some some real original, and that original was "Margaret" is silly. The Jamaican name provides some support, but why would they have preserved the real name only in Jamaica?

In hard science, this is good methodology: begin with a hypothesis, then do experiments to test it. But without the concreteness of experimental data, beginning with such a strong hypothesis becomes deadly: one tends to treat all data as though they support it.

This is also an example of circular reasoning. It is impossible to come to the conclusion that the song character's name was Margaret without using as one of the premises that the real John Henry had a wife named Margaret. So it could never prove anything.

Anyway, I don't think the Margaret/Polly Ann thing is particularly important or damaging to the overall argument. In making up verses about real or imagined heroes, people fill in all sorts of details they don't know. If the singer didn't know his wife's name, we don't need to "explain" how Margaret became Polly Ann. They're just made-up names.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 03:34 PM

"It is impossible to come to the conclusion that the song character's name was Margaret without using as one of the premises that the real John Henry had a wife named Margaret. So it could never prove anything." - Nerd

Henry Dabney, of Copiah County, Mississippi, had a wife named Margaret, as is shown by both marriage and census records. According to the census, he was born 1850-51. He is a *candidate* for the historical John Henry, so finding a plausible series of mutations from Margaret Dabney to Polly Ann carries some logical force supporting this his candidacy. Names that are logical intermediate stages ("Maggadee," "Mary Magdalene," and "Mary Ann") are in the record, that is, they have been recovered in tradition.

Henry Dabney is also a candidate for the slave boy "Henry" mentioned by Letitia Dabney in her memoirs. During the Civil War, this slave boy was a teenager, which fits the census records for Copiah County Henry Dabney at least roughly.

The logic does not lead to the "conclusion" that the historic John Henry's wife was named "Margaret," nor does it "prove anything." If you want proof, you need direct documentation, which no one has for any candidate for the historic John Henry.

Absent such documentation, one must deal with testimony, any particular "fact" of which is likely (but not necessarily) untrue, and indirect documentation. What I've been doing is testing the testimony of several informants who placed the historic John Henry at Dunnavant, AL, in the 1880s. The testimony of C. C. Spencer is particularly rich in detail, some clearly erroneous, but much backed up by documentation that I've turned up. The documentation does not concern John Henry himself but rather Spencer's story about John Henry (that he was from Mississippi, that his "captain" was a man named "Dabner" ("Dabney"), that he worked on "Cruzee" ("Coosa") Tunnel, etc.)

My claim is not to have "concluded" or "proved" anything except that the Alabama scenario is much better supported by testimony and documentation than the West Virginia scenario. Indeed, there is so much consistent circumstantial evidence for the Alabama scenario that I think it likely to be correct.

If you think Scott Peterson was wrongly convicted because the evidence was entirely circumstantial, then you will certainly have problems with my arguments.

Anyhow, I haven't yet given up on finding direct documentation. I want to see that grave marker with "Here lies a steel driving man" on it.

When and if it is found, I'll definitely let you know.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 03:37 PM

"Yet there is no Margaret (which is pronounced as two syllables ("Mar-gret") or even Peggy, the common two syllable nickname for Margaret." - Nerd

"Maggie" was a very common nickname in the 19th century.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 05:18 PM

John G.,

I agree from your evidence that the Alabama scenario is viable. I'm just saying that showing how "Margaret" could change to "Polly Ann" doesn't really add anything, because it's all guesswork. Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps. It's not in itself evidence, and neither is it logically derived from evidence, because as I said it is logically circular--you need to know what conclusion you are coming to before you start, or else you will never get there.

Your own statement that "When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as 'Mary Magdalene,' I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible 'original,' or a relative of the 'original,' and try to check it out further" is not in fact standard practice in folklore or any other discipline. To give an example from my own area of the country, if I came across an informant who claimed that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford, I would not automatically assume that this was any more likely than the usual "Mother Leeds" or "Mrs. Shourds," nor I think would any other folklorist.   

Your contention that Maggie is a common nickname for Margaret is true, but there is no Maggie in any of the songs either. I may have missed something, but I don't think you've even established that Margaret Dabney was known as Maggie D.

I'm not saying you shouldn't "check it out further," but so far you haven't really checked it out, you've just shoehorned the name into your pre-existing hypothesis of Henry Dabney. Once again, I don't think this particularly hurts your argument overall, it just doesn't help it much.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 09 Dec 04 - 07:47 PM

My experience in the South is that the expression "John Henry" is widely used by whites and blacks alike to mean "signature," what Yankees call your "John Hancock." I don't know how long this has been going on, but if it goes back long enough it could be that "John Henry" in the ballad is just a made-up name for a generic character.

This is a question nobody has ever addressed. If true, any search for the "historical John Henry" becomes more difficult indeed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 11:41 AM

"My experience in the South is that the expression "John Henry" is widely used by whites and blacks alike to mean "signature," what Yankees call your "John Hancock." I don't know how long this has been going on, but if it goes back long enough it could be that "John Henry" in the ballad is just a made-up name for a generic character.

"This is a question nobody has ever addressed. If true, any search for the "historical John Henry" becomes more difficult indeed. " - Lighter

This is certainly correct. I have no idea whether or not the use of "John Henry" in the place of "John Hancock" predates 1887 or 1871, the two most-often-suggested dates for John Henry's contest with a steam drill. However, I'm not sure how significant it would be to find that the use of "John Henry" in this was *does* predate 1871. "John Henry" has been a very common given name for a long, long time. There is every reason to believe "John Henry" *could* be a generic name that was inserted into the song and legend. Neither Johnson (1929) nor Chappell (1933) thought that likely, however, and neither do I.

The post-Civil-War, Copiah-County Henry Dabney and the slave boy recalled by Letitia Dabney were known as "Henry." While these are likely the same person, we don't really know that, and neither do we know that he, or either, used a first name "John."

Conversely, the Marbury family of Leeds, Alabama, whose ancestor Ciscero Davis was a mucker working on the contruction of the C & W RR in 1887-88, preserves stories of a champion steel driver that Davis worked with. His name was "John." They don't recall "John Henry," nor do they associate John with the John Henry legend.

Even so, I think that the identification of these reports with a single individual, John Henry Dabney, it not implausible.

There are a number of reports of a well-known steel driver at Big Bend Tunnel named John Henry Martin. Some reports from the Big Bend area claim that John Henry survived his steam-drill contest. John Henry Martin is reported to have lived for many years after Big Bend was finished. My suspicion is that Martin is the key to the attachment of the John Henry legend to Big Bend.

Incidentally, there are songs about "John Henry" that have nothing to do, apparently, with the steel driver.

FWIW, "John Henry" is also used as a pet name or slang for "penis."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 03:08 PM

"I agree from your evidence that the Alabama scenario is viable. I'm just saying that showing how "Margaret" could change to "Polly Ann" doesn't really add anything, because it's all guesswork. Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps. It's not in itself evidence, and neither is it logically derived from evidence, because as I said it is logically circular--you need to know what conclusion you are coming to before you start, or else you will never get there.

Your own statement that "When you come across something that is both unfamiliar and complex, or seems out of place, such as 'Mary Magdalene,' I think you should automatically give it great credence as a possible 'original,' or a relative of the 'original,' and try to check it out further" is not in fact standard practice in folklore or any other discipline. To give an example from my own area of the country, if I came across an informant who claimed that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford, I would not automatically assume that this was any more likely than the usual "Mother Leeds" or "Mrs. Shourds," nor I think would any other folklorist.   

"Your contention that Maggie is a common nickname for Margaret is true, but there is no Maggie in any of the songs either. I may have missed something, but I don't think you've even established that Margaret Dabney was known as Maggie D.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't "check it out further," but so far you haven't really checked it out, you've just shoehorned the name into your pre-existing hypothesis of Henry Dabney. Once again, I don't think this particularly hurts your argument overall, it just doesn't help it much." - Nerd

The "much" in the last of Nerd's statements makes it perfectly acceptable to me.

I've certainly not *established* that Margaret Dabney was known as "Maggie D," but that is a plausible conjecture, nor can I point to a clear "Maggie" in any recovered song. However, I think that "Maggadee" is a likely mishearing of "Maggie D." If you have some other plausible hypothesis to explain "Maggadee," I'd like to hear it.

Contrary, evidently, to the views of all real folklorists, I would want to check out "that the Jersey Devil was a deformed boy born to Migdaloosa McChuzzleford" very carefully. What explanation could there be for such a complex, convoluted name, other than that it was the truth, or something related to it? Possibly it would just be someone's idea of a joke? Perhaps, but I still try to check it out.   Unless the Jersey Devil story were regarded as humorous, I would think the joke idea unlikely. I notice from reading the article at
http://theshadowlands.net/jd.htm
that there is already documentary support for "Leeds" and "Shrouds," in the sense that these are family names known from the area. Is "McChuzzleford" another?

For a while, several years ago, I used something like the following as an e-mail sig:

Laws of Tradition
(1) Nothing is lost.
(2) Nothing stays the same.

As time passes, everything that enters tradition leaves some sort of wake, even if that wake is not recognizable. That the Jersey Devil story started with the birth of a "monster" is entirely plausible, just as it is plausible that the John Henry legend started with some historical event (whether or not it was an actual contest between man and machine).

In my view of mutations in the transmission of traditions, there is a tendency for

the familiar to drive out the unfamiliar
the simple to drive out the complex
the cliched to drive out the novel
the strong narrative to drive out the weak
the emotional to drive out the matter-of-fact
the interesting to drive out the boring
etc.

As these processes take place, a ballad based on an historical incident, for example, will tend to a stable end point in which much of the original information is omitted or altered. If Lomax had not recovered a version of "Ella Speed" (the only one known to me) with lines something like

Martin was neither tall nor slender,
He was known by being a bartender (not an exact quote)

we would have been mystified by the historic fact that Louis "Bull" Martin was short and stocky and the lines in several versions that tell us that he was "long (tall) and slender." Now it is clear that an awkward negative statement got "straightened out" to something more direct,

Bill Martin, he was long and slender,
Better known by his being a bartender

I dare say that no one would have come up with the conjecture that "neither tall nor slender" preceded "he was long and slender."

The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

Mance Lipscomb's "Ella Speed" and others provide studies in how far transmission can drive a ballad from its source materials. "Frankie," I suppose, is the classic example of extreme mutations.

Anyhow, tradition is subject to something like Gresham's Law, "Bad money drives out good." I'd say that the familiar, simple, cliched, strong, emotional, and interesting drives out the unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, and boring. Thus, when you find something in tradition that *is* unfamiliar, complex, novel, weak, matter-of-fact, or boring, you should check it out - it just might be from a very early version of the tradition - it might even be true, if the tradition derives from an historic event.

As to "circular reasoning": If a scenario contains unresolvable inconsistencies, it must be discarded or altered so as to remove those inconsistencies. If Henry Dabney's wife's name was Margaret and he was John Henry, then his wife's name cannot be Polly Ann. A weak, inactive resolution to this inconsistency would be to simply posit that "Margaret" isn't as "sexy" (in today's slang) as "Polly Ann," so "Polly Ann" won out. Perhaps Nerd would accept that possibility. I think that finding a plausible series of mutations that leads from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann" carries a bit more force. I don't see such a resolution of an inconsistency, regardless of how speculative it may be, as "circular reasoning." To me, "circular reasoning" involves the assumption of what is to be shown. What I am showing is a plausible path from "Margaret" to "Polly Ann." Where is the circle?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 07:35 PM

The difficulty here, it seems to me, is that there's precious little evidence to support the speculation that a steam-drill contest took place in Alabama - or anywhere else.

If the song didn't exist, nobody would attempt to track down evidence pro or con about such a contest. What John and others have shown is that a historical drilling contest is not inconceivable. But we'd know that even without the song - we just wouldn't have reason to care.

It seems very likely to me that "Mary Magdalene," "Maggie D.," and "Marga" all represent a single original, but besides "Margaret," that original could have been any of the above, couldn't it? Or ho abiout "Madeleine" as the original? Or "Mary MacAtee"? "Margot MacAtee"? "Maggie Dean"? "Madeleine Dane"? "Mary McDaniel"? And so forth.

What is the likelihood, though, that all the textual changes actually occurred in the way John describes them? And how many educated guesses can be in error before the whole theory collapses?

How can we know that the entire song wasn't based simply on a prior rumor or legend instead of an actual event? Isn't it equally likely that John Henry (whose name could have been "John Henderson," "John Hendricks," etc.) was as much a manufactured hero as Paul Bunyan? Maybe the song's author had been a steeldriver, or knew old steel drivers, who'd speculated about whether a man could beat a steam-drill. And maybe that's all it took to write a song about "John Henry." I'm not claiming this happened, but it certainly could have, and how can we know? Could a real drilling match have taken place at some other tunnel that hasn't been adequately investigated? After all, if "Margaret Dabney" could metamorphose into "Polly Ann" (and John persuasively shows how it could), something could metamorphose into the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Road." In fact, this is exactly what John is suggesting about the "Oak Mountain Tunnel." (Clearly, phonetics is not a limiting factor in such changes. As Nerd suggests, any name could, in theory, have become almost anything else.) Have all possible American tunnels been investigated?

It's certainly frustrating that an incident so emblematic of technology versus human aspirations and limitations was not verifiable by Johnson or Chappell and remains unverified today. If the Oak Mountain Tunnel was really involved, the match took place well within living memory when Johnson and Chappell investigated. So tantalizing!

But I'm not sure that we're any closer to establishing the contest's historicity now than we were in the '30s. I agree with the idea that in cases like this, historicity is less important than how the song managed to moved from true obscurity into being a national treasure, and what people have thought about the song itself.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Dec 04 - 07:43 PM

If such a contest took place, it seems to me that it would have made the newspapers.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 02:51 PM

"If such a contest took place, it seems to me that it would have made the newspapers. " - Q

You might think so, but then consider that the location, if it was Dunnavant, was *really* out in the sticks at a time when Birmingham, 15 miles away, was still pretty small. Also consider that there are no surviving copies of several newspapers for dates that might have carried something about it. The local Shelby County newspapers pretty much neglected Dunnavant, which was relatively far from the centers of population of that county, being in the far north, near Leeds, itself not a very large village in Jefferson County. The Shelby County newspapers, as far as I have been able to peruse them, are remarkably silent on the construction of the C & W RR line through that county in 1886-87. More notice of that is found in the Birmingham newspapers, but even there articles on the C & W are few and far between. And think of this - would newspapers at that time and place be much interested in the games of common laborers, especially black ones? Oral reports tell us that contests among steel drivers were frequent, in the Birmingham area and elsewhere, that champions were highly regarded, and that betting on them was commonplace. I've looked at many pages of Birmingham newspapers for 1887-88 without spotting a single mention of any steel-driving contest.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:04 PM

It's not surprising to me that contests between human steel-drivers occurred, that people laid bets on them, and so forth. Nor that the papers would be silent about such local events out in the sticks - they probably wouldn't even have heard of them, or by the time they did, the contests would have been old news. More to the point, I doubt that many white 19th century journalists would have been professionally interested in anything that happened in a chiefly black construction camp short of a particularly heinous crime.

Personally, I must agree with John that a John-Henry type contest, particularly if impromptu, would also be unlikely to hit the papers. If such a contest really occurred, there's no reason to expect that it would have been an elaborately planned event.

Moreover, folklore being what it is, IF an impromptu match took place between a human driller and a machine, there's no particular reason to believe that the man must have died. He could have given up after twenty minutes, gotten a round of backslapping and applause and maybe a dram, and that was that. But such an event wouldn't make a very good story - or song.

How about this scenario - I got a million of 'em. A driver named John Henry or similar died on the job accidentally from a hammer blow (or almost died) hence the floating verse about "This ol' hammer killed John Henry/ Won't kill me." Hearing the verse, semiliterate chap, not necessarily Blankenship, wonders how it hapened and why laborers should be singing about it. Later, he has the inspiration to make a song.

I hate to say it, but this series of events seems to me to be quite as likely as the idea that there was a drilling contest at all.

And FWIW, documents prove there was a prizefighter named John Morrissey, the hero of two or three broadsides But no matter how hard we look, we'll never find the proof that he fought a Russian sailor in Tierra del Fuego "on a Christmas Day," as some versions tell us.

I really hate to sound so negative. I'm just a folk curmudgeon, I guess. ; )


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:28 PM

"The difficulty here, it seems to me, is that there's precious little evidence to support the speculation that a steam-drill contest took place in Alabama - or anywhere else." - Lighter

There are two self-proclaimed eye-witness accounts, that of Neal Miller at Big Bend and that of C. C. Spencer at Dunnavant.

Miller's testimony is of very poor quality. He said the the contest was just a trial of the steam drill and that it was no big deal. He didn't watch it continuously, he just looked in on it from time to time as he went about his regular job. This is what he told Guy Johnson. What he told Louis Chappell is somewhat different. In his book, Chappell doesn't mention that Miller claimed to have witness the contest. In telling Johnson and Chappell about the contest, Miller gave different names and races for John Henry's shaker (turner).

Spencer's testimony is very detailed, but it has quality issues, too. Several of his dates are too early by a few years. He said that John Henry was from Holly Springs, Mississippi, and that the steam drill contest took place during work on the AGS RR. There is no appropriate tunnel on the AGS (Coosa (Spencer's "Cruzee") Tunnel is on the C & W) and I believe that Spencer misremembered "Holly Springs" for "Crystal Springs," Copiah County, where both Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney and Henry Dabney, husband of Margaret, lived after the Civil War.

Spencer recalled a song about John Brown: "John Brown was a little boy / Sitting upon his Mother's knee / He said the Big Bend tunnel on the C. & O. Road / Will sure be the death of me." Evidently he did not connect this John Brown's death with a steel-driving contest with a steam drill. Sadly, we don't know the rest of Spencer's "John Brown" song. He declared, however, that John Brown, not John Henry, was the man of "'Big Bend tunnel fame.'" Most would probably think that Spence just got things confused, and maybe that's the case, but this makes me wonder about the possibility that "John Henry" is an adaptation of an earlier song connected with Big Bend.

In any event, Spencer got a lot of things right and partly right, including that "Dabner" was a boss on the job. Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the C & W and in charge of its design and construction. Spencer is not the only one who recalled that John Henry and Captain Dabney were from Mississippi. In 1955 Warren Musgrove published part of an interview with Mrs. C. T. Davis, who claimed that his "boss man killed him in Mississippi after he left here," implying that the boss man (Captain Dabney) and John Henry went to Mississippi after the job at Dunnavant was finished. Thlis would be natural if Mississippi were home. (I doubt the truth of Davis' allegation, however. Certainly Crystal Springs newspapers don't report any killing involving Captain Dabney, whose family is mentioned frequently in the society columns.)

Unlike Miller's, Spencer's story is rich in now-documented detail. Although none of it concerns John Henry directly, the confirmation of Spencer's details lends versimilitude to his story. I consider his testimony much more likely to be true than Miller's.

No, I can't prove that John Henry and his contest are not fiction but I think the indications are contrary to that hypothesis.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst - to Nerd
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 04:42 PM

"Any name could be transformed into any other by a series of similar assumptions and logical leaps." - Nerd

Let's do an experiment. You come up with a plausible (meaning logically motivated) series of mutations by which some name other than "Margaret Dabney " becomes "Polly Ann." In doing this, you must not choose a name that ties into the series I've posited for "Margaret Dabney" -> "Polly Ann." Try something like "Barbara" -> "Polly Ann." If you succeed there, try "Jane" -> "Polly Ann." I'm curious about this myself, that is, about whether or not a "series of similar assumptions and logical leaps" can do the job.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 06:27 PM

John, I think you are taking this far too personally.

I am saying the same thing, essentially, as Lighter about the names. Any name that begins with M can be transformed in one or two leaps to Magadee and produce the same list you did. Or Sarah Dean can become Sarah Dee can become Sagadee can become Magadee and produce the same list. So what?

Your "experiment" would prove nothing, precisely because you asked me NOT to relate it to any of the names on your list. Then I am to relate it--what--to no names from any of the songs? In that case what is the logical motivation? It is only by purposely relating it to your list that we can show how easily any name can become the starting point for that same chain of conjecture.

To wit:

Barbara Dane
Babby D.
Magadee

etc., etc.

I don't see this as any less plausible than your series. But I doubt if John Henry's wife was really Barbara Dane.

As for why your argument is circular:

The assumption is that she was originally called Margaret. You only make that assumption because you are trying to prove a specific hypothesis which requires that as a premise. So it is one of your premises. It is also ultimately what you are attempting to show.

A non-circular form of the same argument would begin with Polly-Ann and trace it back to "Margaret" not because you thought the historical person was named Margaret but because it was the most plausible name to give rise to Polly Ann. That is not the case. Any number of names might give rise to Polly Ann through the same series of conjectures, as Lighter and I have shown.

The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

Mance Lipscomb's "Ella Speed" and others provide studies in how far transmission can drive a ballad from its source materials. "Frankie," I suppose, is the classic example of extreme mutations.


Okay, let's take "Frankie and Albert" as an example if you want. "Frankie" and "Albert" were, to begin with, their actual names. The fact that a significant number of versions call them just that argues AGAINST your thesis, not for it. No song calls John Henry "Henry Dabney," and no song calls his wife "Margaret" or even "Maggie D." So this is exactly the opposite of (say) "Stagolee," whose name was Stag Lee, or of "Frankie and Albert," whose names were Frankie and Albert, or of "Omie Wise," whose name was Naomi Wise, etc. In these cases, some of the most common versions of the songs give them thoroughly recognizable names. Not so "John Henry."


The relevance here is Nerd's contention that if John Henry's wife's name really was "Margaret," and if she really was known as "Maggie," then "Maggie" should have been recovered in some version. I don't think so. It might have been, but I give no weight whatever to the fact that it hasn't been (unless you count "Maggadee," which I'm inclined to regard as "close enough").

This is simply a statement that you give no weight at all to the holes in your theory, but lots of weight to its strong points. That's not the best analytical methodology, I'm afraid. For your theory about the mutations of these names in tradition to be true, there MUST have been some songs that called her "Maggie D." Why did these all disappear? Is Maggie D. somehow not familiar, interesting, or simple enough? Sounds pretty plain to me...


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM

Well actually, Nerd, the seemingly nonsensical "Maggatee," as sung, could just as easily be understood as "Maggie D." by anybody along the chain. But that wouldn't change anything because there's no way of being sure that the names are accurate. One exception -and a crucial one - is "John Henry." This name is such a constant that even a few exceptions -which don't seem to exist - would not affect the very strong likelihood, if not quite the absolute certainty, that the original song, whatever the circumstances of its composition, included the name "John Henry," almost unquestionably as the hero.

That's one point we can all agree on.

I think is the way we all wish it had gone: A dramatic American ballad, "John Henry," is discovered, in bits and pieces at first, in the South. More interesting still, more coherent, more complete, more dramatic versions emerge as collectors like the Lomaxes and others probe further into African-American singing. Maybe, like many Child ballads, there is a historical core to this song? Chappell and Johnson independently investigate.

Here's what we'd like: one or both of them turns up documented evidence that a driver named John Henry died challenging a steam drill sometime in the '70s or '80s. They're not sure when or where. Later, following the documentation, another researcher discovers a story in an obscure Alabama paper from 1887 describing the match and John Henry's death. (Maybe it turns out that he spelled his name "Hendry"; it doesn't matter.)

With historicity established, we then compare the texts to what we know of the event and comment, among other things, on the workings of the folk process and wonder about etails in the texts that don't show up in the paper - the name of Hnery/Hendry's wife, for example.
At *that* point, or so it seems to me, the "Polly Ann"/Margaret discussion becomes interesting. If we've found documentary evidence that Henry/Hendry *had* a wife, whose name for some reason was never recorded, we might be able to discover something through linguistic analysis.

That's how it all *should* have happened. But it didn't. I think John is working in reverse, if not entirely in a circle. He's found a "John Henry" (though his name wasn't "John") who was from Mississippi (as a 21st century trad singer assured him), and he's found that the man did have a wife (whose name wasn't "Polly Ann" or any of the names appearing in most of the texts, but which conceivably could have become "Polly Ann"). From this, plus similar evidence, he concludes that the drilling match almost certainly occurred.

Not only is the documentary evidence circumstantial, as John acknowledges, but it is far more tenuous than the evidence against Scott Peterson; it may well be pure coincidence. It has nothing to do with steam drills, steel drivers, a drilling match, railroad labor, etc. "Henry," as John also acknowledges, was a common name - there were plenty in Mississippi. "Dabner" is indeed close to "Dabney," but no documents evidence have surfaced to connect Captain Dabney, and Henry and Margaret Dabney with the Oak Mountain Tunnel or with driving steel on a railroad or anywhere else. Proof that there was in fact a connection would make a tremendous difference, and of course that's what John is still seeking.

A positive note is long overdue: as John says, it is indeed striking that the earliest full printing of the ballad that we have comes from Huntsville, Ala., not far from the Oak Mountain Tunnel. That immediately ups the likelihood that *if* a contest occurred, it occurred there. But in fact what it mostly suggests is only that the building of the tunnel, maybe twenty or thirty years before the appearance of the song sheet, *may* have influenced its author in some undetermined way.

By locating Blankenship's whereabouts in Huntsville, John can reason persuasively that the Oak Mountain Tunnel is as likely as the more familiar Big Bend to have had some unknown connection with the composition of the ballad. But "unknown" is the key here. We don't know what that connection was. And we can't use our ignorance to substitute for evidence.

Undoubtedly this debate between John Garst and Nerd is the most substantial analysis of the "John Henry" question since the 1930s. For that we should be greatful.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 11 Dec 04 - 07:32 PM

That's "grateful." Duh.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:01 PM

Nerd says, "Okay, let's take "Frankie and Albert" as an example if you want. "Frankie" and "Albert" were, to begin with, their actual names. The fact that a significant number of versions call them just that argues AGAINST your thesis, not for it. No song calls John Henry "Henry Dabney," and no song calls his wife "Margaret" or even "Maggie D." So this is exactly the opposite of (say) "Stagolee," whose name was Stag Lee, or of "Frankie and Albert," whose names were Frankie and Albert, or of "Omie Wise," whose name was Naomi Wise, etc. In these cases, some of the most common versions of the songs give them thoroughly recognizable names. Not so "John Henry.""

I think Nerd and I are going to have to agree to disagree about the significance of the posited chain of mutations of names, from "Maggie D" to "Maggadee" to "Mary Magdalene," etc., but we really aren't all that far apart. He seems to give it no logical weight, while I give it some but not much.

Regarding "Frankie," "Albert" = "Al Britt."   "Allen Britt" was his name, not "Albert." "Frankie" is pretty stable, although there are many versions that call her something else, mostly things ending with an "i (short)" sound. (This suggests a continuation of Nerd's line: No song mentions "Captain Dabney," but at least one mentions "Captain Tommy," an easy mutation of "Captain Dabney," and this one states further that "Virginny gave him birth," which is true of Captain Dabney.) Interestingly, she has mostly lost her last name, "Baker," although "Frankie Baker" survives as a title and appears once or twice in the texts of collected versions.   "Albert," though incorrect historically, seems to have been pretty stable until tin pan alley's "Johnny" came along. Many versions name Al Britt's other lover, but as far as I am aware, not a single one gets it exactly right and only a few come close. She was Alice Pryor. "Alice Pry" is found at least once and "Alice Bly" occurs, but things like "Nellie Bly" are common, too. Buckley finds 17 first names (Alice, Nellie, Lilly, Rachel, Alco, Susie, Nellsie, Amy, Sally, Ruth, Bad Eyes, Sara, Alkali, Ann, Alla, Maggie, Katy) and 21 last names (Fry, Bly, Fly, Lize, Bright, Dry, Spy, Flies, Pry, Rye, Slies, Blythes, Eliz, Wise, Dryer, Spry, Sly, Brude, Blight, Blide, Blies).

Some names are quite stable and others aren't. "Ella Speed" is named, or partly named (just "Ella"), in all except one of about a dozen recovered versions, that one calling her "Alice B." About as far as tradition gets from "Delia" is "Delie." "Frankie" has lasted well, even though several other names are found. These three have been pretty stable. "Alice Pryor" hasn't been, although most of her transformed last names contain a long "i" sound. "Bull Martin" became "Bill Martin," plain "Martin," and "Martin F." "Lady Margaret" has done all right over centuries, so I can't claim that "Margaret" is necessarily unstable. I suspect that it depends on context. "Maggie D" is probably inherently unstable because it is so easily misunderstood, and if you don't know that "D" is an initial, then you might hear it as Neal Pattman's father may have, as "Maggadee," which itself is easily interpreted as "Magdalene."

Another interesting point is that "Frankie," "Ella Speed," and "Delia" are main characters in their ballads. "Frankie" usually begins, "Frankie ...," and "Delia" begins, "Delia!" "Ella Speed" usually doesn't begin with her name, but it is mentioned in one of the early stanzas. John Henry's wife's/woman's name is usually relegated to a subordinate position several stanzas into the ballad, if it is mentioned at all.

Anyhow, when I brought up "Frankie," I wasn't really thinking of the names but of important historical facts. Frankie shot Allen in a bedroom. In the versions of "Frankie" that have been recovered, it is universal that Frankie goes looking for Albert, finds him with Alice somewhere ("poolroom, ballroom, barroom, depot, on 5th Street, South Clarke Street, in the alley, Hogan's alley, gallery, call house, whore house, her house, woman's house, hop joint, hotel, chink shop, his parlor, a two-story building, or in a crib" - Bruce Buckley, who examined several hundred versions), and shoots him. That's not a correct account of the historical event. She was in bed when he came home at an early morning hour. He threatened Frankie and she shot him. Alice was not present. As far as I know, these historical facts are not present in *any* of the several hundred known versions.

A similar thing happens with "Ella Speed." No recovered version places the shooting in her bedroom (it's often a barroom instead), where it actually happened.

When the historical facts are boring, something "better" gets sung.

Thus, the absence x in the known ballad record is not evidence that that x is untrue or that x was never part of the ballad.

For the record, so there is no misunderstanding of my position, here is the conclusion from the end of my article, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi" (Tributaries, 2002). Although I've found a few more pieces of the puzzle since this was published, including the "Maggadee" version of the ballad, the conclusion below represents my present position.

******
   So far, no definite documentation of John Henry himself has been found. This leaves room for argument from those who may believe that John Henry never existed or that he raced a steam drill elsewhere. However, to make such a claim one would have to disprove, explain away, or dismiss the network of evidence, detailed here, that places John Henry on the C & W in Alabama in 1887-88. In particular, one would have to argue that C. C. Spencer is not a credible witness and that he grafted a fictional tale of being an eye-witness to John Henry's death onto some arcane factual knowledge of Mississippi Dabneys, not obtained from John Henry, and the construction of the C & W.
   However, of all of the testimony gathered by Johnson and Chappell, that of Spencer is the most detailed, giving the impression of authority. He claims to have been present when John Henry raced the steam drill in Alabama. Thus, he is the "star witness" on this subject.
   When checked against facts that can be determined from other sources, Spencer's story is found to contain some errors, which threw Johnson and Chappell off the Alabama trail. Even so, these errors are reasonable for someone recounting, after forty-odd years, an experience from his teens, and they are easily corrected.
   What Spencer got right is far more impressive. Among other things, he gave the name of Coosa Mountain in Alabama; placed it near Red Mountain and Rising Fawn, Georgia; named Dabney as a railroad construction boss there; and stated that there was a Dabney plantation in Mississippi, all of which is correct.
   This lends great credibility to his story. That credibility is enhanced by the independent testimony of Barker and Cummings, by the statement of Davis that places John Henry in Mississippi, and by the persistent tradition, around Leeds, that John Henry raced a steam drill, probably outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, Shelby County, Alabama, during the construction of the C & W in 1887-88.
******

As I see it, the burden of proof now lies with other views.

I'd love for someone to find some relevant, direct documentation, regardless of what it might reveal. It's been a long time since people started studying "John Henry" and it hasn't happened yet. Still ... "hope springs eternal."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:12 PM

Lighter:

Well actually, Nerd, the seemingly nonsensical "Maggatee," as sung, could just as easily be understood as "Maggie D." by anybody along the chain. But that wouldn't change anything because there's no way of being sure that the names are accurate. One exception -and a crucial one - is "John Henry." This name is such a constant that even a few exceptions -which don't seem to exist - would not affect the very strong likelihood, if not quite the absolute certainty, that the original song, whatever the circumstances of its composition, included the name "John Henry," almost unquestionably as the hero.

That's one point we can all agree on.

***********

I dunno - I've also entertained the idea that the historic man's name was "John Dabney." I think it might take a millisecond or so of hearing someone sing "John Dabney" to replace it with "John Henry." There were some black John Dabneys in Copiah County, Mississippi, in the early 20th century, perhaps earlier. The fact that the Marbury family's recollection is of a steel driver named "John," not "John Henry," would be consistent with this. Spencer, however, called him "John Henry Dabner" and two others who gave testimony for Alabama also called him "John Henry." Incidentally, Henry "Dabney" is in the 1870 census. In 1880 he is Henry "Dabner" (same wife, birth year, etc.)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 04:52 PM

John, it's good to know that I'm not the only living soul who's read Bruce Buckley's dissertation. I knew that would come in handy some day! What you say about it squares well with my recollection -another plus!

As you can tell, I'm fascinated by the whole John Henry story and by your new research and discoveries. At this point, I'm going to try to dig up a copy of your article (you didn't say it was online, did you?)before I comment further. There may be a point here where "coincidence" begins to ring hollow and the burden of proof falls on us skeptics, but I'm not at all sure it's been reached yet. ; )


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 12 Dec 04 - 06:08 PM

Not quite, John. The latest research (Cecil Brown's article, so recent that it is Copyright 2005!) states that Allen was only Mr. Britt's nickname. Albert was his real given name. "Frankie and Albert" thus preserves the real names of both protagonists. Frankie herself called Albert "Al," as revealed in the many interviews she did after it was discovered that the song documented a real event. So some people called him "Al Britt," others "Allen Britt," and others "Albert Britt." Albert is a pretty logical ending place for these permutations, unlike "Polly Ann" for "Margaret," "Maggie D.," etc.

Also, there is a simple explanation for why the true historical facts are not present in any version of Frankie. It's not because tradition distorts the facts beyond recognition. It's because the later songs were all based on the earlier songs, not on trial documents. The earliest song was written by the great 1890s street songwriter Bill Dooley (also responsible for the original Stack O Lee), and was already wildly inaccurate. Dooley apparently wrote it so soon after the incident that the facts of the case had not been established; according to testimony that came out at Frankie's later lawsuits against the movie versions of her stories, Dooley was already singing and selling a version of the song the night after the shooting! At that time, only Frankie (who was in jail) knew the exact sequence of events, because the shooting and the lead up to it occurred in private. Some people like Alice Pryor, Albert's parents, and Frankie's roommate Pansy Marvin would have known parts of the sequence, but only Frankie knew the whole thing until after the trial.

So Bill Dooley was guessing. He was also inventing what he thought was a good story, rather than telling the somewhat bizarre true story (which was that Albert returned home to Frankie after an evening with Alice Pryor, took out a knife, and began cutting Frankie for no apparent reason; she shot him in self-defense).

And that's exactly what I'm suggesting about names like Polly Ann. The singers/re-composers of the ballad of John Henry were guessing, making up or creating, if you prefer, the story elements they didn't know from history. There does not have to be a genetic line of some kind tying "Margaret" to "Polly Ann," because if a singer doesn't know the real name he or she will create a new one, and "Polly Ann" sounds much more like a product of that random process than like a logically-derived product of "Margaret Dabney."

I've also read Buckley's thesis, by the way. You can find the most recent article on Frankie and Albert in the collection The Rose and the Briar. I didn't like the first few articles in this book, and said so on a thread a couple of weeks ago, but the rest of the book has been quite good. John Garst's thorough inquiries into Delia's Gone are cited, too! Sadly, they did not ask John (or anyone else) to do a piece on John Henry.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 05:24 PM

Nerd: Not quite, John. The latest research (Cecil Brown's article, so recent that it is Copyright 2005!) states that Allen was only Mr. Britt's nickname. Albert was his real given name. "Frankie and Albert" thus preserves the real names of both protagonists. Frankie herself called Albert "Al," as revealed in the many interviews she did after it was discovered that the song documented a real event. So some people called him "Al Britt," others "Allen Britt," and others "Albert Britt." Albert is a pretty logical ending place for these permutations, unlike "Polly Ann" for "Margaret," "Maggie D.," etc....

In my judgment, this is wrong. I think that Frankie sometimes called him "Albert" and sometimes "Johnny" to accommodate listeners who knew those names from the ballad. I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David. - J

Nerd: The earliest song was written by the great 1890s street songwriter Bill Dooley (also responsible for the original Stack O Lee), and was already wildly inaccurate. Dooley apparently wrote it so soon after the incident that the facts of the case had not been established; according to testimony that came out at Frankie's later lawsuits against the movie versions of her stories, Dooley was already singing and selling a version of the song the night after the shooting! At that time, only Frankie (who was in jail) knew the exact sequence of events, because the shooting and the lead up to it occurred in private. Some people like Alice Pryor, Albert's parents, and Frankie's roommate Pansy Marvin would have known parts of the sequence, but only Frankie knew the whole thing until after the trial.

(Nerd, con't): So Bill Dooley was guessing. He was also inventing what he thought was a good story, rather than telling the somewhat bizarre true story (which was that Albert returned home to Frankie after an evening with Alice Pryor, took out a knife, and began cutting Frankie for no apparent reason; she shot him in self-defense).

Absent contrary evidence, I'm willing to imagine that Dooley may have written these songs. That he wrote "Frankie" in the rush described here is harder to swallow, but it could have been. It could also have been that the earliest versions were more accurate, that later singers provided a "good story," and that the "good story" drove out the less "good" one. My inclination is toward the latter interpretation.

Sean Wilentz had copies of The Rose and the Briar and the accompanying CD sent to me by the publisher, in return for the information I provided him for his chapter on Delia (the best in the book!)   ; )

If you don't like Frankie as an example of the historic facts getting lost, try Ella Speed. Several versions have her being shot in a barroom. Actually, she was shot in her bedroom. I don't know of any version that states or implies that.

Frankie, Ella Speed, and Delia all tend to lose their cities. At least one version of Frankie puts her in St. Louis, but others have Memphis, Chicago, and a variety of others. One version of Ella Speed, a jazz recording by Edmond "Doc" Souchon, locates it in New Orleans.   No others do this. Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb thought it happened in Dallas. Most recovered versions have come from Texas. No version of Delia, of which I am aware, places it in Savannah. In the Bahamas, where it has long been popular, locals tend to assume that it describes something that happened there.

Any way you look at it, it is clear that ballads lose historical facts, either at their origins or later, and I think most often later. Thus, the absence of "Maggie," except as "Maggadee," doesn't bother me at all in relation to the hypothesis that John Henry's wife's name was Margaret. If somehow we eventually find out differently, that won't bother me either. This kind of evidence or argument is "permissive," not "demonstrative."

Incidentally, I think I should clarify the Jamaican John Henry whose woman is "Marga." The coupling of John Henry with Marga occurs in a short song that doesn't have anything to do with steel driving. The only evidence that this provides relates to the names only, John Henry and Marga, not to their activities in the song. It could be that this Jamaican song has no relationship to the saga of the steel-driving man. Certainly there are American John Henry songs about other men named John Henry. That doesn't imply, however, that this John Henry and his Marga are *not* linked, through some chain of transmission, to the steel-driving man. We don't know, but of all the names that the Jamican John Henry's woman could have had, it is striking that the one in the song *is* "Marga."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 05:31 PM

Lighter: At this point, I'm going to try to dig up a copy of your article (you didn't say it was online, did you?) before I comment further. There may be a point here where "coincidence" begins to ring hollow and the burden of proof falls on us skeptics, but I'm not at all sure it's been reached yet. ; )

It is not online, as far as I know. A sorta long summary is at

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/alabama.html

but it doesn't contain all the evidence, just what I deemed most significant at the time I wrote the summary.

I have offprints that I can send to anyone on request.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 06:01 PM

I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David. - J

This is uncharitable at best. He does indeed cite research on page 366, including the original news story from 1899, McClure's interviews with Frankie Baker in 1935, and subsequent follow-up stories from 1942.

We've gone off course here. I do agree that historical details get lost in tradition.   I am at a loss to see how this establishes the relevance of a stream of conjecture connecting "Polly Ann" and "Margaret Dabney."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Dec 04 - 06:39 PM

John: If our university library doesn't have the journal, I'll PM you for an offprint. Thanks.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 11:36 AM

John (quoted): I don't think Brown did any research. He doesn't cite any.   I interpret his writing on this as misinterpretation of Buckley or David.

Nerd: This is uncharitable at best. He does indeed cite research on page 366, including the original news story from 1899, McClure's interviews with Frankie Baker in 1935, and subsequent follow-up stories from 1942.

John: I didn't mean to say that he didn't do any reading. I question that he read anything not seen by previous scholars, none of whom noticed that Britt's real given name was "Albert."

I have no inside information on this, just Brown's chapter, Buckley, David, Huston, Legman, etc., but if I were a betting man (which I'm not, so I'm safe!), I wouldn't hesitate to bet against "Albert." If I'm right, then Brown will have really messed up the historical record - many who read his essay won't know any better, will accept what he says, and in the popular press, and perhaps in even in some scholarly writings, Britt will become Albert "Allen" Britt.

I will become charitable when I see some evidence. Until then my guess is that Brown simply rewrote history. He seems willing to accept recollections and speculation uncritically. Thus, he stated, as if it were fact, that "By the evening after the shooting, a 'barroom bard' named Bill Dooley had already composed a ballad that came to be called 'Frankie Killed Allen."

Nerd: We've gone off course here. I do agree that historical details get lost in tradition.   I am at a loss to see how this establishes the relevance of a stream of conjecture connecting "Polly Ann" and "Margaret Dabney."

John: I suppose I'm beating a dead horse, but somewhere back there you said something to the effect that if John Henry's wife's name were "Margaret," then that, or something close to it, should have been recovered in the ballad record. It is this that I've been trying to refute with examples of loss of historic detail, as well as with the notion that "Maggadee" is pretty close and that it provides a sound link to "Mary Magdalene." I wish I could find a version with just "Magdalene" (the "missing link!)


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