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Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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Nerd 14 Dec 04 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM
Nerd 14 Dec 04 - 02:37 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 03:32 PM
GUEST,John 14 Dec 04 - 05:08 PM
Nerd 15 Dec 04 - 02:42 AM
GUEST,John 15 Dec 04 - 03:38 PM
Nerd 16 Dec 04 - 12:12 PM
Lighter 16 Dec 04 - 02:07 PM
GUEST,John 16 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM
GUEST,John 16 Dec 04 - 02:24 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Dec 04 - 01:42 PM
Nerd 17 Dec 04 - 02:33 PM
GUEST,John 18 Dec 04 - 10:47 AM
GUEST,John Garst 18 Dec 04 - 10:53 AM
GUEST,John Garst 18 Jan 05 - 01:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 05 - 07:01 PM
Lighter 24 Jan 05 - 08:09 PM
Kaleea 25 Jan 05 - 03:51 AM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 05 - 04:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Jan 05 - 03:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM
Lighter 27 Jan 05 - 09:11 PM
GUEST,garst 30 Jan 05 - 11:08 AM
GUEST,garst 30 Jan 05 - 11:27 AM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Feb 05 - 04:16 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Feb 05 - 04:11 PM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Aug 05 - 10:48 AM
Kaleea 04 Aug 05 - 01:02 AM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Aug 05 - 10:58 AM
GUEST,John Garst 06 Aug 05 - 03:22 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Sep 05 - 05:51 PM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Sep 05 - 07:00 AM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Sep 05 - 07:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Oct 05 - 04:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Oct 05 - 04:24 PM
GUEST,Bill 30 Dec 05 - 12:41 PM
GUEST,Bill 30 Dec 05 - 01:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 Jan 06 - 02:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Jan 06 - 03:33 PM
GUEST,John Garst 10 May 06 - 04:14 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Jul 06 - 02:30 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Aug 06 - 04:50 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Aug 06 - 02:18 PM
GUEST,Lighter 04 Aug 06 - 08:40 PM
GUEST,Garst 17 Aug 06 - 02:39 PM
GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama 10 Sep 06 - 04:34 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Sep 06 - 08:00 PM
Lighter 13 Sep 06 - 01:57 PM
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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 01:56 PM

Ah! I see where the misunderstanding came from. No, I think it is quite likely that the name could be Margaret and that no such name could ever be in the record. But if that were the case then there would by definition be no chain of transmission transforming "Margaret" into "Polly Ann."

In other words, it was your logical process of "deriving" Polly Ann from "Margaret Dabney" that required "Maggie D." to have been in tradition at some point. What I said before was, 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." The logic of this is that, if not, where did Magadee come from, and Mary magdalene? It was your contention that these were derived from "Maggie D." So someone must have heard "Maggie D." at some point, and there would have to have been a song calling her that.

That's not to say that I think there were songs calling her "Maggie D.", just that there must have been for your theory to work. If "Maggie D." were in the record, one could posit some kind of transmission chain beginning with Margaret Dabney and ending with Polly Ann with a shade more validity. Since it's not in the record, any such transmission chain becomes very shaky indeed, which means that all the statistics you give on names and their frequency become irrelevant to the question of whether the original name could have been Margaret.

If no name like "Margaret" or "Maggie D." was ever in the tradition, then it is not an issue of transmission but of the creation of a name from whole cloth for the character of John Henry's wife, which is what I've already said is the most likely scenario to give rise to "Polly Ann." And if that is the case, none of the evidence concerning Polly Ann, Mary Ann, etc, can be used to support OR deny the contention that Margaret was the original name.

So as always, my position is: sure, it could have been Margaret, because it could have been anything and you'd have the same darn "chain of transmission." But the names that do exist in the record provide no evidence that it WAS Margaret.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM

Nerd: ...If "Maggie D." were in the record, one could posit some kind of transmission chain beginning with Margaret Dabney and ending with Polly Ann with a shade more validity. Since it's not in the record....

John: "Maggadee" is in the record. Is this not essentially equivalent, aurally, to "Maggie D"?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 02:37 PM

John, you are indeed beating a dead horse and your logic gets more and more obscure.

Yes, "Maggadee" is aurally similar to "Maggie D" Your theory hinges on the proposition that it is a folk-procesed version of Maggie D.   (If it is not, then it is just a made-up name and does not support the contention that "Maggie D." is the original name.) So we'll go with the assumption that it is, which means that there must have been a song that said "Maggie D." for someone to have misheard.

Now, your own "laws" state that the simpler will trump the more complicated and the familiar will trump the strange. Seems to me "Maggie D." is simpler and more familiar than "Maggadee," so it's strange to begin with that "Maggadee" would come into existence at all. But that it should survive while "Maggie D." doesn't? This goes against the same logical "laws" that you use to derive "Polly Ann" from "Margaret Dabney."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 03:32 PM

Nerd: Seems to me "Maggie D." is simpler and more familiar than "Maggadee," so it's strange to begin with that "Maggadee" would come into existence at all.

John: I think that someone who didn't *know* that "Maggie D" was what was being sung could, and probably would, hear it as "Maggadee" and not guess that it was "Maggie D." *Neither* of these is familiar. In Neal Pattman's case, we don't know whether or not his father was as baffled about the name as Neal, who, according to his own statement, simply sings it as he heard his father do it.

What is the probability that "Maggadee" would somehow arise spontaneously?

What is a plausible source other than "Maggie D"?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 14 Dec 04 - 05:08 PM

About a subject such as "John Henry," every available fact has a testimonial source, a version of the ballad, a passed-around story, other hearsay, or someone's years-after-the-fact recollection. In practice, what this means is that every available fact is likely to be wrong. Nothing is inherently reliable.

How can one find the truth? "garbage in -> garbage out" Right?

Maybe, but "likely to be wrong" doesn't mean that it's all wrong. The problem them boils down to deciding which testimony is most likely to be true.

I've used the following criteria (and perhaps others that I can't recall off the top of my head).

(1) Inherent credibility.

Before checking up on any of his facts, the testimony of C. C. Spencer struck me as "dripping with authenticity" (Legman's phrase - he applied it to something else). It is an eyewitness account, it is very detailed, and Spencer was forthcoming with a second statement when Johnson asked for more. Spencer appears to have been doing his best to cooperate and help Johnson, giving many details.

The only other eye-witness account, that of Neal Miller at Big Bend, struck me in just the opposite way. It is sketchy and evasive. Further, his two testimonies differ in some details.

On these grounds alone, I give Spencer's testimony much more credence.

(2) Consistency with other personal testimony.

Spencer's testimony is supported, with no significant contradictions, by letters from F. P. Barker, Glendora Cannon Cummings, and C. S. Farquason. Barker was a steel driver who knew John Henry. Cumming's uncle "was working by John Henry and saw him when he beat the steam drill and fell dead." Farquason was an official of the Public Works Department of Jamaica. The testimonies of all three support Spencer's in various ways.

Spencer's contention that John Henry and his boss were both from Mississippi agrees with the 1955 testimony of Mrs. C. T. Davis, Leeds, Alabama.

Neal Miller's testimony is somewhat supported by some and contradicted by some. The whole of testimony from Big Bend, from many informants, about a dozen of whom were at Big Bend during its construction, is incoherent.

(3) Consistency with documentation.

Spencer and others gave facts that could be checked out. Spencer made some errors, but he got a lot right. One thing he got right was the name of one of John Henry's bosses, "Dabner." Cummings said, "Dabney," and Farquason said, "Dabner." Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the C & W, in charge of design and construction, 1887-88. Spencer got a lot more right, including that Captain Dabney was from Mississippi.

(4) Consistency with tradition.

I've scoured versions of "John Henry," looking for things that would favor Alabama over West Virginia. I've turned up about a dozen, nine of which are mentioned in my article. Individually, these don't carry much weight. Collectively, I think they are significant. Thus, the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday," is consistent with Spencer's date, "the 20th of September," when Spencer's year (1882) is corrected to the actual year of building the C & W, 1887. The phrase that puts John Henry "between them mountains" applies much better to Oak and Coosa Mountains, Alabama, than to the Big Bend area.

(5) Accomodation to documentation.

Here's where the controversial "Maggadee" argument comes in. There is a documented Copiah County, Mississippi, Henry Dabney/Dabner, who married Margaret in 1869. He is a candidate for John Henry. Margaret's name can be accomodated to the commonly occurring "Polly Ann" through a series of plausible mutations. Nerd doesn't this this necessary and doesn't see that it adds anything. I almost agree - I think it adds a smidgen.

In any event, I think that the Alabama scenario is by far the most consistent with all the information available at this time.

Die-hard Big Benders, and there are many, do not agree. I await their construction of a scenario with as many sound connections to documentation as the Alabama scenario has.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 15 Dec 04 - 02:42 AM

Good summary, John. You and I disagree only about the smidgen!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 15 Dec 04 - 03:38 PM

What should be made of the following?

Chappell includes the following in his book (p 37ff).

"...William Lawson...reports his age as eighty-five and the place of his birth as Laudin County, Virginia...During the Civil War he was on both sides...but regards himself first of all as a farmer:"

Chappell doesn't date Lawson's statment, but 1926 is a reasonable guess, so if he reported his age correctly, he would have been born about 1841. He would have been about 30 in 1871 (Big Bend Tunnel construction) and about 46 in 1887 (Oak and Coosa Tunnel construction). These are both plausible ages for a laborer on a railroad construction project.

Lawson says that he went to Big Bend "in the spring" of "the year they put the hole through" to drive steel with his brother Armstead at the east end of the tunnel. He describes how Armstead was killed in a gunfight arising from a dispute over who had made the first opening when the two sides, one tunnelling from the west and the other from the east, met. "He fell on his face. Then C. R. Mason come. They buried him on the mountainside in a government graveyard."

Lawson:
    "The hole had been put through there three or four months when John Henry was killed. He was the best steel-driver I ever saw. He was short and brown-skinned, and had a wife that was a bright colored woman. He was 35 or 36, and weighed 150 pounds.
    "When I went there they had a steam drill in the tunnel at the east end. They piped the steam in. They had a little coffee-pot engine on the outside. They didn't use it in the heading, but on the bench and on the sides.
    "John Henry drove steel with the steam drill one day, and beat it down, but got too hot and died. He fell out right at the mouth of the tunnel. They put a bucket of water on him.
    "His wife come to the tunnel that day, and they said she carried his body away, I don't know. I never saw anybody buried at the tunnel except my brother...
    "The time John Henry killed his self was his own fault, 'cause he bet the man with the steam drill he could beat him down. John Henry never let no man beat him down, but the steam drill won't no good nohow.
    "John Henry was always singing or mumbling something when he was whipping steel. He would sing over and over the same thing sometimes. He'd sing
       'My old hammer ringing in the mountains,
         Nothing but my hammer falling down.'
A colored boy 'round there added on and made up the John Henry song after he got killed, and all the muckers sang it.
    "C. R. Mason was the boss man at the tunnel. He was a good-hearted old man, but he was a tough man. He'd spit on you all the time he was talking to you...."

Chappell doesn't hold Lawson's testimony in high regard. C. R. Mason did not built Big Bend Tunnel. He built Lewis Tunnel, 50-60 miles to the east of Big Bend, in Virginia, with Virginia convict labor. Steam drills were used at Lewis but there is no evidence of their use at Big Bend. There is no "government graveyard" at Big Bend. Perhaps Mason had some kind of graveyard at Lewis. Chappell thinks that the opening of which Lawson speaks occurred in February, 1872, not the time when Lawson said he was there. Besides, Chappell reasons, a poor dirt farmer like Lawson could not have afforded to have been away from his crops from spring to fall, as he claimed.

At age 85, Lawson is recalling, in considerable detail, events from about 55 years earlier, if Big Bend or Lewis is the tunnel involved. Was it common in 1926 for an 85-year-old black laborer to have sure recall. I suspect not, as the discrepancies in Lawson's testimony show.

Even so, there is an element of his story that disturbs me.

Compare C. C. Spencer's testimony: "When the poor man with the hammer fell in the arms of his helper in a dead faint, they threw water on him and revived him, and his first words were: 'send for my wife, I am blind and dying.' They made way for his wife, who took his head in her lap and the last words he said were, 'Have I beat that old steam drill?'" Although Spencer doesn't comment on it, it is held in the tradition around Leeds, Alabama, that the contest took place just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel.

Lawson and Spencer have in common:
(a) the contest was outside the east end of a tunnel,
(b) John Henry fell,
(c) they threw water on him, and
(d) his wife came.

Like Spencer's, Lawson's account is quite detailed. Unlike Spencer's, Lawson's important details are wrong or suspect. Unlike Spencer, Lawson does not explicitly claim to have seen any of the John Henry events that he describes.

Even so, I remain unsettled about the correspondences between their stories of the contest. Some "John Henry" ballads have his woman coming to him after he fell, but I'm not aware of any (off the top of my head) than mention throwing water on him to revive him, nor do any mention the contest being held outside the east portal of a tunnel (again, off the top of my head).

Could the events Lawson describes have occurred in Alabama, the story come to West Virginia, and Lawson incorporated them into his "memories"? Could the reverse have occurred, with Spencer retelling a story from West Virginia? Could Lawson have worked on the C & W construction in Alabama and got his memories mixed up?

I think I've disregarded Lawson's testimony because Chappell thought so poorly of it. Still, the overlap between his account and Spencer's disturbs me.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 12:12 PM

I'm not sure there is much to made of the east end thing; after all, if the two tunnels had an east end and a west end each, then if the two narrators guessed which end it occurred at they had a 50% chance of guessing the same end. Secondly, the east end is NOT mentioned by Spencer, but is only free-floating in Alabama tradition. Note the sentence:

"Although Spencer doesn't comment on it, it is held in the tradition around Leeds, Alabama, that the contest took place just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel."

So when you say

"Lawson and Spencer have in common:
(a) the contest was outside the east end of a tunnel,"

you are putting words in Spencer's mouth.

It's impossible to tell by this account if people say "it happened at the east end/portal" (which would involve the words "east end/portal" and could thus result in those words entering the oral tradition of John Henry tales to emerge in the Big Bend versions) or if they just point out the spot and say "Yup, it happened right there."   

"John Henry fell."

I think it is only common sense that if a person dies from overwork while driving steel, he will fall down first rather than remain on his feet. It is hardly startling for this detail to show up in two versions of a traditional story.

Throwing water on John Henry could be a traditional motif of the legend that did not make it into the song tradition, but it is also possible that in real life, when a railroad worker collapsed of heat exhaustion (as must have happened sometimes), his co-workers threw water on him to revive him. If this is the case, then a railroad worker extemporizing the story would naturally tend to insert that detail. In other words, it could be a traditional motif or a commonsense detail of the occupational culture of railroad workers. In neither case does it make it much more likely that one of the stories is accurate.

It is still possible, of course, that one story IS more or less accurate (the Alabama one) and that the details traveled in oral tradition to the area around Big Bend. I think this would be a firmer proposition if we could show that the words "east end/portal" were used in an Alabama version. But it is certainly a possibility either way.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:07 PM

"Gi' me a cool drink of water 'fo' I die." Don't remember which version that's in, one of 'em at least.

My skeptical scenario: Lawson's story is partly based on the song. Many trad singers eagerly assure us "That's a true song." Whatever his genuine memories may have been, Lawson could well have relied on the song for details, implicitly assuming that "it's a true song."

In 1975 I met a retired East Kentucky coal miner who sang a version of "John Henry." ("That's a true song, buddy. A true song.") He assured me that his "best buddy" had known John Henry personally. John Henry was "a big colored boy" who "saved my buddy's life manys the time. He knew John Henry. Yes, knew him well. One time that shaft was about to cave in, and John Henry heard it afore anybody else. He said, 'We got to git outta here, this shaft is cavin' in,' and he saved my buddy's life. Saved his life; yes, he did. And manys the time."

Setting the coal-mining aside, this would place John Henry in his prime around or just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania."

And that doesn't compute. Was Archie's memory fooling him? Or did his best buddy fool him? Or did a self-proclaimed "John Henry" fool 'em both? We'll never know.

My imprssion is that the average poorly educated person few generations back was often unconcerned with the literal truth of whatever seemed ultimately inconsequential. If it sounded possible, and it made a good story, and would really make no difference in one's life anyway, then it might just have happened that way. Hence, say, the Iliad, and medieval tales of Arthur.   

Anyway, I'm off now to the library for John's article. I'll dig up Archie's text and post it if it's new or interesting.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:16 PM

Lighter: ...just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania"....

This is a Blankenship broadside that I don't know about, unless you meant "The Great Titanic." I know of three:

John Henry, the Steel Driving Man
The Great Titanic
Our President

Only the last of these has an address (Huntsville, Alabama) at the bottom.

I'd love to hear about more Blankenship broadsides.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 16 Dec 04 - 02:24 PM

Lighter: ...just after the time Blankenship issued his sheet on the "Lusitania"....

John: This is a Blankenship broadside that I don't know about....

Sorry. I now realize that this is a reference to "Our President."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Dec 04 - 01:42 PM

Lighter: ... In 1975 I met a retired East Kentucky coal miner who sang a version of "John Henry" ... I'll dig up Archie's text and post it if it's new or interesting.

I hope it is. I'm always on the lookout.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Nerd
Date: 17 Dec 04 - 02:33 PM

My last post reminded me of something, John. How much is known about oral versions of the legend which were NOT sung as songs? In other words, we're all naturally interested in any account that purports to be firsthand or secondhand. But what about people who just said "Oh, yeah, I know about John Henry..." and proceeded to tell a story without any claim to have known him personally? Those versions could fill in the gaps between Lawson and Spencer, for example, by showing whether the "east end of the tunnel" was a traditional oral motif. Unfortunately, I don't know the collections well enough to know where these are, but you might know where to look.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John
Date: 18 Dec 04 - 10:47 AM

Both Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell elicited testimony about John Henry. Johnson advertised for information in all of the nation's biggest newspapers for African Americans, and I think that's where most of his responses came from. Chappell doesn't address his methods, but somehow he covered pretty good territory, since his book contains versions of "John Henry" from Kentucky, the U. S. S. Pittsburgh, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Both visited the vicinity of Great Bend Tunnel and interviewed a considerable number of people, including about a dozen men who had worked on the construction of that tunnel. These reports and interviews are contained in Johnson's and Chappell's books, 1929 and 1933, and many of them are repeated in Brett Williams' excellent "John Henry: A Biobibiography" (Greenwood Press, 1983), which contains chapters entitled "The Trail of John Henry," "John Henry's Career in Song," "Analyzing the John Henry Tradition," and "Tributes to John Henry in Literature and Art," among others. These three books are surely the best sources. They include many reports from people who were not first- or second-hand informants, and, as far as I can tell, most of what they have to say isn't very useful.

In addition, there are tales of John Henry among Central of Georgia employees and citizens of the Leeds, Alabama, area. Some of these are given in Central of Georgia Magazine (aka The Right Way), 1930, and in a news account published in the Atlanta paper in 1955. The latter contains a report from a woman whose daddy (as I recall) gave her the "real story" on John Henry, that he didn't die in the contest but instead was killed by his boss after they got back to Mississippi. The "back to Mississippi" part of this supports the Mississippi-Alabama scenario - I'm inclined to disregard the "killed by his boss" part, although some of the songs suggest tension between them.

Relatively few straight-out oral legends about John Henry seem to have been collected, and those I've seen tend to be tall tales.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 18 Dec 04 - 10:53 AM

Whether or not you value the posited mutation series that leads from "Maggadee" to "Polly Ann," the facts remain that "Maggadee" is what Neal Pattman sings and he claims that his father sang it that way. It may be that theirs is a line of transmission that goes back to an early time in the history of "John Henry" and that has not been influenced by other versions.

Be that as it may, "Maggadee" is so unusual that it requires explanation. Mine is that it was really "Maggie D." I'd love to hear others.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 18 Jan 05 - 01:57 PM

For a photograph of double-jack steel driving at a contest, 1907, see

http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/photos/rockdrilling.jpg

Other pictures of double-jack steel driving:

http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/shoshoni.jpg
http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/shoshoni08.jpg



For a photograph of triple-jack steel driving, ca 1928, see

http://www.canadianfishing.com/crichton/vc/136-137.jpg

Notice the precarious situation of the shaker.


For a photograph of mechanical drilling, ca 1902, see

http://www3.telus.net/chemelec/Hedley/31.jpg

Other photographs of mechanical drilling:

http://au.geocities.com/bhsilvercity/images/oldMining01.jpg
http://www.alumnifriends.mines.edu/photo_gallery/1959/38.jpg
http://www.alumnifriends.mines.edu/photo_gallery/1955/37.jpg
http://www1.superpit.com.au/images/static/gold_history/Old-Rock-Drill.jpg
http://members.iinet.net.au/~dodd/gail/miners/images/mine4.jpg
(Note "steels" resting against tunnel wall.)

At

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000280A0

begins a series of six large, high-quality mining photographs from ca 1893. Some of these show hand or mechanical drilling or both.

Another series of six begins at

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000240A0

This set includes a wonderful photograph of a triple-jack team drilling straight up!

Another great series of four begins at

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=006ZZZ007105E21U000260A0

In one of these you see the muckers at work along with two triple-jack drilling teams. Another shows muckers and a man breaking rocks with a sledge hammer. In American railroad tunnel building, steel drivers got paid much more than muckers.

The "collectbritain" site may have more drilling photographs. I find it very difficult to navigate. However, I think that if you go to

http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/search/

and put "mine" in the box at the upper right, then search, you will get links to most of them.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 05 - 07:01 PM

"they buried him in the sand"
             –many versions of "John Henry"

buried him in a "cemetery" or "burying ground"
             –several versions

took John Henry up the mountain
             –one or two versions

took him on that "long white road"
             –one version

buried him between two mountains
             –two versions

Sand Ridge Cemetery, Shelby County, Alabama, is in "Back Holler," east of Dunnavant. Sand Ridge lies between Oak and Coosa Mountains, parallel southwest-to-northeast running ridges. It is a distinct ridge itself, sandy on top, that serves as the northeast boundary of, a kind of "plug" for, Dunnavant Valley.

A group of distinguished folks interested in Shelby County history met my wife and I in Leeds and set out to find John Henry's grave there on Friday afternoon, 21Jan2005.

In the beginning, Sand Ridge Road is paved, but after a while the pavement stops and the road is both sandy and white.

From Sand Ridge Cemetery, there is a clear view across a valley to the old C & W RR line outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel. "Every locomotive came rolling by / Says 'There lies a steel driving man.'"

I had expected (!) to find a nice marble tombstone reading "John Henry Dabney ... Here lies a steel driving man." I thought that Captain Dabney might have provided that for his old friend who died so far from home. Sadly, I was disappointed.

We did find what appears to be an unmarked grave *outside* the fence bounding the cemetery. One reason for a grave adjacent to, but outside of, a white cemetery is that it belongs to an African American. Sand Ridge Cemetery is populated mostly with the Isbell and Howard families, both white. The outside grave could be John Henry's.

Lt. Col. Glenn Nivens (ret. Army) says that he's heard or seen a version of "John Henry" that states that John Henry was buried "with his hammer in his hand." Since he is supposed to have been a famous steel driver in the community, that is certainly a logical possibility. Perhaps it is customary for skilled people to be buried with a tool.

There was some talk about bringing ground-penetrating radar equipment to the site to see what the contents of the outside grave look like. That lies in the future.

Sand Ridge Cemetery remains a viable possibility for the site of John Henry's grave.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 24 Jan 05 - 08:09 PM

This grave is another very interesting find, John. I assume no other segregated graves were close to the white cemetery.

Anybody seriously interested in this topic needs to read John Garst's article in the journal "Tributaries" (2002).

I still see the "Mary Magdalen" hypothesis (discussed in great detail above) as a dead end, but after studying the complete article as well as Norm Cohen's "J.H." chapter in "Long Steel Rail" (1981), I'm happy to say that John's research makes a persuasive case that the Oak Mountain Tunnel on the C & W road (easily transmuted into "C & 0") has the best claim to have been the site of such a battle.

Again, there's still no proof that "John Henry" is closely based on an actual incident, but the circumstantial evidence that John has gathered surrounding the tunnel in Alabama is fascinating and shows that spot to be overdue for further investigation.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 25 Jan 05 - 03:51 AM

My cousin, John Henry, died last fall. He had been a D.J. in the Tulsa area for many years. On Sunday nights, he had his "John Henry's Smokehouse Blues" program for years. The song "John Henry" was often a topic of questions by his listeners, and cousin Johnny was always seeking info. He also looked for the grave and talked to locals of various places who claimed they knew him, & where it was. As the trains crossed the country, the song of John Henry evidently grew longer and more varied. We'll likely never know.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 05 - 04:28 PM

I assume no other segregated graves were close to the white cemetery. - Lighter

We found only one. I don't suppose that I would have spotted it, but Ted Urquhart, a cemetery expert, did. To his practiced eye, it has the right kind of appearance, a shallow sunken trough about 15 inches wide and 3-4 feet in length. It is oriented in the same direction as the graves within the fence. We found no marker at all for the "outside" grave, while many (perhaps all) of the unidentified graves inside the fence are marked by blank stones.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM

Believe it or not! - Getting ground penetrating radar to the site is a real possibility, through the contacts of some of the folks over there in Alabama. Here's hoping!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Jan 05 - 03:57 PM

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
My cousin, John Henry, died last fall. He had been a D.J. in the Tulsa area for many years. On Sunday nights, he had his "John Henry's Smokehouse Blues" program for years. The song "John Henry" was often a topic of questions by his listeners, and cousin Johnny was always seeking info. He also looked for the grave and talked to locals of various places who claimed they knew him, & where it was. - Kaleea

Do you know where he looked for John Henry's grave?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Jan 05 - 03:27 PM

Last weekend I was given a copy of part of an article, "Mountains of Dunnavant isolate,...," from the Shelby County Reporter, Thursday, October 21, 1982. The first sentence is, "Dunnavant is defined by the mountains." Two of the mountains in question are the parallel, southwest-to-northeast running ridges, Oak and Coosa Mountains, through which the Columbus & Western RR put tunnels in 1887-88.

These are the mountains that may be referred to in versions of "John Henry" that place him "'tween them mountains" or say "Let two mountains be his grave stones."

"The 800-foot ridges of Sand Mountain partially cork the valley some five miles northeast of the hub near the St. Clair line...Mountains here, mountains there. In Dunnavant, mountains are nearly everywhere." Actually, they are not *in* Dunnavant, they define it by marking the boundaries of Dunnavant Valley.

"A large drill bit, embedded for years in the rock floor of Oak Tunnel, breeds the local legend that this is where the famous John Henry met his death while racing a spiking machine. True or not, [82-year old Earl] Bowdoin swears that as a kid he saw the jutting end of the bit before it finally disappeared." A photograph of this drill, sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel, appeared in the Central of Georgia Magazine in 1930.

According to L. W. "Lonnie" Adams, at 96 believed to be the oldest man in Dunnavant in 1982, "My father used to cut timber for the steam drills they used on those tunnels."

This is the first indication I've found that steam drills were used in the construction of Oak or Coosa Tunnel.

News accounts from July, 1887, speak of a layer of very hard rock being struck when the crew was about halfway through Coosa Tunnel, slowing the work. John Henry's race with a steam drill is supposed to have been on Tuesday, September 20, 1887. It is supposed to have been arranged as a bet between a representative of a company selling steam drills and Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Chief Engineer and detailed construction supervisor for the C & W.   When the "contractor" (presumably Captain Dabney) told the steam drill salesman "that he had a Negro who could be his damned old drill any day" (quote from C. C. Spencer), "the company owning the drill offered to put it in for nothing if this man could drill more rock with the hammer than he could with his drill. And, so the contractor (Shea & Dabney) accepted the proposition."

The timing certainly fits - hard rock struck in June or July, steam drill being demonstrated in September - perhaps Captain Dabney was exploring the use of steam drills to try to keep the project from falling too far behind. Steam drills or not, Coosa Tunnel was scheduled to have been completed by about the end of 1887 but in fact it was not completed until June, 1888. Oak Tunnel had been completed earlier, but I don't know just when.

Anyhow, it is plausible that steam drills were introduced, or more added, to the project after the hard rock was struck in the middle of Coosa Tunnel.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Jan 05 - 09:11 PM

Things are becoming still more interesting. John, is there a single collected version of "John Henry" that seems to combine several of your elements, or two or three texts in a cluster from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee or Mississippi that combine to give the picture you develop?

If "between the mountains," "Cap'n Tommy," "buried him in the sand," "took him to the white house" showed up in some kind of cluster, the case would move from "conceivable" to "very likely." You see what I'm saying.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst
Date: 30 Jan 05 - 11:08 AM

Things are becoming even more interesting. John, is there a single collected version of "John Henry" that seems to combine several of your elements, or two or three texts from Alabama, Georgia, or Mississippi that combine to give the picture you develop?

If "between the mountains," "Cap'n Tommy," "buried him in the sand," "took him to the white house" showed up in a cluster, the case would move from "conceivable" to "very likely." You see what I'm saying.

- JL

The version collected by J. J. Niles contains both the "man in Chattanooga" and the "two mountains be his grave stones" lines.

Rich Amerson has "'tween them mountains."

The Blankenship broadside has John Henry's woman catching that "No. 4 train" to go "where John Henry fell dead." In 1900 IC No. 4 ran north from Crystal Springs, MS, the right start for a trip to northern Alabama. Crystal Springs was the home of Captain Dabney and, apparently, John Henry Dabney. Both C. C. Spencer and and Alabama woman interviewed in 1955 say that both Captain Dabney and John Henry were from Mississippi. The Blankenship broadside also has John Henry being buried in "that new burying ground." We don't yet know exactly when Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama, was established.

Leon R. Harris has "John Henry's cap'n Tommy / V'ginny gave him birth" - Captain Dabney was born in Virginia. Harris also describes Captain Tommy's bet on John Henry against a steam drill in terms similar to those of C. C. Spencer. "Dinnah's done when Lucy pulls th' c'od" fits with Spencer's testimony that John Henry's wife cooked. "Sun shined hot an' burnin' / Wer'n't no breeze at-tall / Sweat ran down like watah down a hill / That day John Henry let his hammah fall" could easily be a mid-September day in Alabama (Sep 20, according to Spencer).

Onah L. Spencer includes "Some say he's from Alabam" (on the way to claiming John Henry for "East Virginia" and Big Bend Tunnel). Also, "women in the West...flagged that east bound train" to go "where John Henry dropped dead" - Mississippi, the Dabneys' home, is west of Alabama. "They took John Henry to the White House / And buried him in the san' / And every locomotive come roarin' by / Says there lays that steel driving man" - this verse combines "white," "san'," and the idea that John Henry's burial site could be seen from the RR.

Gid Tanner/Riley Puckett: "Took John Henry to the white house / Rolled him in the sand"

Melvin T. Harrison: "Well, they took John Henry to the new burying ground / And they covered him up in the sand"

Miss Muriel Belton/her mother: "women in the West...caught the east-bound train" to go "where John Henry fell dead."

Uncle Dave Macon: "People out West...caught that East-bound train" to go "where John Henry's dead."

William G. Parmenter: "I can make mo' money on the A. C. and L. / Than I can on the Georgia Line" - Another version, collected by Peter Brannon in Alabama, says that John Henry was on the "Central of Georgia Rail Road." Of course, these stand in contrast to the multitude of versions with "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road." The relationship of "C & W" to "C & O" raises a suspicion that the former could have been the original.

Welby Toomey: "They took John Henry to the white house / And laid him in the sand"

Chicago, IL: "John Henry hammered in the mountains / Way in the north end of town" - This makes sense for Alabama if the "town" was Dunnavant. For West Virginia and Big Bend Tunnel, I don't think there is a town for which this makes much sense. Talcott and Hinton are east and west, respectively, of the tunnel.

Harvey Hicks: "John Henry died on a Tuesday" - C. C. Spencer said September 20, which was a Tuesday in 1887. "...east bound train" again. "They took John Henry to the white house / They put his remains in the sand"

J. L. McKnight: "John Henry's captain stepped on a rock / A piece of slate was falling down" - There is slate in the Dunnavant vicinity, I don't know about Big Bend. "Took young Henry to the white house / Rolled him in sand"

Sallie Flannery" "The girls in the west / When they heard of John Henry's death / They could not stay at home / 'I am going where John Henry used to roam.'"

W. S. Barnett: "They took poor Johnny to the steep hillside" - Sand Ridge Cemetery is atop a steep hillside.

Andy Anderson: "They took John Henry to the white house / And put him in the sand"

J. W. Washington: "John Henry was born in Mobile, Alabama" - I don't believe this, but here, at least, is an Alabama connection. "I can make more money on the L. and N. / Than I can on the C & O" - if "C & O" were really "C & W," this would make perfect sense, since the L & N was active in Alabama in 1887. I'm not sure whether or not the L & N had a presence near Big Bend at the time (1871) the C & O was under construction. "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" - "smoky" from gray slate?
- "white" from sand or limestone?

C. J. Wallace: "They took John Henry to the white house / They rode him in a van" !

Tennessee Spears: "Monday morning on the east bound train / O Lord, John Henry's dead"

B. A. Hoover: "They took John Henry to the white house / And laid him in the stand" !

V. E. Gregory: "that Big Band Tunnel on the C & O Road" This
suggests another little exercise in word mutation. In Dunnavant, Oak Mountain Tunnel is the "short" tunnel, Coosa Mountain Tunnel is the "long" tunnel; Oak Mountain is the "little" mountain, Coosa Mountain is the "big" mountain. Oak Mountain gave no problem, evidently, in boring, but the completion of Coosa Tunnel was delayed by about 6 months by a layer of very hard rock, slowing drilling. Thus, Coosa Tunnel could have been "that big, bad tunnel." "big bad tunnel" -> "big band tunnel" -> "Big Bend Tunnel" This combines with "C & W" -> "C & O" !

Earl Miller: "people out west" caught that "east bound train" to go "where John Henry's dead"

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but it collects about everything I know of in ballad texts that might be interpreting to favor Alabama. Some of the discrimination is pretty weak, but there is a good bit of it. This is to be added to written testimony of C. C. Spencer (which is supported in many particulars by documentation), F. P. Barker, and Glendora Cannon Cummings, which is partially supported by Jamaican testimony about "Dabney." In addition, to this day people around Dunnavant, Alabama, will tell you that they've always heard that John Henry died there.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,garst
Date: 30 Jan 05 - 11:27 AM

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but it collects about everything I know of in ballad texts that might be interpreted to favor Alabama. - JG

I hasten to add that many versions of "John Henry" place him at "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road."   The other textual item I know of that might favor West Virginia is "white house," which Scott Nelson believes refers to a building at the Richmond penitentiary. At least one other interpretation of "white house" invokes a West Virginia building. I suspect that it originates from "white road."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Feb 05 - 04:16 PM

At

http://www.skippopscratch.com/sps3220/johnhenrylyrics

is the statement, "These lyrics for John Henry are taken from various versions of the songs. My intent is to tell the story, not to present a certain song."

Included among the selected verses are these.

John Henry told his Captain,
Bury me under the sills of the floor,
So when they get to playing good old Georgy skin,
Bet 'em fifty to a dollar more,
Fifty to a dollar more.

John Henry drove steel on the Southern
He drove steel on the C&O.
He drove steel for that Big Ben Tunnel
Steel drivin' kill John you know,
Steel drivin' kill John you know,
Well, now steel drivin' kill John you know, Lord, Lord,
Steel drivin' kill John you know.

They carried John Henry on the mountain,
Upon a mountain so high,
Last words I heard that poor boy say:
"Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die,
Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die,
Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die."

I've seen the "Georgy skin" line before, perhaps commented on it here, but this site doesn't give a provenance. Anyhow, Georgia skin might have been more likely known in Alabama than in West Virginia.

The reference to the "Southern" could favor Alabama over West Virginia, although at some point by 1917 a spur of the Southern Railway System did run into Huntington, WV.

Carrying John Henry "on the mountain" might have been to get him away from the contest site at Dunnavant or it might have been to bury him on Sand Ridge. I'm not sure if they would have had to carry him "on the mountain" at Big Bend . I'd think they might be carrying him "down the mountain" there (to get to a road by the river).

I can imagine an earlier set of lines:

John Henry drove steel on the Southern
He drove steel on the C&W.
He drove steel for that big, bad tunnel

Ain't imagination wonderful!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Feb 05 - 04:11 PM

Today I found a hitherto unrecognized couplet from "John Henry" in Newman I. White, American Negro Folk Songs (Harvard, 1928). Incidentally, I own Guy Benton Johnson's personal copy of this book, in which he put marginal notes next to all the John Henry fragments he recognized. There is no note next to this one, whose connection to "John Henry" becomes apparent only after the publication of Louis W. Chappell, John Henry, in 1933.

On pp 116-117 of Chappell appears the "John Henry" version obtained from J. W. Washington, Ft. Meyers, Florida. I've quoted it here several times before. It mentions Mobile, Alabama, (as John Henry's birthplace) and the L & N (as an alternative employer to the C & O) as well as "the Big Ben tunnel at Brinton, New Jersey"! The following verse is one I frequently cite in an effort to link "white road" with "white house," sand or limestone, and Dunnavant, Alabama.

"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."

White has chapters, "Work Songs - Gang Laborers," "Rural Labor," and "General and Miscellaneous Labor" containing many short fragments.

In "Gang Laborers" are included

"Captain, Captain, nothing but a man,
But 'fo' I let dat steam-drill beat me down,
I'd die wif er hammer in my hand."

and

"Poor John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Old John Henry - hic
Was a steel-driving man - hic
Drove that steel - hic
Steel would n't stand - hic."

and versions of "This Old Hammer,"

all of which Johnson recognizes as "John Henry" related. He does not recognize the following.

"Well they took him up on the smoky road,
But dey brought him back on de coolin' board."

This was "Reported from Auburn, Ala., 1915-1916, MS. of B. Y. Pennington, as heard in Andalusia, Ala. 'Sung by Negro ditch diggers.'"

Taking "him" on the "smoky road" and putting him on a "coolin' board" connect with Washington's "John Henry." That this was recovered in Alabama is consistent with the idea that these lines are fragments of an early Alabama version of "John Henry." True, I'd take them no matter where they were found, and true, John Henry isn't mentioned in the Pennington text, but the connection is there nonetheless.

Another verse that might connect with "John Henry" is this:

"I remember last summer,
'T was de month of June,
My partner fell sprawling
An' dey laid 'im in de tomb.
Ain't dat 'nough, boys,
To grieve my mind?"

Like all those other "killed my partner" hammer songs, this is not necessarily about John Henry, but it could be. It comes from Auburn, Alabama, and was heard in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1906.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Aug 05 - 10:48 AM

Atlanta Constitution, 02Sep1913 (paraphrased):

Bill Hendricks, a granite cutter, was tried and found guilty on two counts of disorderly conduct. His neighbor, Mrs. John Meggs, charged that on both Saturday and Sunday nights he had come home drunk and "had shouted and sung bad songs." Bill's defense was that the only song he had sung was "John Henry," and that no one had ever before taken offense to it - he had sung it since childhood. Bill was allowed to recite the words for the court:

When John Henry was er little bit o' boy,
He sat on his father's knee,
An' he picked up a bit o' steel and says,
"Dad, make er steel drivin' man out o' me."

Both Bill and his sister swore that that was all there was to the song. If you wanted to make it longer, you sang that verse over and over. At his conviction, Bill "put the court on notice tht it was a piece of malice on the part of the neighbors and not their objection to 'John Henry' that caused his arrest."

Clifford Ocheltree has tracked down Bill's age for me in census records. He was born in March, 1973, making him 40 years old in September, 1913.

If Bill had been much older than 41 or so in 1913, then his childhood would have ended before 1887, when John Henry is supposed to have raced the steam drill at Dunnavant, Alabama. This would have been evidence against the 1887 event. As it turns out, however, Bill was 14 years old in 1887. One of Chappell's informants stated that when he moved to Georgia in 1888, everybody was singing it. In 1888 Bill was 15. It certainly seems plausible to me that Bill could refer to age 14-15 as part of his "childhood," so the facts turn out to be consistent with an 1887 event and genesis of the ballad.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 04 Aug 05 - 01:02 AM

I asked my cousin's wife if she remembered when Johhny went looking for the grave of the feller in the song. It was a few decades ago, but she remembers that he spent a while in Alabama. She's gonna try to dig out his research. My cousin Johnny's lyrics "rhymed":
steel drivin' man   &
       born in Alabam'
             Kaleea


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Aug 05 - 10:58 AM

I asked my cousin's wife if she remembered when Johhny went looking for the grave of the feller in the song. It was a few decades ago, but she remembers that he spent a while in Alabama. She's gonna try to dig out his research. My cousin Johnny's lyrics "rhymed":
steel drivin' man   &
       born in Alabam'
             Kaleea

Wow! Kaleea, please try to dig up everything. It sounds to me as if your cousin and I might have gone down the same path.

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 06 Aug 05 - 03:22 PM

I wrote:

>Atlanta Constitution, 02Sep1913 (paraphrased):

>Bill Hendricks, a granite cutter, was tried and found guilty on
>two counts of disorderly conduct. His neighbor, Mrs. John
>Meggs, charged that on both Saturday and Sunday nights he
>had come home drunk and "had shouted and sung bad
>songs." Bill's defense was that the only song he had sung was
>"John Henry," and that no one had ever before taken offense to
>it - he had sung it since childhood...

>Clifford Ocheltree has tracked down Bill's age for me in census
>records. He was born in March, 1973, making him 40 years old
>in September, 1913.

>If Bill had been much older than 41 or so in 1913, then his
>supposed to have raced the steam drill at Dunnavant, Alabama.
>This would have been evidence against the 1887 event. As it
>turns out, however, Bill was 14 years old in 1887. One of
>Chappell's informants stated that when he moved to Georgia in
>1888, everybody was singing it. In 1888 Bill was 15. It certainly
>seems plausible to me that Bill could refer to age 14-15 as part
>of his "childhood," so the facts turn out to be consistent with an
>1887 event and genesis of the ballad.

It is interesting to ponder the evidentiary value of this finding. It would be easy to dismiss it as having none, since it does not discriminate between 1871 and 1887 origins of "John Henry."

On the other hand, if you look at it from an informational point of view, perhaps it is significant.

When I first found the article, I didn't know Bill's age. Therefore his age had a chance of being, say, 50, in which case the information in the article could not have been consistent with an 1887 genesis of "John Henry."

When Bill's age was found to be 40, the possibility of finding an inconsistency was eliminated. This can be construed as evidence in favor of an 1887 genesis, since there was a possibility of a finding that would be inconsistent with it.

When similar reasoning is applied to an 1871 genesis, if Bill were older than about 57 in 1913 he could not have sung "John Henry" as a child. Again, being 40 is perfectly consistent with an 1871 genesis.

However, there are more ways to be 57 or younger than there are to be 41 or younger. Being 41 or younger is therefore a more restrictive test than being 57 or younger. Consequently Bill's actual age of 40 is a stronger evidence of an 1887 genesis than an 1871 genesis.

A finding of any age from 42 to 57 would have been inconsistent with an 1887 genesis but consistent with an 1871 genesis. The fact than an age in this range was not found favors 1887 over 1871.

From these perspectives, the evidentiary value of a single finding of this type is very small but not zero. The cumulative value of a large number of similar findings could be substantial.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Sep 05 - 05:51 PM

Your attention is drawn to a recent publication:

Scott Nelson
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
Volume 2, Issue 2
2005

If your institution subscribes, you may find this article at

http://docserver.ingentaconnect.com/deliver/cw/dup/15476715/v2n2/s7/p53.pdf?fmt=dirpdf&tt=10401&cl=11&ini=connect&bini=&wis=connect&ac=0&acs=32629,75000325,80004025&expires=1126971234&checksum=263B9E0541A5F8428BB2B615664D7B35&cookie=1350681344

Nelson has done a wonderful job of digging up records of the C & O pertaining to its construction, records that had been believed for many years (since ca 1925) to have been lost. His writing here is also a thing of beauty.

For me, the most important of Nelson's conclusions is that the John Henry incident did *not* occur at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV. The Big Bend site is the received wisdom from the 1920s studies of Guy B. Johnson and Louis W. Chappell, who may have been in a kind of race to affirm it as the authentic place. About 40% of the versions of "John Henry" collected by 1933 place its action at the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road," which would have been ca 1871, the building of the C & O having occurred in 1869-73.

My view of Big Bend is stated in my 2002 paper, Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi, Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, pp 91-129:

"In my opinion, the data of Johnson and Chappell make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. The evidence for this conclusion can be summarized as follows. (1) Intensive efforts to find John Henry at Big Bend failed. (2) No documentary evidence of John Henry or a contest was found. (3) The positive testimonial evidence contains significant inconsistencies. (4) The negative testimonial evidence is strong and plausible. (5) Alabama, a plausible alternative to Big Bend, is supported by substantive, coherent, and detailed reports that were not investigated satisfactorily." The failure to obtain substantive, coherent, and detailed reports favoring Big Bend is especially significant because Johnson and Chappell were able to interview a dozen or so men who had actually worked on the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. Included among the testimonies is one that claims, in essence, that the steam-drill contest could not have occurred at Big Bend because the informant was there - if it had happened he would have seen or heard about it. He is supported by a couple of others. A few others offer weak testimony favoring Big Bend.

Nelson ignores Alabama in favor of a different tunnel on the C & O line, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, "on the border between Virginia and West Virginia." This is another of the dozen or so tunnels being constructed by the C & O at the same time. Quoting Nelson:

"In the song, the tunnel where John Henry died is the Big Bend, but in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel, which was dug in the same years. Big Bend Tunnel works better as a lyric, and as many later versions of the song demonstrate, workers turned their own tunnels, or nearby tunnels, into the tunnel that killed John Henry. Thus, while the event occurred in Lewis Tunnel, it was probably first sung at Big Bend Tunnel nearby. In fact, when Johnson and Chappell were doing their research in the late 1920s, many local informants mentioned the Lewis Tunnel, dug by convicts, as the source of the song; both Johnson and Chappell failed to follow these leads...."

Nelson's confidence ("in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel") does not impress me. His entire paper is written as if his inferences and speculations are the gospel truth. I *am* impressed with the amount of work, the fact that he has found and consulted several previously unavailable resources, and the rich picture of the construction of Lewis Tunnel that he is able to paint. Also, he gives an excellent brief history of the collecting history of the song.

He errs, understandably, in citing "the first description of the song's performance" as that provided by William Aspenwall Bradley in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1915. I'm greatly impressed that he found the 1915 description - it illustrates how thorough he has been. Only a little luck allowed me to find, recently, an earlier description of "John Henry" singing, in court in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1913, p 14).

One problem with Big Bend as the John Henry site has always been that the evidence indicates that steam drills were never used there. Johnson and Chappell were well aware of this. To accommodate, it was supposed that a steam drill was brought in on a temporary basis and raced against a steel driver as a test. The argument for Big Bend might have been stronger had such an ad hoc assumption been unnecessary. Johnson and Chappell knew that steam drills *had* been used at Lewis Tunnel but did not pursue the possibility that the John Henry incident occurred there.

Nelson has taken up that cause - he believes that he has found the historic John Henry. Here is a summary of his relevant findings.

(1) Lines like "They took John Henry to the White House / And they buried him in the sand" are occasionally found in versions of "John Henry."

(2) A workshop built in 1825 on the grounds of the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) was plastered with lime, making it white. Neither this white house nor its later replacement now exist.

(3) A burial site containing about 400 bodies, stacked "sometimes two deep, with thin layer of sand between them," has been found at a location that would have been next to the white house, near a local connecting railroad along which locomotives would have come "roaring by."

(4) Virginia penitentiary convicts were used in the construction of Lewis Tunnel.

(5) Penitentiary records document John William Henry: received 1866 Nov. 16 for "Housebreak & larceny"; sentenced in Prince George County to 10 years; b Elizabeth City, NJ; age 19; height 5' 1-1/4"; left penitentiary by transfer.

(6) According to the prison register, John William Henry was "contracted out to work on the C & O railroad in 1868, charged to Capt. Goodlow, an employee of C. R. Mason, railroad contractor." The date is given as December 1.

(7) Mason was a contractor at Lewis Tunnel.

(8) A stipulation of the contract between the State of Virginia and the C & O was that each prisoner had to be returned. The penalty for a failure to return was $100. That ensured that prisoners' dead bodies would be shipped back to Richmond, to the penitentiary. If John Henry had died on the job, his body would have been shipped back for burial after marking him off a list.

(9) Beginning in August 1870, many men ("nearly 200") worked alongside steam drills (number unspecified, perhaps just one?). Both men and steam drills presented many problems, and eventually J. J. Gordon, the boss at Lewis Tunnel, ran out of boilers.

(10) In October, 1871, Gordon wrote to Chief Engineer Whitcomb, "I am very anxious to get that boiler to run Burleigh Drill in East approach. If you have done anything in regards to furnishing it please inform me, if not I will have to double on it with hammers."

(11) Gordon quit and "The steam drills left the tunnel by the end of October 1871."

(12) John William Henry is not listed among prisoners who died at the penitentiary. "He does, however, disappear from prison records by 1874, with no mention of pardon, parole, or release."

From this material, Nelson concocts a scenario, much as I have done for Alabama using other data. I have not provided *definitive* evidence of John Henry in Alabama. In contrast, Nelson appears to believe that he has solved the problem, period. I don't share his optimism. Indeed, I think that the Alabama scenario is better supported than the Lewis Tunnel scenario.

Nelson's scenario:

As a prisoner at the Virginia penitentiary in Richmond, John William Henry was sent to work under C. R. Mason, the labor contractor for the construction of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. From August 1870 to October 1871 steam and hand drilling were both employed at Lewis Tunnel. In a period leading up to October 1871, they were "apparently drilling two sets of holes in the rock face of the East approach, one with convicts, one with the Burleigh drill." This was the contest between men and machine that "John Henry" is about. After October 1871, only manual labor was used. "Men had triumphed over machines, but at a terrible cost. For two years, between the last month of steam drill operation and the completion of the tunnel - between September 1871 and September 1873 - close to one hundred convicts had died." John William Henry was among those who died. According to contract, his body was sent back to the Virginia penitentiary, where he was buried "in the sand" by the side of the white house and a local railroad track.

Here are some of the deficiencies of Nelson's scenario.

(1) Men named "John Henry" or "John Henry Something" are plentiful. As Uncle Beverly Standard (a Johnson informant) said, "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henry's." Finding a man named John William Henry in a list Virginia penitentiary inmates who were shipped off to work on the C & O at Lewis Tunnel is not unexpected and certainly isn't much evidence that he was the legendary John Henry. It is somewhat surprising that Nelson found only one.

(2) Nelson presents no evidence that John William Henry was a steel driver.

(3) At 5' 1-1/4" tall, it certainly doesn't spring to mind that John William Henry would have become a steel driver. I must admit, however, that a large frame is not necessary. My own favored candidate, John Henry Dabney, is described 5' 10-11" tall and 147-"near" 180 lb. That's not huge, but it's a bit less comical than a 5' 1-1/4" steel driver.

(4) Even if John William Henry *were* a steel driver, why would he be singled out for the ballad? In 1925 L. W. "Dad" Hill made quite an accurate report to Chappell about the building of Lewis Tunnel. Included among his statements is "Bob Jones was the best steel-driver in Lewis Tunnel, but not much better than some of the others in there with him." Hill did not mention John Henry.

(5) Nelson offers no evidence of a contest between a man, or men, and a steam drill or steam drills. I see his inference of two rows of holes, one drilled by machine and one by hand, from Gordon's statement, "I will have to double on it with hammers," as a gross misunderstanding. The common term for drilling by a two-man team, driver and shaker, is "double-jack." I see Gordon's "double" as short for "double-jack." Gordon was simply stating that the job would have to be done with hand labor.   His statement does not point to a contest between men and machines or between a man and a machine, as Nelson imagines.

(6) As with all elements of "John Henry" ballads, it is possible that "white house" is an artifact. Indeed, there is a plausible precursor to "white house" in "white road," which occurs in at least one version of "John Henry." I see "white house" as a mutation of "white road." I think that "white road" -> "white house" is a plausible mutation while "white house" -> "white road" is not. A "white road" (sand covered) leads to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks (now Norfolk Southern) near the locally traditional site of John Henry's contest with a steam drill. In my scenario John Henry is buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery or another cemetery on Sand Ridge, which is definitely sandy, accounting for "buried him in the sand." Both scenarios also account for "every locomotive come roarin' by," but I think my accounting is much less contrived than Nelson's. His railroad is not even a main line.

(7) I am not aware of any tradition or testimony that John Henry raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel. A few people interviewed did name Mason as the boss, and he was at Lewis, not Big Bend. Even so, it would be surprising, if Lewis Tunnel were the site, that it is not named in a ballad, testimony, or local tradition.

(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear.

(9) Perhaps the following is just an oversight, but the only mention of the occurrence of sand that I found in Nelson's article is in the sentence "Boxes were stacked sometimes two deep, with a thin layer of sand between them." This does not imply that the convicts were "buried in the sand," although that *would* be the case if the source of the thin layer were the soil at the burial site. Did I overlook a mention of sand at the burial site? Nelson needs to clear this up.

(10) Nelson does not address the evidence favoring Alabama. His only mention of my work is a citation of my article, his footnote 27, which reads as follows: "Both researchers (Johnson and Chappell) considered claims that the contest took place in Alabama in the 1880s, which also had a few firsthand accounts, but gave up on that site when they could find no evidence of a Cruzee mountain in Alabama. See Johnson, John Henry, 19-22; see also John Garst, 'Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,' Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92-129." Nelson does not even note that I *found* "Cruzee"/"Cursey" (Coosa) Tunnel, much less address the mass of circumstantial evidence, favoring Alabama, that I have turned up.

I hope that Nelson will now turn his considerable talent as an historian to Alabama. Perhaps he can find evidence that I have overlooked. That evidence might confirm or refute my scenario. A refutation would enhance the logical standing of his own speculations.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Sep 05 - 07:00 AM

On my browser, at least, my last posting is hard to read because the lines extend far beyond the edge of my screen, requiring the use of the slider several times to move across a line. Did I inadvertently uncheck the "Automatic Linebreaks" box?

Here is a reposting with "Automatic Linebreaks" definitely checked. I wish I knew how to delete the first posting.

******
Your attention is drawn to a recent publication:

Scott Nelson
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
Volume 2, Issue 2
2005

If your institution subscribes, you may find this article at

http://docserver.ingentaconnect.com/deliver/cw/dup/15476715/v2n2/s7/p53.pdf?fmt=dirpdf&tt=10401&cl=11&ini=connect&bini=&wis=connect&ac=0&acs=32629,75000325,80004025&expires=1126971234&checksum=263B9E0541A5F8428BB2B615664D7B35&cookie=1350681344

Nelson has done a wonderful job of digging up records of the C & O pertaining to its construction, records that had been believed for many years (since ca 1925) to have been lost. His writing here is also a thing of beauty.

For me, the most important of Nelson's conclusions is that the John Henry incident did *not* occur at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV. The Big Bend site is the received wisdom from the 1920s studies of Guy B. Johnson and Louis W. Chappell, who may have been in a kind of race to affirm it as the authentic place. About 40% of the versions of "John Henry" collected by 1933 place its action at the "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road," which would have been ca 1871, the building of the C & O having occurred in 1869-73.

My view of Big Bend is stated in my 2002 paper, Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi, Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, pp 91-129:

"In my opinion, the data of Johnson and Chappell make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. The evidence for this conclusion can be summarized as follows. (1) Intensive efforts to find John Henry at Big Bend failed. (2) No documentary evidence of John Henry or a contest was found. (3) The positive testimonial evidence contains significant inconsistencies. (4) The negative testimonial evidence is strong and plausible. (5) Alabama, a plausible alternative to Big Bend, is supported by substantive, coherent, and detailed reports that were not investigated satisfactorily." The failure to obtain substantive, coherent, and detailed reports favoring Big Bend is especially significant because Johnson and Chappell were able to interview a dozen or so men who had actually worked on the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. Included among the testimonies is one that claims, in essence, that the steam-drill contest could not have occurred at Big Bend because the informant was there - if it had happened he would have seen or heard about it. He is supported by a couple of others. A few others offer weak testimony favoring Big Bend.

Nelson ignores Alabama in favor of a different tunnel on the C & O line, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, "on the border between Virginia and West Virginia." This is another of the dozen or so tunnels being constructed by the C & O at the same time. Quoting Nelson:

"In the song, the tunnel where John Henry died is the Big Bend, but in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel, which was dug in the same years. Big Bend Tunnel works better as a lyric, and as many later versions of the song demonstrate, workers turned their own tunnels, or nearby tunnels, into the tunnel that killed John Henry. Thus, while the event occurred in Lewis Tunnel, it was probably first sung at Big Bend Tunnel nearby. In fact, when Johnson and Chappell were doing their research in the late 1920s, many local informants mentioned the Lewis Tunnel, dug by convicts, as the source of the song; both Johnson and Chappell failed to follow these leads...."

Nelson's confidence ("in fact he died working on the Lewis Tunnel") does not impress me. His entire paper is written as if his inferences and speculations are the gospel truth. I *am* impressed with the amount of work, the fact that he has found and consulted several previously unavailable resources, and the rich picture of the construction of Lewis Tunnel that he is able to paint. Also, he gives an excellent brief history of the collecting history of the song.

He errs, understandably, in citing "the first description of the song's performance" as that provided by William Aspenwall Bradley in Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1915. I'm greatly impressed that he found the 1915 description - it illustrates how thorough he has been. Only a little luck allowed me to find, recently, an earlier description of "John Henry" singing, in court in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1913, p 14).

One problem with Big Bend as the John Henry site has always been that the evidence indicates that steam drills were never used there. Johnson and Chappell were well aware of this. To accommodate, it was supposed that a steam drill was brought in on a temporary basis and raced against a steel driver as a test. The argument for Big Bend might have been stronger had such an ad hoc assumption been unnecessary. Johnson and Chappell knew that steam drills *had* been used at Lewis Tunnel but did not pursue the possibility that the John Henry incident occurred there.

Nelson has taken up that cause - he believes that he has found the historic John Henry. Here is a summary of his relevant findings.

(1) Lines like "They took John Henry to the White House / And they buried him in the sand" are occasionally found in versions of "John Henry."

(2) A workshop built in 1825 on the grounds of the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) was plastered with lime, making it white. Neither this white house nor its later replacement now exist.

(3) A burial site containing about 400 bodies, stacked "sometimes two deep, with thin layer of sand between them," has been found at a location that would have been next to the white house, near a local connecting railroad along which locomotives would have come "roaring by."

(4) Virginia penitentiary convicts were used in the construction of Lewis Tunnel.

(5) Penitentiary records document John William Henry: received 1866 Nov. 16 for "Housebreak & larceny"; sentenced in Prince George County to 10 years; b Elizabeth City, NJ; age 19; height 5' 1-1/4"; left penitentiary by transfer.

(6) According to the prison register, John William Henry was "contracted out to work on the C & O railroad in 1868, charged to Capt. Goodlow, an employee of C. R. Mason, railroad contractor." The date is given as December 1.

(7) Mason was a contractor at Lewis Tunnel.

(8) A stipulation of the contract between the State of Virginia and the C & O was that each prisoner had to be returned. The penalty for a failure to return was $100. That ensured that prisoners' dead bodies would be shipped back to Richmond, to the penitentiary. If John Henry had died on the job, his body would have been shipped back for burial after marking him off a list.

(9) Beginning in August 1870, many men ("nearly 200") worked alongside steam drills (number unspecified, perhaps just one?). Both men and steam drills presented many problems, and eventually J. J. Gordon, the boss at Lewis Tunnel, ran out of boilers.

(10) In October, 1871, Gordon wrote to Chief Engineer Whitcomb, "I am very anxious to get that boiler to run Burleigh Drill in East approach. If you have done anything in regards to furnishing it please inform me, if not I will have to double on it with hammers."

(11) Gordon quit and "The steam drills left the tunnel by the end of October 1871."

(12) John William Henry is not listed among prisoners who died at the penitentiary. "He does, however, disappear from prison records by 1874, with no mention of pardon, parole, or release."

From this material, Nelson concocts a scenario, much as I have done for Alabama using other data. I have not provided *definitive* evidence of John Henry in Alabama. In contrast, Nelson appears to believe that he has solved the problem, period. I don't share his optimism. Indeed, I think that the Alabama scenario is better supported than the Lewis Tunnel scenario.

Nelson's scenario:

As a prisoner at the Virginia penitentiary in Richmond, John William Henry was sent to work under C. R. Mason, the labor contractor for the construction of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. From August 1870 to October 1871 steam and hand drilling were both employed at Lewis Tunnel. In a period leading up to October 1871, they were "apparently drilling two sets of holes in the rock face of the East approach, one with convicts, one with the Burleigh drill." This was the contest between men and machine that "John Henry" is about. After October 1871, only manual labor was used. "Men had triumphed over machines, but at a terrible cost. For two years, between the last month of steam drill operation and the completion of the tunnel - between September 1871 and September 1873 - close to one hundred convicts had died." John William Henry was among those who died. According to contract, his body was sent back to the Virginia penitentiary, where he was buried "in the sand" by the side of the white house and a local railroad track.

Here are some of the deficiencies of Nelson's scenario.

(1) Men named "John Henry" or "John Henry Something" are plentiful. As Uncle Beverly Standard (a Johnson informant) said, "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henry's." Finding a man named John William Henry in a list Virginia penitentiary inmates who were shipped off to work on the C & O at Lewis Tunnel is not unexpected and certainly isn't much evidence that he was the legendary John Henry. It is somewhat surprising that Nelson found only one.

(2) Nelson presents no evidence that John William Henry was a steel driver.

(3) At 5' 1-1/4" tall, it certainly doesn't spring to mind that John William Henry would have become a steel driver. I must admit, however, that a large frame is not necessary. My own favored candidate, John Henry Dabney, is described 5' 10-11" tall and 147-"near" 180 lb. That's not huge, but it's a bit less comical than a 5' 1-1/4" steel driver.

(4) Even if John William Henry *were* a steel driver, why would he be singled out for the ballad? In 1925 L. W. "Dad" Hill made quite an accurate report to Chappell about the building of Lewis Tunnel. Included among his statements is "Bob Jones was the best steel-driver in Lewis Tunnel, but not much better than some of the others in there with him." Hill did not mention John Henry.

(5) Nelson offers no evidence of a contest between a man, or men, and a steam drill or steam drills. I see his inference of two rows of holes, one drilled by machine and one by hand, from Gordon's statement, "I will have to double on it with hammers," as a gross misunderstanding. The common term for drilling by a two-man team, driver and shaker, is "double-jack." I see Gordon's "double" as short for "double-jack." Gordon was simply stating that the job would have to be done with hand labor.   His statement does not point to a contest between men and machines or between a man and a machine, as Nelson imagines.

(6) As with all elements of "John Henry" ballads, it is possible that "white house" is an artifact. Indeed, there is a plausible precursor to "white house" in "white road," which occurs in at least one version of "John Henry." I see "white house" as a mutation of "white road." I think that "white road" -> "white house" is a plausible mutation while "white house" -> "white road" is not. A "white road" (sand covered) leads to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks (now Norfolk Southern) near the locally traditional site of John Henry's contest with a steam drill. In my scenario John Henry is buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery or another cemetery on Sand Ridge, which is definitely sandy, accounting for "buried him in the sand." Both scenarios also account for "every locomotive come roarin' by," but I think my accounting is much less contrived than Nelson's. His railroad is not even a main line.

(7) I am not aware of any tradition or testimony that John Henry raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel. A few people interviewed did name Mason as the boss, and he was at Lewis, not Big Bend. Even so, it would be surprising, if Lewis Tunnel were the site, that it is not named in a ballad, testimony, or local tradition.

(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear.

(9) Perhaps the following is just an oversight, but the only mention of the occurrence of sand that I found in Nelson's article is in the sentence "Boxes were stacked sometimes two deep, with a thin layer of sand between them." This does not imply that the convicts were "buried in the sand," although that *would* be the case if the source of the thin layer were the soil at the burial site. Did I overlook a mention of sand at the burial site? Nelson needs to clear this up.

(10) Nelson does not address the evidence favoring Alabama. His only mention of my work is a citation of my article, his footnote 27, which reads as follows: "Both researchers (Johnson and Chappell) considered claims that the contest took place in Alabama in the 1880s, which also had a few firsthand accounts, but gave up on that site when they could find no evidence of a Cruzee mountain in Alabama. See Johnson, John Henry, 19-22; see also John Garst, 'Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,' Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92-129." Nelson does not even note that I *found* "Cruzee"/"Cursey" (Coosa) Tunnel, much less address the mass of circumstantial evidence, favoring Alabama, that I have turned up.

I hope that Nelson will now turn his considerable talent as an historian to Alabama. Perhaps he can find evidence that I have overlooked. That evidence might confirm or refute my scenario. A refutation would enhance the logical standing of his own speculations.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Sep 05 - 07:19 AM

Still didn't work, even though "Automatic Linebreaks" was
definitely checked. What can I do to make my posting come out
readable?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Oct 05 - 04:47 PM

I must correct myself.

I wrote:

"(8) A plausible explanation of how Big Bend came to be named in versions of the ballad is that it stems from "big bad tunnel" (found in at least one version), which could be a reference to "long" (Coosa) tunnel, which gave much grief in the construction of the C & W (compare "C & O"). Nelson posits that the John Henry incident, whatever he thinks it might have been (which is not clear), occurred at Lewis Tunnel but was first sung about it at Big Bend. Why this should be is not clear."

My leaky memory failed me. I'm not sure that any version of "John Henry" has been collected that contains "big bad tunnel." One of Chappell's versions (XXX, from Hattie Kelley, Jefferson, NC, written copy) contains "Big Band tunnel on the C and O road." Hattie, probably, was a poor speller and intended "Big Bend." However, this triggered my speculation that "big bad tunnel" could mutate readily to "Big Bend Tunnel." That an early version contained "big bad tunnel" (referring to Coosa Tunnel) is a plausible speculation, but it remains nothing more than that. I wish I *could* find a version with "big bad tunnel."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Oct 05 - 04:24 PM

Nelson accounts for verses like

They took John Henry to the White House,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man.
                              (Johnson, John Henry, p 99)

by identifying a white workshop at the Virginia penitentiary (Richmond) with "White House." To me, this is plausible, but just how much reliance should we place on the occasional occurrence of "White House" in the ballad? I don't know, but here are some things to chew over.

Johnson (1929) and Chappell (1933) presented a total of 58 apparently independent versions of the ballad (two of Johnson's "belong together," in his words, reducing his contribution from 29 to 28).

Of these, 7 have JH buried in the sand at the White House. 6 have him buried in the sand at other (or unspecified) locations. In 1 of these he is buried in "the new burying ground." 5 have him buried in a burying ground/graveyard with no mention of sand. 4 mention the White House in other contexts.   1 mentions a white road, but not the White House.

Of those mentioning the White House in other contexts, 1 has JH being taken from the White House, 1 says people came from the White House to see JH, 1 has JH leaving the White House to go to the heading to drive steel, and 1 has JH buried at the White House with no mention of sand (instead, the "rode him in a van," which supplies the appropriate rhyme).

Interestingly, perhaps, only 2 of these 58 versions have the scene as Big Bend/C&O and the burial as White House/sand. None places the scene at Lewis Tunnel, favored by Nelson, nor, as far as I am aware, is there any testimony or local lore placing it there.

As I've noted before, I'm inclined to see "white road" as the precursor of "White House." I think that the mutation, "white road" to "White House," is plausible, while the reverse mutation, "White House" to "white road," is not - "White House" is simply too commonplace, attractive, and esily understood to be replaced in this manner. Early versions collected by Perrrow and Cox don't mention the "White House," nor does the Blankenship broadside. I've not yet looked over the to see when the first appearances of "White House" in the record were, but I suspect that it could be with the publication of Johnson's book (again, I don't *know* this).

I am inclined to believe that "White House" was a late development in the ballad. If so, it is not related to origins.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill
Date: 30 Dec 05 - 12:41 PM

Ok, lets go for the sad truth. John Henry was a real man. he was born in new jersey and was imprisoned for life on trumped up charges. he was then forced into labor to build the railroad. after he ided performing hard labor, he was buried on the grounds of the prison. this was next to a large white building. in the sand around the building, near the railroad tracks, many convicts bodies were buried and recently unearthed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill
Date: 30 Dec 05 - 01:59 PM

Ok, lets go for the sad truth. John Henry was a real man. he was born in new jersey and was imprisoned for life on trumped up charges. he was then forced into labor to build the railroad. after he ided performing hard labor, he was buried on the grounds of the prison. this was next to a large white building. in the sand around the building, near the railroad tracks, many convicts bodies were buried and recently unearthed.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 Jan 06 - 02:37 PM

Sad enough, but unlikely to be true.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Jan 06 - 03:33 PM

I wrote:

"Sad enough, but unlikely to be true. "

I must point out that I do not challenge the documented facts that Scott Nelson has uncovered. What I think is "unlikely to be true" is the identification of John William Henry, the man for whom he found records, with the legendary steel driver. I've given my reasons earlier.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 10 May 06 - 04:14 PM

Contrary to my suspicion, stated above, "white house" is not a late development in the ballad, or, at least, it was already present in 1913-15. In December 1913 John A. Lomax delivered his address as retiring President of the American Folk-Lore Society at its annual meeting, held that year in New York. In the Jan-Mar issue, 1915, of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, a formal version of this address was published, Vol. XXVIII, No. CVII, pp 1-17. As far as the collecting record goes, this must be counted as an early version of "John Henry." It seems likely, however, that it is not what was sung by a single individual but rather that it is a compilation of stanzas from more than one source. Lomax's commentary on this ballad, in its entirety, reads as follows:

" Very few of the many work-songs that have had their origin among the men who have done the labor of putting down our great railway-lines have escaped printing in railway publications. The following song is sung along the Chesapeake and Ohio Road in Kentucky and West Virginia."

Evidently Lomax considered the 11, fairly coherent stanzas that followed to be a "work-song" rather than a ballad. As a version of "John Henry," it is highly unusual. (1) Its language betrays, to me at least, no sign of black influence. It is often rather stilted, reminiscent of formal poetry. "When John Henry was a little lad / A-holding of his papa's hand / Says, 'If I live until I'm twenty-one / I'm goin' to make a steel-driving man.'    As Johnny said, when he was a man / He made his words come true / He's the best steel-driver on the C & O Road / He belongs to the steel-driving crew." (2) "I hear the walking boss coming," "Before he died he said to his boss / 'O bossman! how can it be / The rock is so hard and the steel is so tough / I can feel my muscle giving way?'" Nowhere is this version is "the captain" or "his captain" mentioned. That is highly unusual. (3) "They brought John Henry from the white house." This is consistent with Scott Nelson's hypothesis that the "white house" was a penitentiary workhouse (specifically at the Virginia Penitentiary, Richmond). Other versions have John Henry's body taken *to* the white house for burial. Although the Lomax ballad is full of references to the C & O, it contains no mention of Big Bend Tunnel (just "the tunnel" and "tunnel number nine" - the C & O did not number the dozen or so tunnels they built in 1870-72). This version, therefore, does not contradict Nelson's identification of the tunnel as Lewis Tunnel, where steam drills were used (unlike Big Bend) and Virginia Penitentiary inmates were sent to labor. (4) John Henry is referred to several times as "Johnny" - this is rare. (5) "If I die a railroad-man / Go bury me under a tie / So I can hear old number four / As she goes rolling by." The Blankenship broadside also mentions train No. 4. In 1900, and perhaps in 1887, Illinois Central No. 4 ran north from New Orleans to Chicago. More specifically, it ran north from Crystal Springs, MS, where John Henry Dabney is supposed to have lived, to Jackson, MS, and other points north, where someone making the trip from Crystal Springs to Birmingham would have transferred to an east-bound train.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Jul 06 - 02:30 PM

Alert:

Scott Nelson's book is due out soon. From Amazon.com:
**********
Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry and the Untold Story of an American Legend (Cityscapes) (Hardcover)
by Scott Reynolds Nelson
------------------------------------------------------------------------
List Price:        $25.00
Price:        $15.75...

Book Description

The ballad "John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry--the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill--is a towering figure in our culture. But for over a century, no one knew who the original John Henry was--or even if there was a real John Henry.

In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson recounts the true story of the man behind the iconic American hero, telling the poignant tale of a young Virginia convict who died working on one of the most dangerous enterprises of the time, the first rail route through the Appalachian Mountains.

Using census data, penitentiary reports, and railroad company reports, Nelson reveals how John Henry, victimized by Virginia's notorious Black Codes, was shipped to the infamous Richmond Penitentiary to become prisoner number 497, and was forced to labor on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the C&O railroad. Nelson even confirms the legendary contest between John Henry and the steam drill (there was indeed a steam drill used to dig the Lewis Tunnel and the convicts in fact drilled faster).

Equally important, Nelson masterfully captures the life of the ballad of John Henry, tracing the song's evolution from the first printed score by blues legend W. C. Handy, to Carl Sandburg's use of the ballad to become the first "folk singer," to the upbeat version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. We see how the American Communist Party appropriated the image of John Henry as the idealized American worker, and even how John Henry became the precursor of such comic book super heroes as Superman or Captain America.

Attractively illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Product Details

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (September 30, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN: 0195300106
**********

I'm sure that this is an excellent book, flawed only by Nelson's misidentification of the legendary John Henry!

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Aug 06 - 04:50 PM

I've just received an advance copy of Nelson's Steel Drivin' Man. It is excellent, reflecting an enormous amount of intensive work. I recommend it highly, except that I believe that he vastly overestimates his evidence for John Henry at Lewis Tunnel. I still think the evidence for Dunnavant, Alabama, is much stronger.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Aug 06 - 02:18 PM

FWIW:

Actually, I find one other flaw with Nelson's book.

He does not address my published work (2002) or even acknowledge that it exists, even though I know he knows about it.   His literature review stops decades ago.

I initiated an interesting discussion of this kind of thing on the ballad-scholars and pre-war-blues mailing lists under the subject heading "Sloppy editing at U presses?"

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 04 Aug 06 - 08:40 PM

John, that's one hell of a flaw ! Is there not even a footnote somewhere ? (E.g., "John Garst has suggested the Oak Mountain tunnel in Alabama as the scene of.... He presents this hypothesis in....)

That's how it can be done when you need to acknowledge the work of someone you disagree with but you have no energy left to try to refute it.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Garst
Date: 17 Aug 06 - 02:39 PM

Lighter wrote:

******
John, that's one hell of a flaw ! Is there not even a footnote somewhere ? (E.g., "John Garst has suggested the Oak Mountain tunnel in Alabama as the scene of.... He presents this hypothesis in....)

That's how it can be done when you need to acknowledge the work of someone you disagree with but you have no energy left to try to refute it.
******
I have yet to find a mention of my work in any form. In his 2005 paper on the subject, Nelson cites my paper in a footnote in such a manner that no one could guess how strong the case for Alabama presented there might be. He does not address the Alabama evidence in either publication.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 04:34 PM

I had an opportunity to read Dr. John Garst's J. Henry article more than 3 years ago prior to its being published in "Tributaries"- Journal of Alabama Folklife Association. Just because an article is published does not necessarily make it true and accurate. This thesis has all the attributes of a well written academic paper and acknowledges numerous source references including several that are noted as "anonymous".   It also makes use of what I consider to be extreme convoluted logic attempting to connect some historical information and some rationalized and obtuse dots between people, local names, phonics, and possible local areas.

Dr. Garst's conclusion states "So far, no definite documentation of J. Henry has been found. This leaves room for argument from those who may believe that J. Henry never existed or that he ever raced a steam drill elsewhere. However, to make such a claim one would……..have to argue that C. C. Spencer is not a creditable witness ……he is the "star witness" on this subject. When checked against the facts that can be determined from other sources, Spencer's story is found to contain errors….."{?} Earlier the article notes that the C. C. Spencer story is not first person but second person as told in undocumented letters written to two other researchers named Johnson and Chappell circa 1929.   At best this article suggests that John Henry may have been in the Leeds, Alabama area once upon a time but does not offer any factual proof of a Leeds – John Henry connection.   In other words, the hypothesis outlined in the article is pure conjecture.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 08:00 PM

Like Don C, I find no meat within the shell when it is cracked open.
I am reminded of Charlie McCarthy's question to Edgar Bergen, who was prone to unsupported statements- "Vas you dere, Charlie?"
Without a credible witness or direct evidence, the hypotheses (on both sides) are empty shells.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Sep 06 - 01:57 PM

John knows that I am respectfully skeptical of his cautiously phrased conclusion that a steam-drill battle may have taken place in Alabama. Of course this is conjecture, but much historical writing is conjecture. The significant point is that this particular conjecture (unlike so many in ballad studies)is backed with some genuine research. It provides fresh food for thought about the "John Henry" ballad. Whether the conjecture can be confirmed is another story.

John Garst's work is also of value because it shows that the Big Bend evidence, which has been widely accepted as fact for decades, is in reality extremely weak. John has shown there is no serious evidentiary basis for insisting, as so many have done, that "John Henry fought the steam-drill at the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia."

That result may sound trivial to amateurs, but it demonstrates once again the value of sound research (which John has carried out, even if his primary conclusion remains doubtful).

Unfortunately, John's evidence is not strong enough to prove that the contest took place in Alabama either. That's bad news mainly for C&O boosters. And the PR follies described in a related thread have little to do with the substance or presentation of John Garst's article in "Tributaries."


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