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Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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GUEST,D. Clowers 25 Apr 08 - 04:07 AM
GUEST,John Garst 29 Apr 08 - 05:39 PM
GUEST,cStu 17 May 08 - 06:21 PM
GUEST,Guest is Q 18 May 08 - 04:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 May 08 - 03:28 PM
GUEST,Don Clowers, in beautiful Leeds, Alabama 29 May 08 - 06:37 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Jun 08 - 12:55 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Oct 08 - 09:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Nov 08 - 10:31 AM
GUEST,Ifor Coggan 05 Nov 08 - 03:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Dec 08 - 03:17 PM
Richie 01 Dec 08 - 06:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 06 Dec 08 - 02:26 PM
Stringsinger 07 Dec 08 - 02:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Dec 08 - 11:19 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Dec 08 - 09:15 AM
GUEST,John Garst 28 Jan 09 - 10:44 AM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Feb 09 - 08:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Mar 09 - 03:05 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 Apr 09 - 03:57 PM
Mark Clark 17 Jun 09 - 08:12 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jun 09 - 03:12 PM
Art Thieme 23 Jun 09 - 05:42 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jul 09 - 02:26 PM
mayomick 22 Jul 09 - 04:29 PM
GUEST 25 Jul 09 - 12:32 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM
GUEST,TJ in San Diego 12 Aug 09 - 04:41 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 05:55 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 07:52 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 08:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Aug 09 - 09:17 PM
Lighter 12 Aug 09 - 09:26 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Aug 09 - 11:41 AM
Stringsinger 16 Aug 09 - 12:53 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Aug 09 - 03:17 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 16 Aug 09 - 04:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 20 Aug 09 - 03:25 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Sep 09 - 04:01 PM
GUEST,John Garst 16 Nov 09 - 07:47 PM
Art Thieme 16 Nov 09 - 08:12 PM
Richie 16 Nov 09 - 11:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 17 Nov 09 - 10:22 AM
GUEST,John Garst 30 Dec 09 - 03:34 PM
GUEST,John Garst 12 Mar 10 - 02:33 PM
Richie 13 Mar 10 - 01:13 PM
GUEST,dutch 01 Apr 10 - 02:38 PM
GUEST,John Garst 27 Apr 10 - 04:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 May 10 - 02:00 PM
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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,D. Clowers
Date: 25 Apr 08 - 04:07 AM

J. Garst wrote on Sept. 18, 2007:

"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 (sic Sept. 15)

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 "

Well John to the best of my memory I had something really important to do that particular day …. I believe I had to trim my toe nails and give the dog a bath. However, I did read some local reviews of the celebration and there was nothing new just the same old song and dance with no new revelations. Still the same old hearsay, convoluted logic, suppositions and half-truths mixed with some real documented railroad facts. I admit that I can not prove that J. Henry was ever in the Leeds area, but on the other hand no one (including you) has so far been able to prove that J. Henry (of the folktale) ever existed or offered any substantial evidence of his presence within 100 miles of Leeds. Please don't quote the letter from C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson. You said it yourself….a self-proclaimed eye-witness…..this in nothing more than hearsay … its not a sworn and witnessed affidavit. However, I did recently read an issue of the B'ham News that there is some new documentation was forthcoming that "J. Henry did his thing here" in Leeds. You must know that I am breathless with anticipation about this new revelation, my personal epiphany of the realization that there is forthcoming unquestionable, irrefutable, absolute proof that J. Henry did indeed "do his thing here". These quotes are from our new Leeds Chamber of Commerce President …. you know the folks who try to lure the tourist into town.

Don

P.S. Come to think of it, I believe the Cahawba did rise that day mainly from the B.S. run off from all the J. Henry lectures.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 29 Apr 08 - 05:39 PM

Don, it's good to hear from you again.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,cStu
Date: 17 May 08 - 06:21 PM

It just struck me that Leadbelly claims that John Henry had two women. Mary Magdalene and Polly Anne, which interestingly fits with the idea that his wife had to catch a train to get to where he died, and also that she was nearby to cradle his head when he collapsed. In his introduction to the song calls Henry a double drivin' man, but maybe that's double jivin' referring to his women?

Anyways I have found this a fascinating read and read both this page and the original this afternoon. (No mean feat)


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Guest is Q
Date: 18 May 08 - 04:32 PM

Two years ago, Scott Reynolds Nelson published his prize-winning book, "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend," He has rewritten the book, with Marc Aronson, for children, "Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry," published by National Geographic. A review by Lawrence Downes appeared in the NY Times Book Review, April 13, 2008.

Some 40,000 African-Americans laid track throughout the South, and many prisoners did forced labor for the railroads. The song itself was well-covered in the book for adult readers, but not here. Information was gathered from many sources; the crayon notes of a Henry Grady, an unknown railroad carpenter, "paint a blurry picture of the strenuous, dangerous life of trackliners..."
The book is well-illustrated with photographs and drawings.
Nelson speculations are sometimes a stretch too far- "even if a railroad worker did "rock and roll" a drill between whacks of a hammer, did the term really have anything to do with the one that, many decades later, came to mean something a lot less dangerous and a lot more fun?"
"Nelson's enthusiasm for historical sleuthing would whet any reader's appetite to do the same. It pulls the neat trick of giving you a heaping serving of a story you thought you already knew, and leaving you wanting more." The legend still grows.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM

Q mentions Nelson's book for young people (it is not for younger children).

It is beautifully produced.

As far as content is concerned, however, it is the "same old same old," an identification of the "real" John Henry that is based on flimsy evidence and is almost certainly wrong.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 May 08 - 03:28 PM

cStu observes that Lead Belly sings of two of John Henry's women/wives, providing for the possibility that one was at the scene of his death and the other had to take a train to go where he fell dead.

I wonder where Lead Belly got his version. I think that he was a sponge for songs and fragments of them, which he continually incorporated into the versions he performed and recorded. I suspect that the recorded version referred to by cStu is a product of such agglomeration.

In any event, JH's women have lots of names in the ballad versions. Some indicate that his various women wore different colors of dresses. Others say that his wife/woman wore different colors on different occasions.

I've always imagined that it was his mother/sister that had to get on that "east-bound train" to "go where John Henry fell dead."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Don Clowers, in beautiful Leeds, Alabama
Date: 29 May 08 - 06:37 PM

RESPONSE TO: J. Garst Post dated: 27 May 08 - 01:06 PM

"Q mentions Nelson's book for young people (it is not for younger children).

It is beautifully produced.

As far as content is concerned, however, it is the "same old same old," an identification of the "real" John Henry that is based on flimsy evidence and is almost certainly wrong."

John,

Scott Reynolds Nelson's book content and reasoning can't be anymore convoluted and flakey as yours. Give the man a spare.

Don C.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Jun 08 - 12:55 PM

You need to read "Steel Drivin' Man," Don.

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Oct 08 - 09:07 PM

A third eyewitness to John Henry's contest with a steam drill and death near Dunnavant, Alabama, has turned up. His son is still living.

The other two are C. C. Spencer and an uncle of Glendora Cannon Cummings, both informants for Guy Johnson, ca 1927.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Nov 08 - 10:31 AM

After interviewing the grandson, I wrote

*****
A third eyewitness to John Henry's contest with a steam drill and death near Dunnavant, Alabama, has turned up. His son is still living.

The other two are C. C. Spencer and an uncle of Glendora Cannon Cummings, both informants for Guy Johnson, ca 1927.
*****

Now I have interviewed the son and the story is different. The son, who is now 86, says that his father did not witness John Henry's contest and death, but he had two friends (named) who did.

This evidence loses credibility somewhat by one further step of removal from the event: witnesses -> friend -> son. However, it gains an eyewitness, making four if we believe all accounts.

I got another useful bit, however, from the son. He told me that his father had said that John Henry had been brought from Mississippi. That makes the third witness to this effect, the first being C. C. Spencer (1927), the second Mrs. Davis (1955), and now this (2008).

An interesting development with C. C. Spencer is now under investigation. He appears in the 1920 census in Emery County, Utah, as a coal miner. His wife's name is Luceal.

It appears that he was in a card game on Saturday night, just before Christmas, 1922, in Mohrland, Emery County, Utah. It was a three-way game, and Spencer continously lost while another man continously won, the third man breaking even. This led to friction and Spencer wound up shooting and killing the winning gambler. There was a manhunt leading to his capture. He was convicted in 1923 and sentenced to life in prison, but in 1926 his sentence was commuted to five years. He applied for early release in 1927 and it appears that he may have received it.

A Charles C. Spencer appears in the 1930 census as a crane operator in a factory in Salt Lake City. He was married but not living with his wife.

A Charles Curtis Spencer, b. July 7, 1878, registered for the draft in 1918 in Henry County, Virginia. His wife's name is Lucinda P. Spencer.

A comparison of the signatures of Charles C. Spencer (Utah parole request) and Charles Curtis Spencer (draft registration) is inconclusive to my eyes. They look rather different (one is a thin line, the other bold; the bold one is crowded into a given space, the thin one is not crowded), but their underlying structure is similar. I need a handwriting expert, I think.

In any event, these developments add a bit of "color" to the John Henry story.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Ifor Coggan
Date: 05 Nov 08 - 03:12 PM

I am trying to find the verses of the following nonsense song. Can anyone help? The website leader contains the first two lines but I cannot find anymore of it on this site.The names being Henry John and John Henry and not Andrew

There was a man who had two sons
and these two sons were brothers
Andrew John was one son's name
John Andrew was the other.

Now these two sons they found a bike
They found it in a hollow
and everywhere the front wheel went
the back wheel had to follow.

Now these two sons they died at last
they died from eating jelly
Andrew John died on his back
John Andrew on his belly

Sung to a Welsh folk tune "Gathering the wheat"


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Dec 08 - 03:17 PM

I have just received a photograph of W. T. Blankenship, publisher of the broadside "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," perhaps during the 1910s, and his wife Josephine. It is a poor photograph, but I'm thrilled to have any!

I have discovered, and ordered a copy of, a 65-page Utah case file on C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eyewitness to John Henry's death. Spencer shot and killed a man with whom he was gambling in December, 1922.

J


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 01 Dec 08 - 06:08 PM

That's great John. Let us know about the Spencer report.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 06 Dec 08 - 02:26 PM

I now have a photograph of Charles C. Spencer, a mug shot - very poor quality, but perhaps an original still exists in the Utah archives, from which a better copy could be made.

Prison record for C. C. Spencer. nativity: Va married: yes age: 52   height: 5' 11"   read: checked write: checked   religion: something I can't read   other descriptive marks and scars: can't read, perhaps "tall"   commuted to 5 years on 11-20-26 terminated 2/18/28

Spencer was the first man tried for first-degree murder in the history of Emery County, Utah, according to a news account.

The Emery County Progress (newspaper, Saturday, December 30, 1922) reports that the shooting was Christmas night.

Emery County Progress (February 10, 1922): "The defendant bore himself well and betrayed no trace of the sullenness usual in so many defendants under similar circumstances. Asked what he would do were he 'sent up,' he expressed the intention of doing everything he could to help his fellows in a moral and spiritual way. It seems the defendant had done more or less missionary work among his race in the past, at one time holding the office of second degree minister in his faith. He is understood to have been an abstainer from both tobacco and drink until about a year before the shooting, but then commenced to indulge in both and to take up gambling."

The "terminated" date in the prison record suggests that Spencer was somewhat successful in his quest for an earlier release after his sentence had been commuted. He had been scheduled for release on November 20, 1928.

This shows, however, that when he wrote Guy Johnson from Salt Lake City in 1927, he was writing from prison. Johnson may have been unaware of this; he writes, "From Salt Lake City, Utah, Mr. C. C. Spencer sends a vivid account...." Spencer was incarcerated in Salt Lake City.

If the age 52 was in 1923, when he went to prison, then Spencer was b 1870-71, making him 15-17 in 1887. He wrote Johnson that he was "about 14 years old at that time." Pretty close, I'd say. I like this birth date better than the 1878 one that appears in another document.

I suspect that Spencer's sentence was reduced on account of his good behavior. Perhaps he did indeed "help his fellows in a moral and spiritual way." That might carry unusual weight in Utah.

I suppose that I'll find out more when I receive the 65-page case file. What I got yesterday was a few loose items that are separate from the case file.

This is beginning to be a rich portrait of Spencer.

I have the suspicion that the white man, the young Master of my people," in whose care Spencer was in Alabama in 1887, might have been some Virginia friend or relative of Captain Fred Dabney, John Henry's boss. Captain Dabney employed other friends and relatives on this job.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stringsinger
Date: 07 Dec 08 - 02:19 PM

"Rock and roll" has been a euphemism in the African-American lexicon for many years.
It's intent is as sure as the word "jass" which was explicit in referring to sexual intercourse.

It would probably turn up as an expression for a variety of things.

Frank


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Dec 08 - 11:19 AM

On Monday, December 22, 2008, I visited the Manuscripts Department of the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I had asked them by e-mail to copy some items for me, but they had not been able to find all of them. In particular, the didn't find two letters from C. C. Spencer and one from F. P. Barker that I thought I had seen when I was there in 2001-02, and the couldn't find a letter from Guy Johnson to Louis Chappell on which I had made notes when I was there earlier. The purpose of my visit was to look for these "lost" items.

I found the two letters from Spencer and the letter from Johnson to Chappell. I did not find the letter from Barker - it appears that it is lost or badly misfiled.

Actually, if I had known that one had to be lost, I would have chosen Barker. I think the others are more important.

The letter from Johnson to Chappell explains how Johnson came to his search for John Henry at Big Bend Tunnel, independently of Chappell. This is important because it is, as far as I know, the only defense Johnson ever gave against Chappell's allegations that Johnson had gotten his Big Bend ideas from Chappell.

The Spencer letters are important because he is a self-proclaimed eyewitness to John Henry's death. He gives many details of his story, and of these many important ones turn out to be correct (by documentation).

I got a surprise, though, in reading Spencer's letters. Up front he says (in 1927) that he believes that he may be the only living person who witnessed the deaths of both John Henry and John Hardy. Because there was confusion between John Henry and John Hardy in the 1920s, arising from John H. Cox's earlier confusion of the two, Johnson made a point of asking, in the items he placed in newspapers, for information on both men. Spencer claimed to have been present at John Henry's death in Alabama in 1887 and at John Hardy's hanging in West Virginia in 1894. In his letters, Spencer gives accurate information about John Hardy. This was at a time when no one seemed to have accurate information about him. That he was accurate about John Hardy supports his reliability as a witness and indicates that he was accurate about John Henry as well.

I now have a mug shot of C. C. Spencer, and I now know that he was 5' 11' tall. Since there are two pretty good photographs of John Hardy standing on the scaffold, showing part of the assembled crowd, perhaps there is a chance that C. C. Spencer could be found standing there. It's a slim chance, since only part of the crowd is shown and since many of the people are distant from the camera, but it is worth a good try.

Strangely, Johnson did not include Spencer's John Hardy information in his book.

I got another surprise. Major Thomas G. Dabney wrote Johnson about Dabneys in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and John Henry - he said he knew nothing of either subject. No doubt he was thrown off by the request about Holly Springs, which had been named by Spencer as John Henry's home. Spencer erred in this - it should have been Crystal Springs. If Johnson had asked Major Dabney about Dabneys and ex-slaves at Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Major Dabney would have had intimate knowledge. He would have known that his older brother, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, had lived there, and that their father, Judge Augustine Dabney, had also lived there after the Civil War. He would have been able to name all the family's slaves, which included Henry, and he probably would have known that Henry had lived near Crystal Springs. He might even have known of Henry's death while working for Captain Dabney in Alabama in 1887!

We live in a strange universe of intricate connection and near misses.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Dec 08 - 09:15 AM

I have now decided that I must expand the scope of my work on John Henry. Having some good new material on the interaction between Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell, I feel that I must look into that more closely and not just dismiss it with a few sentences as others have done. That means that I must visit the archives at West Virginia University, Chappell's papers, and try to learn a lot more about Chappell, and Johnson, too.

Right now my impression of Chappell is that he was a brilliant, highly accomplished scholar who might not have gotten the recognition he deserved at West Virginia University in a timely fashion. Eventually, it came, I think, but that is one of the matters I hope to look into.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 28 Jan 09 - 10:44 AM

The letter from F. P. Barker to Guy Johnson, thought lost, has now been found. That means that everything I saw in the UNC archive in 2001 has now been located again, and I now have copies of a lot of things I should have copied in 2001.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Feb 09 - 08:08 PM

Actually, there are *two* letters, both short, from F. P. Barker. Johnson quotes from both in his book, *John Henry*.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Mar 09 - 03:05 PM

I have posted the following to BALLAD-L.

In John Harrington Cox's 1919 JAF article, "John Hardy," he quotes ex-Governor (1893-1897) William. A MacCorkle (1857-1930) (*not* "McCorkle," which has become the norm in folklore publications, an endless repetition of an error in Cox's article) from a 1916 letter written by the latter to H. S. Green (Charleston, WV):

"He [John Hardy] was a steel-driver, and was famous in the beginning of the building of the C. & O. Railroad. He was also a steel-driver in the beginning of the extension of the N. & W. Railroad. It was about 1872 that he was in this section."

The Norfolk & Western had several extensions. One, the Clinch Valley Extension from Bluefield to Norton, VA, was begun in 1887 and completed in 1890, about the same time that the Columbus & Western extension from Goodwater, Alabama, to Birmingham was under construction (1887-88).

MacCorkle, like many others in the VA-WV area, was convinced that John Henry and John Hardy were the same person. Thus, his comments about John Hardy's having been a steel driver are followed by statements that he was "a gambler, a roué, a drunkard, and a fierce fighter." This confusion was found in the literature until Johnson's and Chappell's books on John Henry were published. They produced substantive evidence that John Henry and John Hardy were different men, John Henry a steel driver, John Hardy a sport.

My pointa here are

(1) that MacCorkle thought that John Henry (the steel driver, not the gambler) had worked on another railroad *after* the C & O job. Obviously, he didn't think that John Henry died after a contest with a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel,

(2) that a one-letter mutation of C & W that will lead either to C & O or to N & W, the two railroads with which MacCorkle associates John Henry with, and

(3) that an N & W extension was underway at the same time as the C & W extension in Alabama.

It all adds up to a suggestion of a scenario in which the Alabama story of John Henry and the C & W went north to West Virginia/Virginia, got mixed up with the John Hardy story, and mutated to produce the belief that John Henry had worked on both the C & O and the N & W.

What is new (to me) here is the part about the N & W. Until recently, I hadn't paid enough attention to MacCorkle's story to appreciate the relationship between "N & W" and "C & W."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 Apr 09 - 03:57 PM

There is a little to add to my preceding post, about Gov. MacCorkle and the N & W.

The N & W came into existence in 1881, when the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio was renamed by new owners. Thus, it is evident that Gov. MacCorkle thought that John Henry/Hardy worked on the N & W well after the boring of Big Bend Tunnel in 1869-72.

The first extension of the N & W, to Bluefield, WV, was completed in 1883. The next, the Clinch Valley Extension, was built 1887-1890, as noted earlier.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Mark Clark
Date: 17 Jun 09 - 08:12 PM

John,

Joy Ward and I stopped by Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI, late last month on our way to Owen Sound, ON. One of Joy's purchases at Elderly was Volume 11, Number 10 (April - May 2009) of The Old-Time Herald. Imagine our delight to find your published article “John Henry In Alabama,” a revised version of your lecture at the John Henry Day Celebration in Leeds, Alabama, September 15, 2007.

I've followed your enthusiastic investigation since you began posting here in 2001 and have enjoyed every bit of it. Thank you so much for all your effort and your willingness to share it here.

You, sir, are a treasure.

      - Mark


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jun 09 - 03:12 PM

Thank you, Mark.

I'm plugging away on my book, but it is slow going for me. I guess old age has slowed me down.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 23 Jun 09 - 05:42 PM

John,

Just you switch over to New Age, and the book will go better... ;-)

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jul 09 - 02:26 PM

Thanks for the tip, Art.

Is it time to start a new thread, Part THREE?

This one has gotten pretty long.

John
    No real need for a new thread, John. When there's too many threads on a subject, information gets split up too much. You can view long threads in pieces (click) by clicking on the number of messages or on the little "d" link on the line for the thread on the forum menu.
    John, if you'd like to manage a moderated PermaThread on the subject of John Henry, just let me know and I'll help you set it up. We have so much information here, that it would be good to have one thread that consolidates the best of it into readable form.
    Be sure to looke at these two pages:
    -Joe Offer-
    joe@mudcat.org


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: mayomick
Date: 22 Jul 09 - 04:29 PM

Could anyone explain the mechanics involved ? How much faster could a steam drill hew rock compared to a man with a nine pound hammer?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 25 Jul 09 - 12:32 PM

Hi,

They drove holes in the rock to place dynamite charges. The steam drill in 1887 that raced John Henry was probably an Ingersoll model on a tripod which stood about as tall as a man. Weights weere added to the legs and sometimes the operator stood on the legs.

The Ingersoll model first used steam and then an air compressor model. The drill could make about 400 strikes per minute.

John Henry was a steel driver, part of a three man team with a loader (changed the steel drill rods) and a shaker (turned the steel drills). The average number of strike with a sledge hammer is 80 per minute.

The steam drill could go 5 times faster.

The reason John Henry won was probably due to technical problems with the drill and an inexperienced operator.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM

I agree almost entirely with Richie. The part that seems somewhat questionable is the speed of the steam drill.

Claims and reports on that vary a great deal.

However, several sources that ought to have been well informed put the practical rate in the hardest rock at about 1 in/min.

Also in the hardest rock, good steel drivers on double-jack teams could do about 0.5 in/min.

If John Henry were an exceptional steel driver, which is what is said in ballad, legend, and testimony, perhaps he could have approached 1 in/min.

We don't know exactly how long the contest was, but it seems (from testimony and ballad) that it was an "all-day" contest under the usual working conditions. That immediately distinguishes it from the very popular Western rock-drilling competitions, in which each double-jack team drilled for a specified time, usually fifteen minutes and rarely, if ever, longer. In the Western contests, both members of a team were expert drivers and shakers, and they swapped roles every minute or less.

As late as 1901 there was double-jack team that was confident that it could beat any steam drill in a fifteen-minute contest. These contests used granite, usually from a quarry in Gunnison, CO, which was chosen because it was believed to be both very uniform and very hard. At one time around 1900, the record for a double-jack team was 55 in (in 15 min). That is nearly 4 in/min! I believe that they were right. This champion team *could* have beaten any steam drill in a 15-min contest using Gunnison granite.

How do we translate this to an 8-hour shift of a single steel driver with his shaker? I wish I knew. Should a single steel driver be able to do 50%, 25%, or 10% of what a top Western double-jack team could do in 15 min? I don't have any real idea.

What I do know is that there were exceptional individuals who did amazing things. There is a record of a single-jacker drilling 31 ft in very hard rock in an 8-hour shift. This rate is 68% of that of the world champion single-jacker, drilling for just 15 min.

If John Henry could have driven at 68% of the rate of the world champion double-jackers in Western contests, he would have drilled 147 ft in 8 hr! What he actually did, according to C. C. Spencer, was 27.5 ft, 0.69 in/min, about 19% of the rate of the world champion Western double-jack team. To me, this seems quite realistic.

Spencer says that the steam drill made only 21 ft. For 8 hr of drilling, this is only 0.525 in/min, only slightly better than the reported average for a double-jacking steel driver under ordinary working conditions in hard rock. If the drill were actually working for half of the 8-hr period, this would be reasonable. If it had been working full time, it probably would have made about 40 ft in 8 hr (1 in/min).

Thus, the steam drill would probably have won if there had been no mechanical problems. With significant mechanical problems, John Henry could have won.

It is sometimes argued that John Henry's contest could not have occurred as late as 1887-88 (when the RR in Alabama was under construction) because by then steam drills, which were tested extensively just after the Civil War at Hoosac Tunnel (MA), would have been perfected to the extent that no human steel driver could win a contest.

This argument is nonsense. It overlooks the fact that there was no improvement in speed between 1870 and 1887 - the improvements were in reliability. It also overlooks the fact that even in 1887 no steam drill was perfectly reliable. It was not uncommon for the drill steel to break or for fitchering (stuck steel due to an angled hole) to occur.

There is a contemporary record (21st or late 20th century) of an operator of a power drill being killed by being impaled by a ricocheting broken-off steel.

Fitchering was certainly still a problem in the late 1880s. The recommended procedure for releasing a stuck steel was to hammer on it sideways. If it came unstuck, then the operator had to try to redrill the hole to straighten it out. When this didn't work, the hole had to be abandoned.

John Henry's opponent had to deal with all of these potential problems, broken steels, nonlinear holes, and stuck steels.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,TJ in San Diego
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 04:41 PM

John Henry, to me, clearly shows the bifurcated, but sometimes interconnected, way in which people approach folk song and story. One one level, John Henry is a parable, as alluded to above, showcasing the classic clashes of man vs. machine, muscle vs. intellect, courage vs. cowardice, subject vs. master, etc., ad infinitum. He represents the possibilities in human integrity and spirit.

On another level, there is the scholarly group that seeks the ultimate truth, so far as it may be revealed, about such subjects as John Henry, myth vs. reality, origins, locations, birthplaces, etc., etc. From that perspective, in a way, it is not unlike method acting. The more you know of and get into your subject; getting into the skin of another, so to speak, the more truthful and compelling the performance.

I'm interested in the latter as an intellectual exercise, but lean toward the former in terms of what this song can teach. Then, again, there's the part of me that just enjoys the music; the power and energy built into the song itself.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 05:55 PM

John writes: "It is sometimes argued that John Henry's contest could not have occurred as late as 1887-88 (when the RR in Alabama was under construction) because by then steam drills, which were tested extensively just after the Civil War at Hoosac Tunnel (MA), would have been perfected to the extent that no human steel driver could win a contest."

An excellent point. Another is that a contest of the JH sort would hardly depend on any "novelty" in the steam drill. As long as the drill's capability was not self-evidently superhuman, such a contest in earnest or as merely as a challenge would always be possible.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 07:52 PM

PS to my post of 12 Aug 09 - 04:17 PM:

One of my favorite rare stanzas is relevant here:

John Henry said to his Captain,
"Captain, can't you see,
Your hole is choked and your steel is broke
And your hammer can't go down with me?"

These are indeed the main problems faced by steam drills (really compressed-air drills with compressors powered by steam engines).

I have argued, and I maintain, that rare stanzas/couplets/phrases are likely to reflect early versions and therefore actual history. This stanza occurs only once in the books by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell. I have not found it independently anywhere else.

The reason that something rare is likely to be early is that tradition tends to preserve the things people like to sing and to eliminate the rest. If people liked to sing the stanza above, it wouldn't be rare. It is not something that someone would have been likely to have made up out of whole cloth. Therefore it is probably a leftover from an early version, one that luckily didn't get eliminated entirely.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 08:39 PM

John, a variant was sung by John Lomax, Jr., on his Folkways "American Folksongs" (1956).

John Henry said to the white man,
"Looky yonder what I see,
Oh, your drill's done broke and your hole's done choke,
And you can't drive steel like me, O Lordy!
Can't drive steel like me!"

Lomax calls his text a composite, but he also says he assisted his father when he was collecting inside the Arkansas prison-farm system in 1934.

Lead Belly was their chauffeur. So there's no telling whether this variant is derivative or independent.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 09:17 PM

Thanks, Jon.

Here's the way it appears in the Lomaxes' *American Ballads and Folk Songs* (1934):

John Henry tol' his captain,
"Looka yonder what I see -
Yo' drill's done broke an' yo' hole's done choke,
An' you cain' drive steel like me,
Lawd, Lawd, an' you cain' drive steel like me."

This looks intermediate between what Johnson prints in 1929 and what you give from the much later recording.

This suggests some editing somewhere.

It is sad that Lomax material must be considered to be unreliable.

I suppose that somewhere in Lomax papers there may be something that could let this be sorted out.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 12 Aug 09 - 09:26 PM

John, Jr., may have changed "Captain" to "white man" for the sake of underscoring the situation for listeners in 1956 who'd never heard of John Henry.

Otherwise I'd say the changes were likely unconscious - whatever the ultimate source of the stanza.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 11:41 AM

Jon wrote:

"John, Jr., may have changed "Captain" to "white man" for the sake of underscoring the situation for listeners in 1956 who'd never heard of John Henry."

Indeed, "Captain" doesn't make sense, since the Captain was on John Henry's side: the Captain had bet on John Henry.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Stringsinger
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 12:53 PM

A myth by any other name is still a myth.

NPR said he was a convict who was buried in the sand by the white house of a prison farm.

Fakelore is an honorable tradition in the folk field.

Norm Cohen's got it right. Who knows why "Jimmy cracked corn?"

The myth is like a song, it gets changed, added to, embellished and has many variants.

It's like asking which Neanderthal man employed the first mouthbow to make music.

My friend Adam Miller says something to the effect that knowing the real facts are not as important as the myth. I can see this point-of-view.

More important to me is what does the song tell us? Man against the machine?
Sexual prowess? Polly Ann drove steel like a man? All these things are significant.

The real John Henry might be a disappointment.

Frank Hamilton


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 03:17 PM

Frank,

For people expecting the romantic aspects of the legend to be true, the real John Henry *is* a disappointment, I'm sure.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 16 Aug 09 - 04:47 PM

The 'real John Henry" a composite?


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 20 Aug 09 - 03:25 PM

John Henry gave his all and his life in an effort to show that a manual rock driller could beat a powered drilling machine. This is the part of the legend that is almost universally agreed. (Around Big Bend Tunnel, many dispute that John Henry died after the contest, or even that there was a contest).

Romance takes over: John Henry was trying to defend the jobs of his co-workers by showing that manual labor was better than machine labor.

I agree with David Mamet. John Henry couldn't have been *that* stupid:
"I thought it hypocritical to celebrate John Henry's victory, for, surely, the next man couldn't beat the steam drill-John Henry himself couldn't beat it over a protracted period, and no one would be able to vanquish the next generation of the machine-and, so, our celebration of him was disingenuous." (From *Jafsie and John Henry*)

The mundane facts, as related by self-proclaimed eyewitness C. C. Spencer and others: John Henry was the champion steel driver of the Birmingham area (perhaps of the world). A salesman offered his boss, Captain Dabney, a bet: If John Henry could beat his steam drill, he would win it for the Captain. (I assume that the other side of the bet was that if John Henry lost, the Captain would buy the steam drill.) The Captain offered inducements to John Henry, $50 or $100 and a new suit of clothes if he won.

Thus, it seems that John Henry's motives in undertaking the challenge were to defend his pride, to win the prizes offered by the Captain, and to win a steam drill for the Captain.

He surely wasn't trying to show that men were better at rock drilling than machines.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Sep 09 - 04:01 PM

I have recently realized that in Scott Nelson's work on John Henry (JH), he presents no specific evidence that his candidate, John William Henry (JWH), was ever *at* Lewis Tunnel, where Nelson supposes that he died.

Nelson cites documentation to the effect that JWH was leased to work for the C & O and taken from the VA penitentiary for that purpose on December 1, 1868. JWH could have been taken to any site along the route of the C & O under construction in VA. Eventually, Nelson seems to believe, all the C & O laborers wound up at Lewis Tunnel, where a big push was mounted in 1870. Well, maybe not *all* of them - there *were* those who escaped (a big problem, according to Nelson), died (not rare), or were returned to the VA pen on account of illness (many). Nelson assumes that JWH was not one of the escapees, dead, or sick.

Nelson assumes further that JWH died at Lewis Tunnel. The only evidence for this is that he disappeared from prison records after 1873 except for a pencilled notation, "Transferred."

Nelson assumes further that JWH's corpse was sent back to the VA pen for burial. The evidence for this is an interpretation of the lease contract that is, at best, ambiguous on this point. It seems to me that it would have been pretty expensive to ship dead bodies from Lewis Tunnel to the VA pen (time, fuel, casket, ice, etc.) - I think it highly improbable.

Nelson assumes further that JWH was a steel driver. For this, he presents no evidence at all.

Nelson assumes further that JWH was involved with some kind of contest with a steam drill (or with steam drills). For this, he presents no evidence at all.

Nelson also supposes that Cal Evans witnessed John Henry's work and death at Lewis Tunnel, that he brought stories of John Henry from Lewis to Big Bend Tunnel, and that the ballad was made at Big Bend (making it the scene of the action). However, Evans was never *at* Lewis Tunnel (according to the accounts of him given by Johnson and Chappell). Further, Evans himself denied knowing anything about John Henry except what he had heard from others (Johnson, Chappell).

Overall, Nelson's reasoning seems to go something like this:

(1) JH died on the C & O because part of tradition says so.
(2) JH died at a tunnel bored with steam drills because otherwise there could not have been a contest.
(3) Lewis Tunnel was the only C & O tunnel bored with steam drills, as far as we know.
(4) Therefore JH died at Lewis Tunnel.

(5) JWH was leased to work on the C & O.
(6) JWH died on the C & O because his name disappeared from records.
(7) JWH's corpse was taken back to the VA pen because a provision of the lease contract required it.
(8) Therefore JWH was JH because his name is right; the ballad sometimes says that JH was buried in sand at a white house near a RR; and a mass grave with sand put into it, a white house, and a RR were at the VA pen.

Please chew on this, logicians. I know what I think of it, but I could always use a little help.

Note, in connection with item (2), that there is testimony that a steam drill was brought to Big Bend Tunnel for a trial. This allowed Johnson and Chappell to support Big Bend as the John Henry site.

Thanks,

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 07:47 PM

A news article in the Middlesboro (KY) Daily News, June 1, 1934, by Elbert McDonald, states that John Henry died in a contest with a steam drill held at Ewing, Virginia. John Henry was from Alabama and is buried somewhere near Birmingham. The railroad was the L & N.

McDonald states that it is a well-known legend in the Cumberland Valley that John Henry died at the "Seven Sisters," near Varilla, KY, "a short distance from Pineville while working on the construction of the railroad from Pineville to Harlan." The railroad reached Harlan in 1911. Later in the article he writes that John Henry's death is "mistakenly attributed to the 'Seven Sisters,'" and that it really happened at the "next construction job," at Ewing, Virginia.

McDonald's RR history seems to be a bit screwed up, since the L & N already went through Ewing in 1895 but didn't reach Harlan until 1911.

Anyhow, McDonald's John Henry was from Alabama and was buried there.

This kind of mutation in tradition is to be expected if John Henry was actually at Dunnavant, Alabama, 15 miles east of Birmingham.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Art Thieme
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 08:12 PM

I'm with Frank Hamilton on this! His last post (Stringsinger) is right on. It is all grist for the mill; ---the mill called the folk process.

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 16 Nov 09 - 11:47 PM

Hi John,

You as well as anyone know who tricky research can be. I'm doing a series of articles for the Old-time Herald.

What's amusing to me is that the interviews with the actual people that lived the events are incorrect.

For example Clayton McMichen said in one interview with Norm Cohen he was 11 years old when he learned the play the fiddle. In fact he was only 5 or 6- this info and who he first learned to play the fiddle from is only available though a family article which interviews his sisters and other family members.

Later in that same family article there is more misinformation because she cites an unreliable source, another relative.

Hop to get the painting done by the end of the year. I've been bogged down playing and performing constantly.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 17 Nov 09 - 10:22 AM

Indeed, I remind myself continually that no single piece of information about John Henry, regardless of its source, can be assumed to be reliable. That said, there *is* an island of coherence in the sea of incoherence. I think that the Alabama claim is now very well supported. In my view, it is "beyond reasonable doubt."

I have come to regard the evidence gathered by Johnson and Chappell as sufficient to establish the Alabama claim, even though they failed to recognize that. All the other stuff I've found is just "icing on the cake."


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 30 Dec 09 - 03:34 PM

Ronald D. Cohen
*Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States*
Carquinez Press
2010

This book has a good bit about "John Henry," but does not address origins at all, even though it mentions Johnson's, Chappell's, and Nelson's books. I am disappointed that it does not mention my work, but since origins are not addressed I suppose that it is a natural omission. Cohen is a historian, it says on the back cover, who "is the author of numerous books on folk music."

I am gratified to find that he reaches the same conclusion that I have about the importance of John Henry to the labor movement, namely, that John Henry did not become a labor icon before the 1960s, when "John Henry" appeared in Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, *Songs of Work and Freedom*, and in Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, *Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America*. "... 'John Henry' did not appear in the numerous songbooks connected with the Communist or Socialist parties in the 1930s, or even in *Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People*, compiled by Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie as the depression waned but not published until 1967" (pp 42-43).

This is contrary to Nelson's view. He interprets all muscular laborers and superheroes as John Henrys, even when there is no evidence of any such link.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 12 Mar 10 - 02:33 PM

Louis Watson Chappell was a major figure in John Henry scholarship, producing as he did a seminal book on the subject in 1933, fours years after his rival Guy Benton Johnson had published his own book. Chappell's work is marked by an intensity and thoroughness that outdoes Johnson, who admitted in a 1975 (?) interview with Kip Lornell that Chappell's book is in "some ways very good."

Chappell's book is marred, in the view of many, by the carping attacks on John Harrington Cox and Johnson with which the Introduction, 20 pages, is chiefly concerned. If we had no other information about Chappell, we might conclude that he was an angry and bitter man.

Perhaps he was, but available online is a personal account of Chappell by Kenneth Walter Cameron, who knew him very well from 1929 to about the time of Chappell's retirement in 1952. This account presents Chappell in a much kinder light than Chappell's own works. It is available online, as PDF files, in two installments.

www.libraries.wvu.edu/wvcollection/newsletter/1985-1994/v4n2.pdf

www.libraries.wvu.edu/wvcollection/newsletter/1985-1994/v4n3.pdf


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Richie
Date: 13 Mar 10 - 01:13 PM

Nice articles John,

The links don't work as they are but can be copied and pasted on your browser.

Love to see Chappell's collection,

Richie


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,dutch
Date: 01 Apr 10 - 02:38 PM

Very interesting read, but I think you are all over looking something.

Henry might very well have been his first name not his last, and he actually was a john named Henry. Furthermore as a former slave, he may very well have taken the surname of his former owners at emancipation, and not all of them initially took any at all; so he might very well have been a john named Henry from the Dabney's and have continued to be a laborer connected with their enterprises. One could then rephrase that to "one of Dabney's johns named Henry", but that is clumsy in short lined poetry, although very likely might have been used in conversation. So it became simply john Henry. That would certainly be a lot more palatable for general publication and for black mythic maintenance than calling him Dabney's boy Henry, although on the same order from current standpoints which didn't apply in the same way when this legend got started.

BTW Henry is a traditional name in my Dutch background but is usually shortened to Hank, moving from the French Henri to the Germanic Hendrick to the familiar Henk to the Americanized Hank. The original Dutch Hendrick has been Americanized to the English Henry, but the Hank familiar remains. It is my impression that Reconstruction Southern "Henry" did not familiarize that way, that "Henry" stood by itself, and that Southern blacks actually frowned on general familiarization of their actual names; so Henry stands someplace in this almost certainly.   

Not all steps between familiar and formal names move in straight lines. The Dutch Piet has become the English Peter and then reverted to the familiar Pete; so sometime it even moves backward. The former Dutch Claus has become the familiar American Nick by moving through the Anglicized Nicholas. I can trace all of those in my own family history.

IOW it is quite possible the his first name wasn't John at all, but his status was a working john. The idea of first name with little or no surname for former black slaves actually comes from my house abstract here in Minneapolis, where the initial owner of the property is officially listed as Sweet William. Although I don't know for sure, that doesn't sound very white and the time period is very similar to that of the John Henry folk song.

Whatever the actual case there is almost certainly a big, black man with an almost unbelievable appetite for physical labor behind the legend. I think that overlooking the wife does a disservice to the women who often filled in for sick or resting husbands to keep a claim on their jobs. That she could drive steel like a man points to quite a bit different type of labor organization than we have now, and very strongly suggests that some work forces were not as strictly segregated by sex as they became later. That her last words to him were that she had been true to him, also indicates that she hadn't been one of the camp town ladies either, but a legitimate wife, although perhaps common law, which was quite acceptable at that social status in that time. So John Henry became a legitimate man even with a formal family. Whatever her name such a legendary figure would have to have a more or less legendary wife. Her name is far less important than that she existed, although I personally prefer MaggieD, on racially based usage of the time. Were she as well known in camp as it appears, less formality would have been likely than with her husband's name, although significant effort is made into making her legitimate to add to her husband's credentials, and she is a secondary character anyway.

IMO as only a peripheral outsider to this debate, that points to Henry Dabney, former slave boy named just Henry on the Dabney plantation, as the person behind the legend, provided there was a historical basis pretty accurately portrayed by the folk song, which seems like it will remain an open question. But all the elements for myth are certainly there, whether there was an actual person behind them or not. John Henry actually emerges as one of the cleaner cut of American commoner folk heroes.

I expect that there was some sort of comparison trial between former hand labor and the introduction of increased mechanization. Some sort of test, one against the other, or the company would not have even considered expending the capital for the newer, and unproven equipment.

It would make general sense that if any part of the work crew were historically connected to any of the overseers, which was quite common for the newly emancipated former slaves, then one would put one's best against the machine in such trials if only out of some sort of antebellum pride. The folk songs say that the "captain" boasted that his john named Henry could outwork any machine, if you just change the capital of one letter in one word. That might very easily have simply been "cleaned up" for publication. That would not have been noticeable in any sung version, until well after it had been formalized in print. Almost certainly the John Henry myth was a Southern black railroad work crew legend first, probably long before any of it got written down. Editors do that sort of polishing all the time to broaden a publication's appeal. No black minstrel of the time had the cache to challenge any such publication detail any way and many of them never learned to read in the first place to even know about it, at least not in time. That would have been for the benefit of any potential white audience sensibilities.

There were such trials all over as physical labor became more and more mechanized in the late 19th Century, most of which were not considered significant enough by themselves to get publicly recorded or documented; this one is legendary and likely only so because of the race issues involved and how that was organized at the time, as well as the fact that black minstrels were far more common and folksy than their white counterparts, and have always entertained some degree of white audiences.


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 27 Apr 10 - 04:19 PM

Thank you, Guest "dutch", for your thoughtful remarks.

I had not considered the possibility that "john" could have been simply a man-designator. I am more familiar with "jack" being used in this way. In steel driving, there are "single-jacking" and "double-jacking," referring to the number of men it takes to do the job. Of course, "Jack" is a nickname for "John."

The testimony of C. C. Spencer, who claimed to have been an eye-witness to John Henry's contest and death, is as follows (February 24, 1927): "John Henry, whose real name was John H. Dabner." Thus, Spencer, who seems to have known John Henry pretty well (giving not only his name but also where he was from), thought that "John" was part of his "real name."

"Henry" was a slave to Gus Dabney, "Henry Dabney" appears in the 1870 census, and "Henry Dabner" (same vital information) appears in the 1880 census. In 1870 and 1880 Henry Dabney lived in Copiah County, Mississippi, not far from Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Gus' son, who would (as Chief Engineer) build the extension of the Columbus & Western Railway from Goodwater, Alabama, to Birmingham, the job on which Spencer's and others' testimonies place John Henry, in 1886-88.

I have no documentation that the slave "Henry" was the census "Henry" or the steel-driving "John Henry", but things seem to be sufficiently consistent to make that a likely possibility. The most out-of-whack part is that two records (1860 Slave Schedule and Letitia Dabney's memoir) have the slave "Henry" born about 1844, while two records (1870 and 1880) have the census "Henry Dabney/Dabner" born about 1850. I am inclined to believe that this discrepancy is within the likely "experimental error". Census takers simply wrote down what they were told, and people were often casual about their ages.

Steel drivers, even champions, were usually not all that big. Technique and endurance were most important. John Henry Dabney was probably about 5' 7-10" and weighed perhaps 160 lb., as best we can gather from a couple of people who claim to have known him personally.

Henry Dabney/Dabner (census) married Margaret Boston in December, 1869. Spencer tells us that John Henry "Dabner"'s wife "cooked for the men." "Margaret Dabney," of course, could give rise to "Maggie D."

I think it hyperbole that she "drove steel like a man." For someone, male or female, doing domestic work on a daily basis to pick up a hammer suddenly and start driving steel is beyond belief, IMHO. The real information in that stanza, I think, is that John Henry had been sick. If this were an undiagnosed mild heart attack that he treated with rest, that would set the stage for his death from ventricular rupture at the contest by leaving a weakened ventricular wall. His dying symptoms suggests death by bleeding from a ruptured organ, and the heart is most likely, ventricular rupture being not rare.

There are quite a few rare elements of versions of "John Henry" that are clearly consistent with the Alabama claims and that are not clearly consistent with other scenarios.

Yes, the slave "Henry" would have been well known to Captain Dabney. Consistent with this, there are both ballad lines and legends to the effect that "the Captain" was very fond of John Henry. If John Henry had grown up as part of Captain Dabney's family (in a sense), there might have been an unusual ease of conversation between them. In the ballad, John Henry pretty well speaks his mind. I'm not sure how common that would have been for black railroad construction workers in the late 1880s in Alabama, but I think that both whites and blacks would have allowed it if they had known there was a fond personal relationship between John Henry and the Captain. This may have been what allowed late 19th- and early 20th-century blacks and whites to sing the ballad.

In the earliest known text, his name was "Johnie Henry." I don't think that this affects your argument that "john" could be a man-designator; "johnny" works the same way.

There is a considerable opinion on the side of "John Henry" having been written and adapted to a tune by whites, then taken up by blacks and continued by whites. I have not made up my mind about this, and I suspect that making a compelling distinction between authors, by race, may not be possible.

There is an interesting comparison between "John Henry" and "John Hardy," a subject of early confusion. Except for Leadbelly, who probably learned it from his white friends, "John Hardy" is not found in the comprehensive book, *Blues and Gospel Records 1890-1943* (Dixon, Godrich, Rye), and, as far as I know, it did not appear in any of the famous collections of black folk songs. Regardless of who wrote it, "John Hardy" has been the exclusive property of whites. "John Henry," on the other hand, has belonged to all Americans.

I value your comments. In some way or another, they will be noted in my book.

John


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Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 May 10 - 02:00 PM

I have just learned of the death on May 10, 2010, of Susan Marye Dabney Rawls, of Crystal Springs, MS. Susan was a granddaughter of Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, John Henry's boss at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887. She was born October 13, 1920.

This remarkable woman was an aerial gunnery instructor during WWII!

I interviewed her several years ago. She knew nothing of her ancestor's connection with John Henry.


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