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Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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Kaleea 13 Sep 06 - 03:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Sep 06 - 04:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Sep 06 - 04:10 PM
GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama 20 Sep 06 - 09:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Sep 06 - 05:13 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Sep 06 - 11:19 AM
BK Lick 01 Oct 06 - 01:38 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 01 Oct 06 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Oct 06 - 05:13 PM
GUEST, John Garst 26 Oct 06 - 06:21 PM
GUEST,Richie 25 Nov 06 - 12:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Nov 06 - 11:18 AM
GUEST,Richie 25 Nov 06 - 06:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 26 Nov 06 - 10:31 AM
Tweed 26 Nov 06 - 11:08 AM
Stilly River Sage 27 Nov 06 - 06:23 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 27 Nov 06 - 07:44 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Nov 06 - 09:30 PM
GUEST,mick 28 Nov 06 - 06:53 AM
Stilly River Sage 28 Nov 06 - 10:34 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Nov 06 - 01:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Nov 06 - 07:49 PM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Nov 06 - 04:04 PM
GUEST,John Garst 31 Dec 06 - 02:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 07 - 05:07 PM
GUEST,observer 25 Jan 07 - 05:51 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Feb 07 - 05:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Feb 07 - 02:48 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Feb 07 - 03:43 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Feb 07 - 04:57 PM
Lighter 27 Feb 07 - 06:15 PM
GUEST 28 Feb 07 - 03:54 AM
Lighter 28 Feb 07 - 08:02 AM
GUEST,John Garst 02 May 07 - 04:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 May 07 - 03:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Jul 07 - 11:14 AM
GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama 21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM
GUEST,Bill Oursler 30 Aug 07 - 07:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Sep 07 - 09:45 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Sep 07 - 10:19 PM
GUEST 18 Sep 07 - 08:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Sep 07 - 10:41 AM
GUEST,John Garst 21 Sep 07 - 01:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 03 Feb 08 - 03:24 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Feb 08 - 04:05 PM
GUEST,Lighter 09 Feb 08 - 10:15 AM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Mar 08 - 03:05 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Apr 08 - 06:16 PM
GUEST 15 Apr 08 - 12:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Apr 08 - 03:03 PM
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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Kaleea
Date: 13 Sep 06 - 03:26 PM

I wonder if the History Detectives (on PBS) could find out anything concrete? I should think that if anyone could, it would be they.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 04:07 PM

I am familiar with Don C. Around Leeds, he appears to be well known as a writer of letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

The bone he picks, I suppose, is that I chose to quote Spencer's letters from Johnson's book and to cite them with reference to that book. That reference is far more accessible than the originals. To Don C, this becomes "second person" testimony.

The originals of C. C. Spencer's letters to Guy Johnson, and of many the other letters quoted in my article, are in special collections at the library of the University of North Carolina. I have examined them. I vouch for their contents as published by Johnson.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 04:10 PM

Correction:

Strike "many" from the first sentence of the last paragraph of my previous posting.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 20 Sep 06 - 09:37 PM

Hi there Dr. Garst,

How did the great origin of John Henry debate between you and Ed Cabell last month at Davis & Elkins College turn out?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Sep 06 - 05:13 PM

From Don Clowers:

>Hi there Dr. Garst,

>How did the great origin of John Henry debate between you
>and Ed Cabell last month at Davis & Elkins College turn out?

Fine.

I gave facts and let them speak for themselves.

Ed appealed to the strength of the WV tradition.

It was videotaped.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Sep 06 - 11:19 AM

Kaleea wrote:

>I wonder if the History Detectives (on PBS) could find out
>anything concrete? I should think that if anyone could, it
>would be they.

About a week ago I watched one of their programs and afterward went to their WWW site and submitted this problem to them.

So far, I have heard nothing in return.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: BK Lick
Date: 01 Oct 06 - 01:38 AM

Q wrote: "I am reminded of Charlie McCarthy's question to Edgar Bergen, who was prone to unsupported statements- 'Vas you dere, Charlie?'"

I believe it was another old time radio character who famously spoke that tag line -- Jack Pearl's Baron Munchausen would say these words to anyone who doubted his tall tale telling. Perhaps Bergen had Charlie say it too.
—BK


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 01 Oct 06 - 01:56 PM

More digression-
Charlie said it, but Bergen could have borrowed it from Jack Pearl.
Thanks for reminding me of another old radio favorite.

Looking at Google, it seems that most of Jack Pearl and many of the Bergen episodes are available on cd.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Oct 06 - 05:13 PM

Examining Scott Nelson's evidence for John W. Henry as the legendary steel driver and Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, as the place led me to a better appreciation of the evidence for John Henry Dabney and Oak/Coosa Tunnels, Alabama.

The Virginia evidence is nearly nonexistent, as I have noted previously.

The Alabama evidence is circumstantial but very coherent and amazingly detailed. Let me put the question in the negative:

If John Henry were not at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887, how would you explain away, rationally, all the testimony, documentation of related matters, and song-fragment evidence?

I think you'd have a hard time!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST, John Garst
Date: 26 Oct 06 - 06:21 PM

Thoughts on mutations in transmitted historical ballads.

(1) A ballad progresses toward one or more stable end points. A stable end point consists of attractive words, phrases, lines, and stanzas. "Attractive" means "attractive to a ballad singer." The point is that as a ballad approaches stability it will contain less and less material that a singer might drop or change in passing it on.

(2) Historical truth is often *not* a factor contributing to attractiveness. Once a ballad has left "home" (in space and time), few if any singers will know the historical facts. Even those who do will often prefer telling "a good story" to telling the truth. Even ballad authors can be susceptible to this urge.

(3) I assume, however, that historical ballad originals will always contain *some* historic truth, at least as that "truth" is known by the author.

(4) This implies that historically correct but nonattractive elements of a ballad will tend to be lost. Attractive elements will tend to be retained, whether or not they are historically correct. Therefore attractive elements should be looked on with suspicion.

(5) If you are examining ballad versions for candidates for historic truth, you should pay special attention to rare elements. A rare element must be either new or nonattractive. If it were old and attractive it would not be rare. Most new elements will be attractive; otherwise few would be inserted into the tradition.

Having John Henry buried at the "white house" is surely an attractive element, implying as it does that he was so important that his grave was put where the nation's president could stroll out to it (for inspiration, perhaps!) Therefore "white house" falls under suspicion immediately.

Further, if the white house burial had been part of the original ballad, few if any singers would have changed it, or failed to pass it on, and there would be few versions of "John Henry" that name another place of burial. In fact, there are many.

Therefore it is unlikely that "white house" was in the original "John Henry."

"White road," on the other hand, is a rare element (one version, to my knowledge). Therefore it deserves serious consideration for historic truth. Sand Ridge Cemetery borders a white (with sand) road, which fits both "white road" and "buried him in the sand." In addition, "white road" is a logical seed for mutation to "white house."

I think it likely that we will eventually find John Henry's grave on Sand Ridge, if not in Sand Ridge Cemetery then in one of the other cemeteries there. (It is said that there are two others.)

"John Henry died on a Tuesday" is also rare (one version). Therefore it may well be correct. C. C. Spencer gave the date as September 20, 1882, but other facts demand that the year be 1887. September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday. The chance of randomly finding this agreement is, of course, one in seven.

John Henry being, or being buried, "'tween them mountains" or "between two mountains" is also rare (one version each) and therefore a serious candidate for truth. This fits Dunnavant, Alabama, well. I doubt that it fits any other candidate spot as well.

"Virginny gave him birth" (speaking of "Captain Tommy") is rare (one version) and therefore a serious candidate for truth. Captain Dabney was, in fact, born in Virginia. He moved to Mississippi when less than a year old.

"John Henry went blind" is rare (one version) (truth?) So is "pain in my heart" (one version) (truth?) "Roaring in my ears" is uncommon (truth?) but found in a few versions. C. C. Spencer, self-proclaimed eyewitness, said that when John Henry Dabney revived after collapsing, he said, "I am blind and dying." Spencer's description of John Henry's death seems to Dr. Steven Harris to be a classic case of ventricular rupture: "strokes don't do this. You can get blindness with a posterior vertebral stroke, but it shouldn't kill you right off-- or make you unconscious. And unconsciouness which reverses when he person is laid down is classic for blood loss shock. As is blindness and a roaring in the ears (all low blood pressure things)... Ventricular rupture (a literal broken heart from a section giving way after a heart attack that kills that bit of tissue) is the best I can do from the description you give. And chest pain would precede, from the ischemia of the heart attack itself (though the rupture itself is often fairly painless)."

There's more of this kind of thing, but my wife calls and I must go.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Richie
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 12:19 AM

I'm not sure of the earliest version of John Henry, this is a version of Take This Hammer from 1905.

JOHN HENRY
V. SONGS CONNECTED WITH THE RAILROAD
SONGS AND RHYMES FROM THE SOUTH BY E. C. PERROW
(From East Tennessee; mountain whites; from memory; 1905)


A.If I could drive steel like John Henry,
I'd go home, Baby, I'd go home.
This ole hammer killed John Henry,
Drivin' steel, Baby, drivin' steel.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 11:18 AM

I don't know of a version of either the hammer song or the ballad dated reasonably to earlier than 1905.

Of course, there is plenty of testimony of earlier singing. Some of this testimony has the "John Henry" hammer song being sung as early as 1871 or so, the time of the building of Big Bend Tunnel. I see no reason to accept this - there is no consistent testimony placing John Henry at Big Bend or having him sung about there. I think the people who gave the testimony probably heard some hammer song at Big Bend, then later heard a John Henry verse or two sung to the same tune and subsequently conflated the earlier and later versions in their minds.

Chappell lists a few claims of "John Henry" songs being sung before 1888 but the big explosion of remembrances starts then and is dense for the years immediately following.

One man said that he moved to Georgia in 1888 and found everyone there singing "John Henry." This fits very well with 1887 as the year of John Henry's death and with Alabama as the place. Men from Mississippi worked on the Columbus & Western job and I'm sure men from Georgia did, too. After all, the Columbus & Western was owned by the Central Railroad and Banking Company of Georgia. "Columbus" is Columbus, Georgia.

I suspect that "John Henry" was already being sung in West Virginia in 1888. There is testimony that laborers who worked on the C & W went to West Virginia to work on the Elkhorn Tunnel, which was completed in 1888, as I recall. When the ballad hit the Big Bend area, people there remembered Big Bend's prominent steel driver, John Henry Martin.   They probably identified him with the legendary figure and localized the ballad to Big Bend.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Richie
Date: 25 Nov 06 - 06:26 PM

Hi John,


The first post A from 1905 resembles Take This Hammer/Nine Pound Hammer/Roll on Buddy versions

Here are the others. B and C are both Take This Hammer/Nine Pound Hammer songs. D. Is probaby John Hardy. Only E from 1912 is a version of the ballad tho not a good one.

1. is clearly John Hardy mixed with John Henry. Of particular interest is the footnote 2 and the "big tunnel on the C and O line" lyric.


JOHN HENRY
V. SONGS CONNECTED WITH THE RAILROAD
SONGS AND RHYMES FROM THE SOUTH BY E. C. PERROW


B.(From Indiana; ?; MS. of Mr. Davidson)

Did you hear that rain-crow hollering?
Sign of rain, Baby, sign of rain.
If I had forty-one dollars,
I'd go home, Baby, I'd go home.

C.(From Mississippi; ?; MS. of R. J. Slay; 1909)

This old hammer killed John Henry,
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

This old hammer killed Bill Dooley,
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

This old hammer weighs forty pounds, sah!
Can't kill me; can't kill me!

D (From Mississippi; ?; MS. of W. P. Cassedy; 1909)

John Henry got in his buggy,

And tightened up his reins,
And passed by those ladies,

Like a shower of rain.

John Henry used to sing: " I owe you some money,

I haven't got no small change,
But I'll bet you five dollars

I will see you again."

E. (From Kentucky; mountain whites; MS. of E. N. Caldwell; 1912)

When John Henry was a little boy,
Sitting on his papa's knee,
Was a-lookin down at a piece of steel,
"For a steel-driving man I want to be."

When they take John Henry down to the tunnel,
Well, they set him head for to drive;
For the rocks so tall, John Henry was so small,
Threw down his hammer, and he cried.

Well, they set John Henry on the right-hand corner,
A steam-driller was on the left;
"Before I let the steam-driller hammer me down,
I'll hammer my fool self to death.


1. A favorite number with the folk; cf. Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. xxii, p. 243.

"If I die a railroad man,

Go bury me under the rail ties,

With my pick and my shovel at my head and feet,

And my nine-pound hammer in my hand."

John Henry he come walkin' out;
He looked all around and above,
Wrapped up his hammer and paper and silk,
And sent it to the woman whom he loved.

John Henry had a lovin' little wife,

Sometimes she was dressed in red;

She went walkin' down the track, and she never looked back;

She said, "I'm goin' where my honey fell dead."

John Henry had a lovin' little wife,
Sometimes she was dressed in blue;
Went to the graveyard where his dead body lies;
"John Henry, I've always been true to you."

When John Henry was a little boy,
Sittin' on his grandpa's knee:
"That big tunnel on the C and O line
Is going to be the death of me."2

2 A note on the manuscript says, "About half of the 'John Henry' here; very long." Mr. C. B. House tells me there is a song in Clay County, Kentucky, about John Henry, a steel-driving man.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 26 Nov 06 - 10:31 AM

A couplet from the ballad dates to 1907 or so (could be 1909), then came Perrow's version (1912) and versions collected by Lomax (ca 1912) and Combs (published much later). One stanza appears in the Atlanta Constitution in 1913.

The ballad was probably written shortly after the event that inspired it, so it dates to 1871 or 1887 if we accept Big Bend, Lewis, and Oak/Coosa Tunnels as the candidates. If 1887, then 20 years passed before anyone noticed it in print (as far as we know). If 1871, then 36 years. Obviously, the chance that 20 years would pass without such notice is greater than the chance for 36 years.

It is especially noteworthy that there is no notice of John Henry in print between 1871 and 1887.

There are several pieces of statistical evidence that favor 1887 weakly. An accumulation of pieces of weak evidence is stronger than one isolated piece.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Tweed
Date: 26 Nov 06 - 11:08 AM

Found this on the History News Network in the daily google search:

On the Trail of the Real John Henry


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 06:23 PM

There was a long discussion of John Henry on National Public Radio this weekend. How he may have been a short fellow from New Jersey, and how as time changed the possibilty of beating a steam engine (once very easy due to break downs) became much harder as the engines improved. So the song became more mythic as time passed. This may be nothing new, I didn't read the thread before I posted. I just wanted to offer a heads-up regarding that recent radio article if someone wants to go dig it up.

SRS


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 07:44 PM

The article by Garst summarizes his views, which also have appeared in Mudcat, in more detail.
Also worth reading for background is the chapter on John Henry in Norm Cohen, "Long Steel Rail," pp. 61-89, which includes a comprehensive discography of this much-recorded song.
Among the interesting items in Cohen is a copy of a printed song sheet, "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," with the name W. T. Blankenship, c. 1900 (Cohen remarks that Blankenship seemed to be working from imperfectively remembered material).
Also included is a 1929 letter from Ernest V. Stoneman discussing John Henry. Stoneman believed that the song was set in West Virginia on the C & O, "the man that the song was made about was a negro who was a East Virginian." He goes on to describe the man, and mentions his song, "John Hardy," which he says was the man's real name. The West Virginia connection, discounted by Garst, was described fully in Cox, 1925, "Folk Songs of the South," chap. 335, 'John Hardy,' pp. 175-188 (Harvard Univ.; Dover unabridged edition).


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Subject: John Henry on public radio Nov 2006
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Nov 06 - 09:30 PM

Stilly River Sage wrote:
There was a long discussion of John Henry on National Public Radio this weekend.

I couldn't find anything on NPR, but I did find a New York program, Studio 360, American Icons, that fits your description. It turns out to be a production of PRI. From the list of people, I judge they were selected by Scott Nelson or from their appearance in his book.

I haven't listened to the program yet, but I'd be surprised if my ideas were mentioned.

Here's the credit line:

"Studio 360 is a co-production of Public Radio International and WNYC New York Public Radio, and is funded in part by Ken and Lucy Lehman, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Herman Miller and Design Within Reach. Studio 360's American Icons series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our series on creativity and science is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,mick
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 06:53 AM

The song can be interpreted in diferent ways today perhaps ,but wasn't it originally sang as a bawdy song with "steel driving man" having sexual overtones ?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 10:34 AM

You may have found it, John--I had the radio on while I worked around the house and our local station plays that program. It was part of a long interview, and Studio 360 does offer a lot of those.

SRS


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 01:47 PM

mick wrote:
The song can be interpreted in diferent ways today perhaps ,but wasn't it originally sang as a bawdy song with "steel driving man" having sexual overtones ?

My response:
Sexual interpretations have certainly been offered by singers and story-tellers, as well as academics. It makes sense to me that these were grafted onto the ballad after its inception. I doubt that it would be correct to say that "John Henry" was "originally" a bawdy song.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Nov 06 - 07:49 PM

I just listened to Studio 360, American Icons, Friday 24Nov2006. This is the program with a brief John Henry segment.

It has excerpts from Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, Mississippi John Hurt, and some unidentified black singers.

It is mostly about black people's reactions to the song and interpretations of it in the light of the black experience.

Sherman James is quoted briefly telling about John Henry Martin, a farmer he found with all kinds of possibly stress-related disease. James coined the term "John Henryism" to describe the extra stressful lives of many American blacks.

Scott Nelson tells briefly about John William Henry. I think he also comments on the changing character of the ballad, early versions being more of a cautionary tale than a hero celebration. I'll have to think about that one.

As I suspected, my views on the historic John Henry are not mentioned.

Nelson comments that by 1890 steam drills had improved so much, from 1871, that it would have been hard for a human steel-driving team to beat one. Yet, that is exactly what eye-witnesses claimed for John Henry Dabney in Alabama in 1887. How credible are these eye-witnesses? I find C. C. Spencer's testimony to be very credible. He knew too much that can be documented to have been making his story up. I don't know why Glendora Cannon Cummings' uncle would lie to her about his having been with John Henry when he died (at Oak Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Alabama, 1887). F. P. Barker claimed to have known John Henry when JH was working on Coosa Mountain Tunnel in 1887, and he took delight in telling how JH vowed that he would beat the steam drill and did it, then died. All three of these people put JH at the same place (Dunnavant, Alabama) and time (1887), though that time has to be figured out from other data for Spencer and Barker. Spencer said 1882 but other facts (that JH worked for a "Dabner," Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney) require 1887. Barker said "about 45 years ago, somewhere about that time," which would have been somewhere about 1882 but which really had to be, again, 1887, because that's when Coosa and Oak Tunnels were under construction. I suppose that 1887 is "somewhere about" 1882. Cummings got the year precisely correct.

The radio segment was brief and shallow, consisting largely of concise "ain't-that-something" narration and sound bites.

It makes no contribution to scholarship.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Nov 06 - 04:04 PM

You will enjoy Scott Nelson's reply to my essay at History News Network:

http://hnn.us/articles/31137.html

If the editor at HNN allows it, I will put together a response over the next week or so.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 31 Dec 06 - 02:39 PM

I have posted a couple of items in reply to Nelson's response to my essay at History News Network.

Go to

http://hnn.us/articles/31137.html

and then click on "Comments" (just below the end of Nelson's response). That will take you to a page with an apparatus for sending in comments. Above that will be a couple of links to my replies, one entitled "On the Trail of the Real John Henry" and the other "Principle of Frequent Crap and Rare Truth."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 07 - 05:07 PM

I've just noticed that Furry Lewis gives the name of John Henry's wife as "Nella Lee."

http://home.comcast.net/~ehop/Furry_Lewis-John_Henry.mp3

I don't know which of the several times Furry recorded "John Henry" this is, but it is obviously a concert recording, so it must be from his rediscovery period.

In any event, this gives a little reinforcement (some might say "very little") to Neal Pattman's version, naming John Henry's wife as "Maggadee," which sounds like "Maggie D" and may be a reference to Margaret Dabney, the wife of the Henry Dabney who appears in the Copiah County census of 1870 (and 1880 as Henry "Dabner") and who may be both the "Henry" who was Captain Dabney's father's slave and the "John Henry" of legend.

Names commonly found are "Polly Ann" and variations, but "Mary Magdalene" occurs rarely (including Lead Belly's version), "Maggadee" once, and "Nella Lee" once (to my knowledge). These last three are rhymes or near rhymes. As I have noted previously, "Maggadee" is a logical precursor of "Mary Magdalene" because "Maggadee" sounds like "Magdalene" and to many people you can't have "Magdalene" without "Mary." "Mary Magdalene" would degenerate to "Mary Ann" for a couple of reasons ("Magdalene" is too big a word; "Ann" provides a near rhyme for "sand") and "Polly" is a common nickname for "Mary." "Polly Ann" is an attractive commonplace and represents a stable end point of these name mutations.

"Nella Lee" could be another mutation of "Maggie D"/"Maggadee." They rhyme and they have the same number of syllables. "Maggadee"'s lack of familiarity and awkwardness would provide the impetus for change. "Nella Lee" sounds a lot more like a plausible name.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,observer
Date: 25 Jan 07 - 05:51 PM

Click this for a good discussion of John Henry on Old Blue Bus


About John Henry onOld Blue Bus


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Feb 07 - 05:59 PM

An excursion to Dunnavant, Alabama, on Saturday, 03Feb2007, was interesting.

We learned that ground-penetrating radar has its limitations. We didn't actually use it, but Robert Perry, an expert in its use, was along to scout the situation, and he told us quite a bit about it, in layman's terms, sort of.

We learned that the date of establishment of Sand Ridge Cemetery is tied to the date at which some members of the Howard family left an area a few miles to the east, where they have been living in proximity with the Isbell family (sometimes "Isabell"). The family historian who told us this, however, didn't have her notes with her and didn't trust her memory for exact dates. We will check that out later. She thought it possible, but was not certain, that Sand Ridge Cemetery was in existence by 1887.

We learned that the fence around Sand Ridge Cemetery was put there fairly recently. In its early days, the cemetery was simply an open area with no particular boundaries. The grave that we thought we had spotted two years ago, a few feet west of the western fence, looks less clearly like a grave than it did then. Perhaps that is due partly to erosion and partly to the filling in of pine straw, twigs, etc. Even so, it was agreed that it could be a grave.

We learned that there is a story that a black man was buried just outside the present-day fence at the northern boundary of the old section of Sand Ridge Cemetery. This spot is another candidate spot for John Henry's burial.

The ground was wet from recent rains. The road that had looked distinctively white to me two years ago looked more red (from red clay) Saturday. It was still clear, however, that the soil is sandy.

The opinion was expressed that it is unlikely that an itinerant black railroad worker would have been buried so far from that site where he died at that time and place (1887 and the backwoods about 15 miles east of Birmingham). This is a reasonable opinion but it does not cause me to give up on Sand Ridge Cemetery yet. It is likely that John Henry and Captain Dabney were close friends - they had probably known one another for 37 years, the first 15 being while John Henry was a slave, perhaps to Captain Dabney's father. I imagine that Captain Dabney might have wanted to give John Henry a good burial.

Tune in for later developments.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Feb 07 - 02:48 PM

I have sent something like the following to mailing lists.

If I understand correctly, Jennifer Howard's article on Scott Nelson and "Steel Drivin' Man," in the February 9 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, will be available at the following address for a few days.

http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=NfyQfwvDqpw6hsdckCbyrGCxjqgmtBF6

Subscribers can always find it at

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i23/23a01201.htm

Among those quoted, in addition to Nelson, are Norm Cohen, Ted Gioia, Brett Williams, and myself.

The main foci of the article are Nelson and his book. Toward the end, I am described as Nelson's "most vocal critic." Except for Nelson and myself, those interviewed, if they take any stance at all, are quoted as being neutral. Nelson is quoted taking a cheap shot at me, likening the Alabama theory to Intelligent Design.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 03:43 PM

Update, 27Feb2007:

On a recent trip to Sand Ridge Cemetery, its founding was described by a local woman who is related to those buried there. Unfortunately, she has been unable to provide a date. It remains unclear whether or not this cemetery is as old as 1887, when John Henry would have been buried.

A local archeologist with ground-penetrating radar (gpr) has taken up the search for John Henry's grave. He described for us the limitations of gpr. It will probably be some time before it is actually applied in a field situation in our search. For the moment the search for possible burial sites is taking top priority with him. He is skeptical of Sand Ridge Cemetery because it is so far (about a mile) from the railroad tracks. He imagines that dead black laborers would have been buried much closer to the tracks. I agree with this possibility but I think that John Henry and Captain Dabney were close, so I suspect that the Captain would have wanted to give John Henry a "good" burial. Sand Ridge Cemetery remains a possibility in my mind.

We have made contacts with more people with John Henry stories. One man tells us of several cemeteries near the tracks, all on private property and all accessed with difficulty. He was surprised to hear us speaking of the John Henry "legend." The way his grandfather and others spoke of John Henry, there was no "legend" to it - it was simply fact that he died at Dunnavant, Alabama. (That's the way legends are, of course.)

We have heard of a 90-year-old man with a clear mind who has lived in Dunnavant all his life. Members of our team hope to interview him soon.

We have also heard stories of headstones at places near the RR tracks. These markers have long disappeared but they are recalled. We hope to investigate these sites.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 04:57 PM

Also posted to BALLAD-L and PRE-WAR-BLUES:

At the risk of sounding something like the Jesus'-tomb people who have been getting a lot of television exposure the last couple of days, I pose some John Henry statistics. Archaeologists have pointed out that the names found in the tomb were very common at that place and time. The Jesus people have countered with probabilities from statisticians that make it sound very unlikely that this particular cluster of names would have appeared more than once. I'm skeptical of the Jesus people's claims but I find it hard to dismiss their statitics (if they are correct).

Here goes:

(1) C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson that he had died on September 20, 1882. His year has to be wrong - the only year the railroad through Dunnavant, AL, was under construction in September was 1887, the year of John Henry's death given by Glendora Cannon Cummings, who claimed (ca 1927) that her had uncle witnessed John Henry's death. Harvey Hicks (Evington, VA, ca 1930) gave Louis Chappell a version of "John Henry" containing the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday." September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday.

For a particular date, the probability matching the day of the week with a random guess is 1/7, 14%. Thus, the probability that the match that is found is not accidental is 86%.

If it is not accidental, what scenario, other than that it is truth, could account for the agreement. The only such scenario I can think of is that an untrue story including the date and day of the week made the rounds. It is hard for me to imagine how an untrue story could have originated. It is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such a detail.

My conclusion: From this, it is 86% probable that the historic John Henry died on Tuesday, September 20, 1887.

(2) Testifying some 40 years or so after the alleged events, Spencer (Salt Lake City, Utah), Cummings (Lansing, Michigan), and C. S. Farquharson (Jamaica) all gave the names of two of John Henry's bosses as "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay." In fact, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western in 1886-88. As such he was in charge of the construction of the extension from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham.

What is the probability that these agreements are accidental? I can only place it at 0%.

What is the probability that an untrue story about John Henry, containing the names "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay," made the rounds? Again, it is hard for me to imagine how such an untrue story would originate. Also again, it is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such details as these names.

My conclusion: It is nearly 100% probable that the association of John Henry with "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay" is historically correct. (I have not identified "Shea"/"Shay." There is, however, a candidate in the Birmingham City Directory.)

Two of the three people giving these names also place John Henry at Dunnavant, AL, at the time of his death. One of them gives John Henry's surname as "Dabner" and states that he was a slave to a "Dabner" and that he was from Holly Springs, Mississippi. In fact, Captain Dabney lived in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and his father had owned a slave, Henry, who was a teenager during the Civil War. A Henry Dabney/Dabner, born 1850, appears in the 1870 and 1880 censuses for Copiah County (Crystal Springs), MS, as farming. Consistent with an 1887 death, he is not found in later censuses (the 1890 census is not available because it burned).

None of the above is new - it is all in my 2002 paper, along with other evidence.

My present question is

To what extent am I fooling myself in thinking that this evidence makes it highly probable that the Alabama scenario is correct?

In the Chronicle article by Jennifer Howard, Nelson is quoted as likening the Alabama scenario to Intelligent Design. What do you think?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Feb 07 - 06:15 PM

John, I hope you don't find my comments absurdly ill-informed. If they are, I apologize in advance. My statistical background is limited.

A 14% likelihood of pure coincidence in naming the day of the week is actually substantial. One would not care to bet on it happening, but it certainly could have. We don't know. Are there any other days of the week named in connection about JH's death? If so, the more there are, the greater the chance of coincidence operating somewhere.

Even if, as occurs to me, Spencer wrote a "7" that was misread (or misprinted) as a "2," the possibility of coincidence would remain at 14%.

The seemingly independent references to Dabner/Dabney and Say/Shea indicate that the witnesses were indeed involved in the C&W construction, as they claimed. You know from your own research that there was in fact a "John Henry" working on that tunnel. Their testimony, then, doesn't add to that. Yet their claim that John Henry fought a steam drill seems to me to require further testimony. In other words, if *all* the survivors of the tunnel job had testified, we'd expect overwhelming recollection of the "John Henry event," had it happened there. A mere three testimonies, however, self-selected from hundreds, could be explained by a rival hypothesis that a John Henry's presence at the tunnel led to the hasty conclusion - in a mere three persons - that therefore he *must be* the one in the song and the "event" *must have* taken place on the C & W. My own experience is that people can try to be helpful even to the point of autosuggestion: three witnesses could easily convince themselves that "their" John Henry was "obviously" the hero of the familiar song and then, forty years later, believe they saw the contest with their own eyes. This would be a case of independent reconstructive memory.
Unlikely? Perhaps. But far from impossible, and with maybe more than a 14% likelihood. I don't know.

Nevertheless, John, none of these skeptical, even cynical, observations refute the evidence-based suspicion that John Henry fought a steam-drill on Sept. 20, 1887, on the C&W. And a carping critic can always demand "more evidence." The case for the C&W tunnel is, I think, stronger than the case for the C&O. But it seems to me that proof is still just beyond reach. The results of your research, though, are worthy of more notice than they've gotten in the media so far. Interested newspeople have heard about the "Big Bend tunnel on the C&O road" all their lives and may assume that everyone "knows" that's where a contest occurred and that research focused on West Va. is "finally filling in the blanks."

That's show biz.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 28 Feb 07 - 03:54 AM

Lighter: Even if, as occurs to me, Spencer wrote a "7" that was misread (or misprinted) as a "2," the possibility of coincidence would remain at 14%.

Me: I have seen the original. It is clearly "1882," not "1887." Spencer gave dates for other tunnel jobs that were several years too early. He said he was about 14 years old when he knew John Henry. His testimony came 40 years later. "Holly Springs" and "1882" are not his only errors of fact but I think all of them are easily corrected and can be considered reasonable for the circumstances. He got a lot right in his testimony.

Lighter: You know from your own research that there was in fact a "John Henry" working on that tunnel.

Me: No, I don't think I do. What we have is the testimony of Spencer, Barker, Cummings, an article from 1930 citing many, an article from 1955 citing several, and lots of people still living around Leeds and Dunnavant. The veracity of other parts of the testimony of these people supports the idea that they are good witnesses, suggesting that their claims about John Henry ought to be believed. The Alabama testimony is much more coherent than the West Virginia testimony. There is no testimony (or legend) at all about John Henry in Virginia. It would be nice to have further testimony about the race with a steam drill but I think that at this date some kind of further documentation could more likely be found.

Lighter: ...a mere three persons...

Me: Three in 1927, an article in 1930 citing many, an article in 1955 citing several, many living around Leeds and Dunnavant (as noted above). What especially impresses me about the three in 1927 is that there is obviously no collusion among them. It seems extremely unlikely that they knew one another in any way. It seems even less likely that the Jamaicans who knew the names "Shea"/"Shay" and "Dabney"/"Dabner" had ever had any contact with the people from Utah and Michigan who knew the same thing.

Lighter: But it seems to me that proof is still just beyond reach. The results of your research, though, are worthy of more notice than they've gotten in the media so far. Interested newspeople have heard about the "Big Bend tunnel on the C&O road" all their lives and may assume that everyone "knows" that's where a contest occurred and that research focused on West Va. is "finally filling in the blanks."

Me: I certainly can't and don't claim "proof." My best argument, it seems to me, is to challenge critics to provide a reasonable explanation of the facts based on the assumption that John Henry was *not* in Alabama. It is the probabilities of such alternative explanations that concern me. I think those probabilities must be quite low.

Scott Nelson's research is not filling in the blanks for West Virginia. His "John Henry" was at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. Thus, he joins me in being a Big Bend skeptic. However, his reason for rejecting Big Bend is spurious, that no steam drills were used in construction there. Johnson and Chappell were both well aware of that fact and persisted in placing John Henry at Big Bend because there was testimony that a steam drill had been brought in for a test. My reason for rejecting Big Bend is the incoherence of the testimonies of the dozen or so men, interviewed by Johnson and Chappell, who had worked on Big Bend Tunnel. They split half-and-half "for" and "against" John Henry's contest having been there. Their descriptions of John Henry were widely varied. The only one who claimed to have witnessed the contest was a very poor witness - evasive, giving little detail, saying that it was no big deal and that he had just looked in once in a while. In contrast, not only is C. C. Spencer a great witness, giving extraordinary detail, but the testimony of others supports some of his. In general, there is little contradiction among the testimonies of the "Alabama" informants. As a whole, their testimonies are coherent.

My work has gotten some notice. Stephen Wade featured it on NPR three years or so ago. It has been written up regularly in the local newspapers around Leeds, AL, and Athens, GA.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 28 Feb 07 - 08:02 AM

Thanks for the clarifications, John. At least my conclusion is correct - that the Alabama case is stronger than the other guys'!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 May 07 - 04:32 PM

I wrote (27Feb2007):

**********
(1) C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson that he had died on September 20, 1882. His year has to be wrong - the only year the railroad through Dunnavant, AL, was under construction in September was 1887, the year of John Henry's death given by Glendora Cannon Cummings, who claimed (ca 1927) that her had uncle witnessed John Henry's death. Harvey Hicks (Evington, VA, ca 1930) gave Louis Chappell a version of "John Henry" containing the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday." September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday.

For a particular date, the probability matching the day of the week with a random guess is 1/7, 14%. Thus, the probability that the match that is found is not accidental is 86%.

If it is not accidental, what scenario, other than that it is truth, could account for the agreement. The only such scenario I can think of is that an untrue story including the date and day of the week made the rounds. It is hard for me to imagine how an untrue story could have originated. It is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such a detail.

My conclusion: From this, it is 86% probable that the historic John Henry died on Tuesday, September 20, 1887.
**********

Sorry. I've retracted this bit of statistical thinking in several places and I thought I'd done it here already but I just looked and discovered that I hadn't.

It is correct that

IF a choice of day of the week is random
THEN the probability of agreement with a date is 1/7 (14%).

It is *not* correct that

IF a day of the week and date agree
THEN the probability that neither is a random choice is 6/7 (86%).

The second "IF...THEN..." does not follow the the first. I erred in thinking that it did. I take it back. I'm sorry.

There *is* a probability treatment of this situation that can lead to the conclusion that agreement between day and date implies that day and date are likely true, with a probability over 80% or so, but it depends on some assumptions and it is more complex that the simple reasoning I tried to use. I thank Nathan Rose for pointing out this approach in another forum.

I still think that the probability is zero that three independent informants could come up with "Dabney"/"Dabner" as the name of John Henry's boss and there not be a true historic background. Add to this the independent fact that Captain Fred Y. Dabney *was* in charge of the construction of the C & W, the line to which two of those informants pointed, and we have a very strong case, I believe.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 May 07 - 03:57 PM

FWIW:

I found an internet claim today that one Godfrey Isbell was buried in Sand Ridge Cemetery, Shelby County, AL, in about 1882. This is the first evidence that Sand Ridge Cemetery already existed in 1887, when John Henry Dabney may have died in a nearby steel-driving contest with a steam drill.

I also examined satellite images of Sand Ridge Cemetery. All the nearby roads show up as white. There is mention of a "white road" in at least one version of the ballad "John Henry."

Thus, it remains possible that Sand Ridge Cemetery is John Henry's resting place.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Jul 07 - 11:14 AM

According to
http://www.leedsalabama.com/history/thedepot.htm

"The first Leeds Railroad Heritage and John Henry Day Celebration has been set for the weekend of September 14-16, 2007, at which time the Historic Depot and Railroad Museum will be open for visitors."

Also,

"A Historical Symposium on Saturday, September 15, will be sponsored by the Alabama Folklife Association, funded by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation. The symposium will feature a number of visiting scholars on John Henry and Dr. Marbury will present his historical research paper on the history of railroads in Leeds."

I am one of the "number of visiting scholars" and I think Scott Nelson will be another.

My talk will be on the evidence that the historic John Henry was in Alabama. Nelson's talk is supposed to be on the cultural significance of the John Henry legend.

It should be entertaining.


Y'all come!


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM

The scheduled September 15, 2007 John Henry Day Celebration and associated symposium promises to be a genuine knee slapper if you happen to be a real railroad history aficionado who is into fairy tales mixed with actual railroad history. This event has been planned and executed by some local folks who are apparently so insecure or ashamed or both of Leeds' real railroad history that they must enhance it with a historical legend. The Lord willin' and Cahawba creek don't rise, I plan to be there early to get a good seat because there will surly be a standing room only crowd. I expect nothing less than an epiphany that John Henry not only helped dig the Dunnavant Tunnel but also played tackle for the 1887 Leeds Green Wave football team (based on a 0% - 100% probability).

Y'all drop by fur sure, we'll keep the light on for you.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Bill Oursler
Date: 30 Aug 07 - 07:47 PM

I am NOT a witness to John Henry's death! I am going on 77. tho,and can remember the old slave quarters on my Grandmother's farm. My uncles would sing "John Henry" and that's the first song I learned on my guitar. There was a small settlement near where I lived called "Henryton". it is right near the RR tracks. Oh,yes, there was a 1/4 mile tunnel right there bored out of hard rock. Some of the old folks used to say it was named after The one and only "John Henry" It was generally accepted that the steam drill race happened in Alabama.... All these articles about John were very interesting to me. Henryton is in Maryland (below the Mason-Dixon line) John Garst makes a lot of logic in his writings. I lean very hard towards Alabama as the John Henry era. Very interesting discussions........

Bill Oursler.....Las Cruces, N.M.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Sep 07 - 09:45 PM

Hi, Bill.

Well, you've got a year or so on me, but only that.

I'm interested in all versions of "John Henry," particularly those with lines or phrases that are rarely found. I think these are more likely to contain historic truth than commonplaces like "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road" and "Polly Ann."

What about it? Does the version of "John Henry" that you learned early on have any distinctive features that might be relevant to historicity?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Sep 07 - 10:19 PM

Leeds, Alabama, held its first annual "John Henry in Leeds" celebration on Saturday, September 15, 2007. It was sponsored by The Alabama Folklife Association, The Leeds Historical Society, and The Leeds Arts Council. It was held at the Community Arts Center in Leeds in an auditorium that could seat something over 100 people, perhaps 120 or 140. If I had to guess, I'd say maybe 70 people were there for the morning session and something less than that for the afternoon.

The program was opened by a local singer-songwriter, Ron Dometrovich, performing "John Henry." Then locals Joyce Cauthen (folklorist and musician and leader of the Alabama Folklife Association), Marie Cromer (writer), Carl Marbury (retired college president and descendant of African-American railroad workers who had worked on building the roads through Leeds), and Jerry Voyles (grandson of a railroad supervisor who has a film production company) made some preliminary comments.

Marie called to the podium Scott Nelson, Legum Professor (since April, 2007) of History at William and Mary and author of "Steel Drivin' Man" which gives the "truth about John Henry" by placing the historic figure at Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. Marie presented Scott with a printed citation for bravery in coming to Leeds despite holding an opinion that he knew would not be popular there.

Jerry then told something about his grandfather's journal and the John Henry legend as it came to him. He played a 5-minute John Henry video he had made for a local Fox news station.

Carl followed, speaking on "Myth, Oral Tradition, and the Historical Nature of the John Henry Legend."

After a break and a short business meeting, I followed Carl with "Evidence for John Henry in Alabama." The program said that we were "Celebrating a Local Legend" and several speakers had already commented that the John Henry legend is big enough to be claimed by any number of communities.

I followed suit, sincerely wishing Talcott, West Virginia, well with celebrating their John Henry legend. Then I stuck my neck out by saying that I consider that the evidence places the historicity of John Henry at Dunnavant, Alabama, "beyond reasonable doubt." I believe that, in a criminal court, it could convict Dunnavant of having harbored John Henry. Then I ran through this evidence and challenged anyone to account for it in any other way.

After lunch, Art Rosenbaum (banjo picker, singer, artist, and professor extraordinaire) sang a capella a version of the John Henry hammer song that he had collected in Athens, Georgia, and then sang with banjo accompaniment Uncle Dave Macon's "Death of John Henry."

Scott gave a PowerPoint presentation on "John Henry and American Culture." He did not mention my work and barely touched on his own work on the historic John Henry or on his speculations that steel driving contributed the words "rock and roll" and that John Henry was the prototype for the comics superhero, Superman. Most of his presentation was about African-American railroad workers, their white bosses, labor hazards, and John Henry songs.

Following Scott, locals were offered the opportunity to come forth with their own family stories about John Henry. One woman did.

Then the floor was opened for questions for Scott and me. We fielded a few questions each and then those who had signed up headed for a bus to go on a tour of local sites of John Henry interest.

We saw some railroad sites of non-JH interest in town and then headed south on AL 25 for Oak Mountain.

This journey is described at

http://www.frograil.com/tours/ns/centralOfGeorgia.htm#LONGTUNNEL

in sections of text provided by Casey Thomason and headed "Leeds" and "Long Tunnel."

After crossing Oak Mountain and Oak Tunnel (which could not be seen) we went south on AL 25 for about 1.75 mi to Tunnel Road, which leads to the old Columbus & Western (now Norfolk Southern) track just before it enters the north portal of Coosa Tunnel. We all got out and admired the tunnel from a safe distance from both tunnel and track.

Testimony has it that John Henry drove steel at Coosa Tunnel. His contest with a steam drill, however, is said in local tradition to have been held outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel.

On the trip back along AL 25 we were shown the probable location of the railroad construction camp, "Dunnavant's Camp," in 1887-88, when the line through Dunnavant and Leeds was built.

After seeing a few more railroad sites non-JH interest, we returned and Joyce, Scott, Art Rosenbaum, I, and 4 others headed off for beer (or whatever) and barbecue at the Original Golden Rule Barbecue in Irondale, the town just east of Birmingham along I-20.

A good time was had by all.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 18 Sep 07 - 08:08 PM

Don Clowers wrote (21 Aug 07 - 10:51 PM):

********
The scheduled September 15, 2007 John Henry Day Celebration and associated symposium promises to be a genuine knee slapper if you happen to be a real railroad history aficionado who is into fairy tales mixed with actual railroad history. This event has been planned and executed by some local folks who are apparently so insecure or ashamed or both of Leeds' real railroad history that they must enhance it with a historical legend. The Lord willin' and Cahawba creek don't rise, I plan to be there early to get a good seat because there will surly be a standing room only crowd. I expect nothing less than an epiphany that John Henry not only helped dig the Dunnavant Tunnel but also played tackle for the 1887 Leeds Green Wave football team (based on a 0% - 100% probability).
********

I suppose the Lord wasn't willing or Cahawba creek rose. Neither I nor any of the Leeds people I've asked managed to detect the presence of Don Clowers at the John Henry in Leeds celebration on Saturday, September 25.

I am told, however, that the local paper published his letter to the editor a couple of days before the event and that it was in his usual style.

Where wuz you, Don? Were you there incognito? Are you a real person or just a name?

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Sep 07 - 10:41 AM

Correction to second message of 18 Sep:

"Neither I nor any of the Leeds people I've asked managed to detect the presence of Don Clowers at the John Henry in Leeds celebration on Saturday, September 25."

It was actually September 15.

September 25 is another red-letter day for me, the day of my upcoming surgery.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 21 Sep 07 - 01:12 PM

You can download a PDF file containing the text of the talk I gave in Leeds, Alabama, September 15, 2007, at the following WWW site.

http://www.alabamafolklife.org

At the left is a reproduction from the cover of the program for the John Henry in Leeds celebration. Above and below it are links to a page on that event.

Once you are at the event page, scroll down until you see my picture (on the right). Under it is the download link.

John


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Subject: Records of the Columbus & Western, 1886-88
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 03 Feb 08 - 03:24 PM

No, I haven't found them yet. This is a progress (?) report.

Hearing, a few years ago, that the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, held vast numbers of unprocessed and unavailable records of the Central of Georgia and its predecessor, the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia, which owned outright the Columbus & Western Railway Company, for which John Henry is supposed to have worked in 1887-88, when the line was being extended from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham, I thought that these unprocessed C of G records might hold those of the C & W. I asked regularly about this of librarians at GHS but made no progress until last week, when I learned that there exists a detailed inventory of the unprocessed materials, that those materials date mostly from 1930, and that nothing about the C & W is there.

That was disappointing but even so it was progress, since I wouldn't have to be concerned with those records anymore.

Then Allen Tuten, President of the Central of Georgia Historical Society, came up with another surprise. He pointed to boxes of *processed* material that might contain C & W records even though the catalog doesn't reflect it. All the catalog points to for the C & W are a couple of legal documents.

Apparently, the catalog and finding aids for the processed C of G collection are not very detailed. This collection could contain materials relevant to the C & W for 1886-88. All I have to do is go through hundreds of banker boxes of material and 40,000 rolled-up, original-ink engineering drawings, not necessarily labeled on the outside.

I hope to get started later this month!


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

The image of a hammer ringing is widespread in folksong. Surely it comes from steel driving, which was a common activity in both slavery ad post-slavery times.

I've asked about this on a physics group and of an old-timer who is familiar with steel driving, but I have come up with disparate responses.

I would think that a sledgehammer hitting, say, a railroad spike, would just go "chink" (or "clink," as you wish). To me, "ringing" would be a sustained sound.

Am I wrong about the hammer and railroad spike?

When I asked this question on a physics newsgroup, I got conflicting answers. One says that hammers do indeed ring. Others say that it is the steel drill that rings.

Any authorities out there?

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 09 Feb 08 - 10:15 AM

John, axes in literature are also said to "ring." In the latter case the reference is usually to the echoes of chopping within a forest of tall trees. I imagine that the "ringing" hammer is the same idea.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Mar 08 - 03:05 PM

One interpretation (? - could be authentic rather than a sound effect) of ringing during steel driving can be heard in the John Henry segment of the Disney movie "Tall Tale" (1995). There each blow of John Henry's hammer on the steel results in a prolonged "boooong!" This kind of sound would have to be emitted by the steel drill. Indeed, I've now found other references to the physics of the ringing sound of the steel drill.

Basically, compression waves move longitudinally up and down the drill. As they pass a given spot, the steel deforms (very slightly) laterally, displacing air and creating sound waves. This type of motion is said to be little affected by hands on the drill or mud in the hole, that is, these things don't damp the sound very much.

The ringing of axes in a forest is a matter, I think, of echoes. The ringing of a steel drill in a tunnel would echo, too, but I don't think that the basic ringing sound has anything to do with echoes.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Apr 08 - 06:16 PM

As posted to Ballad-L and pre-war blues lists:

FYI

I have been put in touch recently with a nephew of W. T. Blankenship, the author of the broadside, "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," ca 1910.

I have learned also that WTB had a son, Clarence, who married at age 15. So far I know nothing of Clarence's children, if he had any.

J

P.S. - Correction: rather than "author" I meant "publisher."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 15 Apr 08 - 12:08 PM

Having neither the time nor inclination to take on the supreme and daunting challenge of authentication of "John Henry's" origins, I will take the story, the song and its variants as they play on the emotions. To me, the core of the story is the triumph of spirit - of human dignity and courage - over mindless machine and repressive and controlling men.

I have heard endless variations of the song, often by performers who claim "the authentic and original" version. What I hear, after all, is still the same basic story - and it still moves me.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Apr 08 - 03:03 PM

Guest writes:

"To me, the core of the story is the triumph of spirit - of human dignity and courage - over mindless machine and repressive and controlling men."

I cannot, and would not wish to, disagree.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that is unlikely that the historic John Henry, if there was one, was thinking along these lines when he raced the steam drill. David Mamet commented, as I recall, to the effect that John Henry could not have been dumb enough to believe that beating a steam drill could stop the mechanization of rock drilling.

I suspect that John Henry raced the steam drill because his boss, Captain Dabney, asked him to. Pride must have been a factor - John Henry is said to have been a champion steel driver. Also, Captain Dabney is said to have offered financial incentives, perhaps $50/$100 and a new suit of clothes. Finally, I think friendship played a role. Captain Dabney was about 15 years old when John Henry was born, a slave to Captain Dabney's father probably, or perhaps to his uncle.

Such details don't change the message of "John Henry" as received by Guest and the rest of us.


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