mudcat.org: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafeawe

Post to this Thread - Printer Friendly - Home
Page: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]


Origin Of John Henry--part TWO

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


Related threads:
John Henry: A Folklore Study- Chappell (18)
Why did John Henry hammer till he died? (60)
rebellion and protest in John Henry (42)
Lyr Req: John Henry (from Dave Van Ronk) (8)
Lyr Req: John Henry Jr (Merle Travis) (16)
(origins) JOHN HENRY solved???? (38)
Lyr/Chords Req: John Henry - Sheet Music Anyone? (5)
Lyr Add: John Henry (14)
John Henry's Wife (7)
Lyr Req: Little John Henry (from Lomax, McCurdy) (7)
John Henry Painting (5)
Lyr Req: John Henry Blues (Two Poor Boys) (6)
Lyr Req: John Henry (from Williamson Brothers) (16)
Chord Req: John Henry (from Hoyt Axton) (2)
(origins) Origins: John Henry (124)
Modern Day John Henry (14)
(origins) What did John Henry mean? (27)
Lyr Add: Death of John Henry (8)


GUEST,John Garst 23 Sep 10 - 07:29 PM
GUEST,John Garst 01 Oct 10 - 10:52 AM
GUEST,John Garst 19 Oct 10 - 06:47 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 Dec 10 - 02:59 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 04:35 PM
BanjoRay 22 Jan 11 - 06:00 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 22 Jan 11 - 06:20 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 07:03 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Jan 11 - 07:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 11 - 10:19 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 23 Jan 11 - 05:11 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 11 - 10:02 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 23 Jan 11 - 10:08 PM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 11 - 09:59 AM
GUEST,John Garst 24 Jan 11 - 08:49 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jan 11 - 03:36 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Mar 11 - 04:58 PM
GUEST,John Garst 04 May 11 - 05:19 PM
GUEST,John Garst 08 May 11 - 06:28 PM
GUEST,John Garst 19 May 11 - 07:27 PM
GUEST,John Garst 30 Jun 11 - 05:02 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Oct 11 - 07:30 PM
Lighter 13 Oct 11 - 08:00 PM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Oct 11 - 10:41 AM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Nov 11 - 03:02 PM
GUEST,John Garst 22 Dec 11 - 03:31 PM
GUEST,John Garst 02 Jan 12 - 06:52 PM
GUEST,John Garst 25 Jun 12 - 03:39 PM
GUEST 30 Oct 12 - 05:18 PM
GUEST,John Garst 07 Dec 12 - 05:21 PM
GUEST,John Garst 11 Jan 13 - 04:52 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Jan 13 - 01:39 PM
GUEST,John Garst 13 Jan 13 - 04:13 PM
GUEST,Carl Ellis 14 Jan 13 - 03:35 AM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Jan 13 - 01:57 PM
GUEST,John Garst 15 Jan 13 - 04:07 PM
GUEST,John Garst 23 Jan 13 - 05:13 PM
GUEST,John Garst 05 Apr 14 - 02:31 PM
GUEST 11 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM
GUEST,John Garst 14 Dec 14 - 03:24 PM
Share Thread
more
Lyrics & Knowledge Search [Advanced]
DT  Forum
Sort (Forum) by:relevance date
DT Lyrics:








Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Sep 10 - 07:29 PM

William Turner Blankenship was born in 1876, perhaps in Marshall County, TN, where he lived in 1880.

He was married by 1900, possibly to an Attkisson, and he was blinded in an explosion, also by 1900. Further, by that date either he was divorced or his wife had died. In 1900 he lived with his parents, Theodore Blankenship and Delilah Cape Blankenship, in Weakley County, TN.

He married for the second time in 1914, in Huntsville, AL, to Mrs. T. M. Morring, who was first married to George Morring. Her maiden name is probably Tennie Maten. Tennie M. "Blankingship" died in February, 1923, in Madison County, AL.

In 1924 WTB married Josephine Green. They settled in Athens, AL. He died March 16, 1960, and is buried in Gatlin Cemetery, Limestone Co AL (Ardmore).

His nephew Rollie recalls his playing the banjo, jew's harp, and potato (ocarina, I assume). Some distant relatives think he also played fiddle, but Rollie doesn't recall this.

I've heard a number of colorful stories about the Blankenships ("they were all fiddlers") and Attkissons in the vicinity of Pulaski, TN, and Athens, AL, in what seem to have been the wild and wooly days of moonshining ("everybody made whiskey"), killing revenuers, and changing names after committing a crime. There is a hint that WTB may have been in the KKK.

Anyhow, he published broadside ballads, including "John Henry, the Steel Driving Man," which I date to ca 1910.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 01 Oct 10 - 10:52 AM

Correction:

About William Turner Blankenship -

"He was married by 1900, possibly to an Attkisson, and he was blinded in an explosion, also by 1900. Further, by that date either he was divorced or his wife had died. In 1900 he lived with his parents, Theodore Blankenship and Delilah Cape Blankenship, in Weakley County, TN."

In the 1900 census, Willie is blind, single, and lives with his parents,

BUT

in the 1910 census he is married, has been for 14 years. His son, Clarence, age 13, lives in the household with Willie and his parents.

No wife lives in the household with Willie in either 1900 or 1910.

If the 1910 census is to be believed, Willie's wife was somewhere at that time.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 Oct 10 - 06:47 PM

William Turner Blankenship married, wife unknown, ca 1896; had a son, Clarence, ca 1897; and was blinded in an accidental dynamite explosion (dynamiting a tree stump) in 1897-98, when he was 21. The accident cost him his eyesight and his wife, according to recently obtained Blankenship family lore.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 Dec 10 - 02:59 PM

A 91-year-old niece of William T. Blankenship, the broadside man, told me recently that "Uncle Willie," called "Blind Willie Blankenship by others, had a black musician friend from Mississippi, according to a family story. Willie was white and lived for most of his adult life in Athens or Huntsville, Alabama. He and his black friend would play together, and Willie is said to have learned "John Henry" and other songs from the black Mississippian.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 04:35 PM

In 1925 Louis Chappell interviewed C. S. "Neal" Miller, of Talcott, WV. In 1927 Guy Johnson also interviewed Miller. In the same year, Johnson corresponded with C. C. Spencer (Salt Lake City).

These two men, Miller and Spencer, are the only self-proclaimed eyewitnesses to John Henry's contest with the steam drill that Chappell and Johnson turned up. For Chappell, Miller did not make this claim, only for Johnson.

Miller placed John Henry's contest at Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, in about 1870. The tunnel was bored 1869-72.

Spencer placed John Henry at Cruzee Mountain, Alabama, in 1882. (It had to have been 1886-88, when the C & W RR was under construction.)

Johnson spurned Spencer's testimony and placed great faith in Miller's:

"At last I had found a man who not only saw John Henry but also saw the contest. Mr. Miller told me all this in a quiet and casual way as we sat on his porch at dusk. He seemed to see John Henry and the steam drill as clearly as if it were only a few years since he had seen them."

"One man against the mountain of negative evidence! Were it not for that one man the question might not be so teasing ... He had apparently had first-hand knowledge of a steam drill; yet I could not bring out by questions any evidence that he had ever had an opportunity to observe one unless it were at Big Bend Tunnel." (I note that Miller was educated, that popular periodicals of his day carried illustrations of steam drills, and that he might have seen a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel at some time after it was bored, since work of various sorts continued for years.)

Chappell grouped Miller with the Hedrick brothers, neither of whom had seen the contest. Their rather disparate testimonies were congruent enough for Chappell, who came down solidly for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.

Miller is a poor witness. He gives few details and changes elements of his story (e.g., for Chappell, Phil Henderson was the shaker; for Johnson, Jeff Davis;; for Chappell, John Henry "was later killed in the tunnel"; for Johnson, "he took sick and died from fever soon after that"). Further, he says that he didn't see much of the contest - "It was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill. There wasn't any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting on from time to time, but I didn't get excited over it especially." This is an unlikely inspiration for a legend.

Spencer is an excellent witness, giving myriads of details. Preparations for the contest lasted about three weeks - "there were about three or four hundred people present." On beating the steam drill, John Henry collapsed, was revived, and died with his head cradled in his wife's lap. This is just the kind of event that could inspired a legend.

Many of Spencer's details are confirmed in documentation (none, however, that point specifically to John Henry).

Because Miller seemed to be such a poor witness, and Spencer such as good one, I have not been especially perturbed by their conflicting testimonies. I trust Spencer a lot more than Miller.

Not so Chappell and Johnson, who made Miller's testimony a lynchpin of the case for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.

Here, now, is something that astonishes me:

Looking on the WWW into genealogy, I find that Cornelius S. Miller was born on June 25, 1861. His age in the 1880 census is 18 (really 19 - he had had a birthday three days before the enumeration). His age in the 1910 census is 56 (really 48), and in 1920 he is 66 (really 58). He told Johnson in 1927 that he was 74 - he was really 66!

Miller turned 8 in 1869, the year he told Johnson he was 17 and started working at Big Bend Tunnel. If he *did* start working there at age 17, then the year was 1878-79!

Miller was too young to have worked at Big Bend Tunnel while it was bored.

His testimony is fantasy.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: BanjoRay
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 06:00 PM

Good stuff, John - keep it up!
Ray


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 06:20 PM

A Cornelius S. Miller born abt. 1854, lived in Summers, West Virginia in 1920. 1920 Census. Spouse Cora (Census) or Anna Ramsey (LDS). LDS record give 1861 as birthdate.

A Cornelius Miller, born abt. 1855, lived in Roane, West Virginia in 1870. 1870 Census. M. Frances Hardman (LDS).

U. S. Census records. Both would have been teenagers at the time (1869-1870)

ancestry.com, family search.org.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 07:03 PM

Hi, Q.

There have been lots of men named Cornelius Miller.

Your first one is the one interviewed by Chappell and Johnson. His wife was the former Cora L. Wiseman of Ohio, b ca 1868. They married in 1888. In the 1920 census he exaggerated his age, and he did also in 1920 (census) and 1927 (to Johnson). He seems to have died between 1927 and 1930, when Cora is reported in the census as a widow. You note that an LDS record gives his birthdate as 1861. That is correct. The census records for 1910 and 1920, and his self-reported age in 1927, are not correct.

Your second Cornelius Miller is not a son of Andrew Jackson Miller, as is your first one. Chappell reports that his Cornelius Miller is a son of Andrew Jackson Miller.

For some of the details, see

http://www.fridley.net/alderson/i0003471.htm


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Jan 11 - 07:07 PM

P.S. on Cornelius Miller.

In the 1880 census, his age is given nearly correctly. It is 18 there. Actually, he had turned 19 three days before enumeration.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:19 AM

On Cornelius Miller's birth date:

I realize that I must be careful here. We have three records, so far, indicating that he was born ca 1853. These are from 1910 (census), 1920 (census), and 1927 (statement to Guy Johnson). Against these we have the 1880 census, age listed as 18, and a birthdate, June 25, 1861, from a source cited as "Greenbrier Births, Bk1A, p62, L200." I have not seen this last source.

It appears, however, consistent with the 1880 census (almost), so the best interpretation seems to me to be that Miller systematically added about 8 years to his age beginning at some time before 1910.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 05:11 PM

One more name for John Henry's wife or woman-

Lizzie Ann; Odum and Johnson, Negro Workaday Songs, 1926, version K.
Odum and Johnson, in listing the names, add "....or whatever other Ann may be thought of as representing an attractive person."
They might have added "or whatever name that rhymes....."

There also is the "girl John Henry loved,....."

Many versions of the song are mentioned or partially quoted in this thread; here is 'version K' with Lizzie Ann. Not much new, but worth posting.

John Henry
Odum and Johnson, version K, 1926

John Henry was a little boy,
Was settin' 'roun' playin' in the san',
Two young ladies come a-ridin' by,
Say, "I want you to be my man."

John Henry was a little boy,
Settin' on his mammy's knee,
Say, "Dat ol' nine-poun' hammer
Gonna be the death o' me."

John Henry was a cruel boy,
Never did look down;
But when he start to drivin' steel,
He ever-mo' did drive it down.

John Henry went to Cap'n Monday
All worried in his min',
Say, "Give me a heavy axe,
Let me tear dis ol' mountain down."

John Henry told the captain,
"Cap'n, when you get to town,
Bring me back a ten-poun' hammer
An' I lay dis ol' sev'n-poun' down."

John Henry went to captain,
"What mo' you want me to have?
Say, han' me drink o' ol' white gin,
An' I'll be a steel-drivin' man."

John Henry had a little woman,
The dress she wore was red,
She went down de track, never look back,
Say, "I goin' where my man fall dead."

"Who gonna shoe my pretty little feet?
Mommer gonna glove my han',
Popper gonna kiss my rosy cheeks,
John Henry gonna be my man."

John Jenry went to captain,
Say, "Man ain't nothin' but a man.
Befo' I let you beat me down
I die wid de hammer in my han'."

John Henry had a little woman,
Name was Lizzie Ann.
Say she got her dress from man in mine
An' her shoes from railroad man.

John Henry on right,
Steam drill on lef',
"Befo' I let steam drill beat me down
I'll drive my fool self to death.

"I drill all time,
I drill all day,
I drill all way from Rome
To Decatur in one day."

John Henry say,
"Tell my mother
If she want to see me,
Buy ticket all way to Frisco."

John Henry on way to Frisco,
Wid orders in his han',
Say, "All you rounders who want to flirt,
Here come a woman wid a hobble-skirt."

John Henry say to his captain,
Befo' he lef' town,
"If you give me 'nother drink o' yo' co'n,
I'll beat yo' steel drill down."

A good example of using verses from several songs.

Pp. 234-235, Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson, 1926, Negro Workaday Songs, University of North Carolina Press, Oxford University Press.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:02 PM

Well, Q, I've looked at that version lots of times, but there's something there I've overlooked until you posted it. I was probably misled by the lack of capitalization of "cap'n" in the original. You supplied it, and then I saw it.

"John Henry went to Cap'n Monday"

Without the capitalization, this says that on Monday John Henry went to his captain. With the capitalization, "Cap'n Monday" becomes, possibly, the man's name. The historical man was Captain Dabney. "Monday" is one of a couple of plausible mutations of "Dabney in the record, the other being "Tommy."

Thanks. That is part of what made my day.

The other part is finding death records for Cornelius Stratton "Neil" (or "Neal") Miller. His Certificate of Death indicates that he died on March 16, 1930, in Hinton, WV (probably hospitalized there, I think), of "bronchopneumonia" and "influenza," at age 68 yr, 9 mo, 13 days. Birth date: June 3, 1861.

In the spring of 1869, when he said he went to work at Big Bend Tunnel, he was about 7 yr 9-10 mo old.

Unless he was working at a tender age indeed, he did not work at the tunnel while it was being bored.

He said that he started work there at age 17. That would have been ca 1879, well after the completion of the tunnel in 1872.

I won't claim that his testimonies for Chappell and Johnson were fraudulent, though they could have been (perhaps he was pulling the legs of these professor types - he was an old farmer himself). More likely, I suppose, is that he conflated various memories.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:08 PM

Miller could have been a precocious observer-


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 11 - 09:59 AM

Q: Miller could have been a precocious observer-

or even a carrier of water and steel at age 7-11. However, those things can be mighty heavy. Other men that I know of, who said they had that job, said they were 14 or older. Miller says he was 17, and if that is true, then he started working on Big Bend Tunnel in 1878. The boring was completed in 1872.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 24 Jan 11 - 08:49 PM

I have found Cornelius Miller in 1870. His father, head of household, is listed as "Aop Miller," someone's lousy reading of lousy handwriting for "A. J. Miller."

Cornelius is listed as 8 years old, despite being past his birthday when the enumeration was made. I'm beginning to suspect that he was actually born in 1862, not 1861. It is hard for me to figure how an error of a year in his age could have been made when he was so young, 8 in 1870, 18 in 1880, having had his birthday already in each of those years. Maybe people just didn't care.

Anyhow, the big news is that he did not live on Hungart's ("Hungard" on official maps, its seems) Creek in 1870. He was enumerated in the Blue Sulphur Township of Greenbrier County, post office: Lewisburg. I don't know exactly where this is, but Blue Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg itself are 12-20 miles north and northeast of Talcott.

Talcott was not used as the name of the community before Big Bend Tunnel was bored. The post office there was first called "Rollinsburg," and it was on the opposite side of the Greenbrier River from Talcott.

Anyhow, Cornelius Miller did not move to Talcott in 1869, as he claimed, since in 1870 he was still living at some distance away.

To me, the best interpretation is that the family moved to Talcott ca 1879, when Cornelius was, as he said, about 17, some 7 years or so after Big Bend Tunnel had been completed.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jan 11 - 03:36 PM

It has been pointed out to me that the instructions to census takers specify the time frame of the census, which may not coincide with that of the census taker. The census of 1870 seems to have been for June 1, 1870, which was before Cornelius Miller's 9th birthday, so he was registered as 8 years old. The same explanation applies to 1880, when he was listed as 18.

These census records are consistent with a birth date on a day in June, 1861, later than June 1.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Mar 11 - 04:58 PM

Charles C. Spencer died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 21, 1944, according to his Certificate of Death. That document gives his birth date as December 5, 1875. However, his gravestone, which can be seen at Find-A-Grave, gives his birth year as 1870. According to other records (censuses, wife's death certificate, own testimony, etc), he was born between 1867 and 1884. Throwing out the latter datum leaves a range 1867-1875. Unlike Neal Miller, Spencer was old enough, 12-20, to have been carrying water and steel on the job where he said he saw John Henry's contest. That would have been on September 20, 1887, if we accept the month and day that Spencer gave.

His death certificate carries a surprising bit of information. He was not born a Spencer but rather a Matthews. He was born in Spencer, Henry County, Virginia, of a father named "Huston Matthews" and a mother whose maiden name was "Louise Clayton." Houston Matthews appears in Henry County in the 1870 census with wife Jane. Perhaps "Louise" was another of her given names. They have no children in 1870, but in 1880 Jane is a widow with a 10-year-old son, John Matthews. No other male child has an age appropriate for him to have been the man who later called himself Charles C. Spencer. Therefore I suspect that "Charles C. Spencer" was born John Matthews on December 5, 1870. If so, he would have been 16 years old on September 20, 1887, when he said that he was "about fourteen."

Another surprising thing about C. C. Spencer is that he was a second-degree Dunkard minister. This comes from a news account and his prison record, Utah State Prison (Sugar House, where Joe Hill's last word, to the firing squad he faced, is said to have been "Fire!")

In 1927, Spencer wrote to Guy Johnson on plain paper with the return address "1400 East 21st South," the address of the Utah State Prison. Johnson apparently never realized this. Spencer was serving time for having shot and killed Pleasant Jackson, a fellow coal miner, in Mohrland, Utah, in a dispute over a card game on Christmas Eve, 1922. Spencer was in the Utah State Prison from February, 1923, to February, 1928, when he was released after having had his life sentence commuted to five years and then shortened a few months by a parole.

I have copies of Spencer's mug shots.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 04 May 11 - 05:19 PM

A bit more about Charles C. Spencer, eyewitness to John Henry's contest and death:

He became a first-degree Dunkard minister in Denver, Colorado, in 1910. There was an African American Dunkard (Church of the Brethren) mission there. When the pastor was removed on a morals charge, Spencer replaced him. In 1910 he had been married for nine years to Lucille Spencer.

By 1920 he was living in Mohrland, Utah, where he was a coal miner. At Christmas time, 1922, he shot and killed Pleasant Jackson during a card game. He served time in the Utah State Prison 1923-28. On his release, he remained in Salt Lake City. Lucille never lived with him again.

By 1936 he was married to Lula V. (Lavinia) Stevens Spencer and was "Rev. Charles C. Spencer," pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He was still the pastor there in 1941, after Lula had died in 1940. Calvary Baptish Church still exists. It's present pastor is ver highly educated and accomplished.

Spencer died from a stroke in 1944.

So here we have it:

preacher -> murderer -> preacher


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 08 May 11 - 06:28 PM

The Rev. Charles C. Spencer is said to have become the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1932. In 1937 he "established and directed a free employment bureau for Salt Lake Negroes."

http://www.kued.org/productions/voices/articles/calvary.htm


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 19 May 11 - 07:27 PM

Go here an click on "The Legend of John Henry" for someone's idea of what John Henry was about. This is what happens when literary types get hold of folklore. Another example, which probably inspired this one, was provided by Roark Bradford, who wrote a 1931 novel and a 1939 (as I recall) play about John Henry.


http://www.archive.org/details/DestinationFreedom


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 30 Jun 11 - 05:02 PM

In 1927 Charles C. Spencer, an African American living in Salt Lake City, Utah, sent Guy Johnson two long letters detailing his witnessing of John Henry's contest and death in Alabama. Slowly, and with much assistance, I've been finding out more about Spencer. I believe that some of it is relevant to the transmission of the legend.

1870 Born John Matthews, 05Dec, at Spencer's Store, Henry County, Virginia*
1879 (fall)-1880 (01Jun) Father, Houston Matthews, died
1880 "At school," but did not read or write
1881 Mother remarried, 15Dec, to Jake Watkins
1887 20Sep Carrying water and tools for steel drivers on the C & W
    including John Henry Dabney
    at Coosa Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Shelby County, AL
    "under the care of a white man, the young Master of my people"
    Saw John Henry's contest and death
    Knew a great deal about John Henry
1887 (late) or ca 1888 Went with crew, including John Henry's wife,
       to Mercer and McDowell Counties, WV, to work
       in the Elkhorn Tunnel (original, not present-day)
1888+ Worked with John Hardy in McDowell County, WV
1894 19Jan Witnessed hanging of John Hardy at Welch, McDowell County, WV
1900 Coal miner in Bell County, Kentucky
    Known as "Charles C. Spencer" by now and for rest of life
    Single
    Could read and write
1910 Hod carrier in Denver, CO
    Married to Lucile since ca 1901
    Elected first-degree minister, Second Church of the Brethren, Denver
    Second Church was a "Negro mission"
1915 (ca) Now second-degree minister and pastor, Second Church
1920 Coal miner in Mohrland, Emery County, Utah
    Non-union, a scab
    Still married to Lucile
1922 24Dec Shot and killed Pleasant Jackson during card game
1923 20Feb Began serving life term at Utah State Prison, Salt Lake City
    Known as "Sugar House" prison
1926 20Nov Sentence commuted to five years
1928 18Feb Released from prison
1930 Boarding in Salt Lake City
    Landlady: Lula V. Stevens
    "Crane man" in a factory
    Probably Griffin Wheel Company, where he later worked
    Still married but not living with Lucile
1932 Becomes pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Salt Lake City
    Preaches many sermons and funerals
    Active in NAACP
1935 (ca) Marries Lula V. Stevens
1937 Establishes free employment bureau for African Americans
       in Salt Lake City
1940 Lula V. Stevens Spencer dies
1941 (late) Steps down as pastor of Calvary Baptist
    Continues work at Griffin Wheel
1944 21Apr Charles C. Spencer dies, age 73+

Surely Spencer and the rest of his crew told John Henry's story often while they were in West Virginia. This is a plausible way for the legend to have arrived there. Relocalization could have converted "C & W" and/or "C of G" to "C & O" and attached the legend to Big Bend Tunnel.

Note that what is being discussed here is the legend, not the ballad. To an extent, they overlap, but by the time they were being collected the ballad had lost details that the legend maintained, such as Coosa ("Cruzee"/"Cursey") Mountain, John Henry's surname, and the name of the "Captain" (both "Dabney").

In 1934 Elbert McDonald, of Bell County, Kentucky, published a John Henry tale that places him there when he died, but also calls him a "tall, gaunt, Alabama negro," "the most powerful steel driver of the crew," who "had never tasted defeat." There is the usual contest and collapse, then John Henry's "foreman" "gathered John Henry close to his bosom" as "tears were streaming down his face." John Henry died in his arms. Spencer, who was in Bell County in 1900, is a logical person to have planted the seeds of this tale, which correctly associates John Henry with Alabama and notes a close personal relationship between John Henry and his boss, really
Captain Fred Y. Dabney, whose father had probably owned John Henry before the Civil War.

Some versions of "John Henry" ballads and work songs mention Colorado. Spencer was in Denver by 1910 and stayed until ca 1916. Letters or other communications with home folks could have planted the Colorado seed.

Spencer was very active in Salt Lake City from 1928 to 1944. He must have told his John Henry story there many times. Even so, I am not aware of a Salt Lake City John Henry tradition. If somebody on the list lives there, it might be worth trying to track down African Americans who might still recall the story. The place to begin would be with elderly members of Calvary Baptist Church, now pastored by the Rev. France A. Davis, a vigorous and accomplished many who has been very helpful to me and to whom I am grateful. The members in question should be those whose families have a history at Calvary Baptist that goes back at least to 1940, preferably to ca 1930.

Why did John Matthews change his name to Charles C. Spencer?

His father, Houston Matthews, died young, at about age 36, when his son John was nine or ten years old.# I do not know how he died. Perhaps it was ignominiously, such that John could not bear the disgrace of his surname. Perhaps he chose not to accept his stepfather's name, Watkins, either. For all we know, Jake Watkins might not have been too happy at having an 11-year-old stepson. It is hard to say, but perhaps there was a Charles Spencer whom John Matthews admired. There have been plenty of them, some of them from Henry County, Virginia. I don't know what the second "C" in "C. C. Spencer" stood for, but I guess that it might have been "Clanton," the surname of his maternal grandparents.

My next task is to make an effort, perhaps a small one, given that I feel time pressure, to find out how Houston Matthews died.

By the way, there seems to be no lack of historians and historical
accounts of Henry County, VA. I need to find some way to use them well and efficiently. One of my most recent resources has been Beverly R. Millner, an African American man who has plumbed the depths of the 1866 Cohabitation Register for Henry County and other documents and produced a gorgeous book, *Something to Build On: Genealogy of African American Families of Henry County Virginia and Surrounding Area with Surnames "A-Z"* (2006?), as well as other genealogical books on Henry County. I am grateful to him.

See http://www.myspace.com/something_to_build_on .

*I had concluded from circumstantial evidence that John Matthews, of the 1880 census, Henry County, Virginia, was probably Charles C. Spencer, but Bev Millner found documents that make this very clear. Perhaps the most important items are that the identified Jane Matthews as the former Jane Clanton, a daughter of ex-slave Louisa Clanton. This explains an error on Spencer's death certificate, where his mother is give as "Louise Clayton." Louisa Clanton was not his mother but his grandmother. The informant for the death certificate was Spencer's stepdaughter's husband, who was able to give a remarkable amount of correct information about Spencer's origin, but he erred on this point.

#Since I wrote the above, Cliff Ocheltree has discovered a record stating that "Hairston Mathews" (wife Jane) died on 07Nov1879. It is clear that this is Houston Matthews. Thanks, Cliff.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Oct 11 - 07:30 PM

One of my pet hypotheses has bit the dust.

Letitia Dabney, Fred's youngest sister, left a memoir in which mentions the family's loyal slave, "Henry." According to Letitia, Henry was born ca 1844.

The dead hypothesis is that this Henry took the surname "Dabney" after the Civil War, moved to Copiah County, where Captain Fred Dabney lived by 1880, and became the legendary steel-driving man.

I now realize that Letitia's "Henry" is probably the "Henry Page," 26, who was in the Augustine Dabney household in Raymond, Mississippi, in the 1870 census. Unless he changed his name or Spencer erred, he cannot be the "John Henry Dabner" described by Charles C. Spencer as the steel-driving man.

Thus, I cannot argue that Captain Dabney became close to John Henry as John Henry grew up in the Augustine Dabney household in Raymond.

This still leaves the Henry Dabney/Dabner (1870, 1880 censuses) of Copiah County as a candidate for the steel-driving man. This man was probably one of Thomas Dabney's 150-odd slaves at Burleigh Plantation. Fred Dabney was often there, so he probably knew many of Thomas' slaves. Indeed, in 1870 Fred is enumerated as living at or near Burleigh.

Thus, it is still possible that Fred Dabney knew John Henry Dabney in Copiah County, Mississippi, well before the boring of Coosa and Oak Tunnels for the C & W (C of G) at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887-88.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: Lighter
Date: 13 Oct 11 - 08:00 PM

John, I hate when that happens.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Oct 11 - 10:41 AM

I hate it, too, and there are still some peculiarities.

"Page" is a Burleigh Plantation slave surname. According to Susan Dabney Smedes, one of Thomas Dabney's daughters, slaves there had surnames. George Page is the best documented, being the personal body servant of Thomas Dabney.

No surnames for Augustine Dabney's slaves are mentioned in any of the three memoirs left by his children, Mary Dabney Ware, Thomas Gregory Dabney, and Letitia Dabney Miller. Augustine's slave boy Henry, however, spent considerable time in the company of Thomas' 150-odd slaves. It may be that he admired George Page and later took his surname. However, it may also be that the Henry Page whose young (19) wife cooked for Augustine Dabney in 1870 was *not* the Henry of Letitia Dabney's memoir but instead one of Thomas' ex-slaves.

However, the ages of Letitia's Henry and of Henry Page match well, and Letitia describes Henry as still working for the family in 1866.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Nov 11 - 03:02 PM

On the logic of evidence:

Two tests of a hypothesis against an item of evidence, several items, or all of the evidence.

Weak Test
Given the hypothesis, is the evidence plausible?
(The hypothesis passes the test if the answer is "Yes.")

Strong Test
Given the negation of the hypothesis ("not hypothesis"), is the evidence plausible?
(The hypothesis passes the test if the answer is "No.")

Serious hypotheses made by serious and qualified individuals will always pass the weak test against the evidence that was available at the time the hypothesis was put forth, provided that all of the evidence was considered. This is why the test is weak.

On the other hand, hypothesis framed on the basis of *part* of the available evidence, or before new evidence was found, and hypotheses of incompetents or crackpots may fail the Weak Test.

Given a hypothesis that passes the Weak Test, the Strong Test discriminates between hypothesis and not hypothesis.

The best situation is that a hypothesis passes both the Weak and Strong Tests.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 22 Dec 11 - 03:31 PM

WV Hypothesis:
John Henry raced a steam drill and died at Big Bend Tunnel, on the C & O, in Summers County, WV, ca 1871 (1870-72).

Weak Test:
Given the WV hypothesis, is all if the John Henry evidence plausible?

The frequent appearances of Big Bend Tunnel and the C & O in versions of "John Henry" are plausible.

The Virginia evidence, such as it is, is plausible. Men named "John Henry," white houses, railroads, and steam drills were all commonplace. They need not have had anything to do with the John Henry of tradition.

The Jamaica evidence is plausible. The tradition came there from the USA.

The observed testimonial disagreements between men who had worked at Big Bend Tunnel and who had been in a position to know whether or not John Henry had been there are *not* plausible.

The Alabama evidence is *not* plausible. It is too coherent and the names involved are too rare for it to have arisen without a basis.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 02 Jan 12 - 06:52 PM

I've been thinking a lot about how to present my arguments. Johnson and Chappell considered all the evidence at their disposal but offered no arguments. They simply stated their conclusions. Leach judged the quality of their evidence to be poor, offered some scraps from Jamaica, and allowed that Jamaica might have been the John Henry site. Nelson suffered extreme confirmation bias by considering only evidence that, in his view, supported John Henry at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. I think that all of these studies are seriously flawed, and I don't want to emulate any of them.

One obvious logical principle is that *all* of the available evidence must be considered. There is a great deal of it, so this quickly leads to a complicated presentation, even though the final conclusion may be clear cut.

I think I've found a short cut. For WV, Jamaica, or VA, consider only the evidence that supports that site. In other words, construct the best-case scenario for each site. Perhaps the evidence does not discriminate between that site and others, even in the best-case scenario. If this were true, then WV, Jamaica, and VA would not merit further consideration. I believe that it *is* true.

WV: C. S. "Neal" Miller testified that he witnessed John Henry's contest with a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel in 1870. Census records show that he did not live near Big Bend Tunnel in 1870, that he was 7-8 years old, and that he attended school. Miller's testimony is a fabrication. The testimonies of other men who claimed to have worked on Big Bend Tunnel during its construction are indirect and highly contradictory. About 40% of versions of the ballad "John Henry" published by 1933 place JH at Big Bend Tunnel, on the C & O RR, or both. Steam drills were not used in boring Big Bend Tunnel, but one could have been brought there for a trial, part of which could have been a contest with JH.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* at Big Bend Tunnel?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* at Big Bend Tunnel?
Yes. Contradictory testimonies do not depend on whether or not JH was at Big Bend Tunnel. Relocalization is so common in folksong that places they give are not reliable.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was at Big Bend Tunnel, Summers County, WV, does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

Jamaica: A few song fragments mention John Henry, and there is testimony that he died while working there on a road or railroad in 1894-96.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* in Jamaica?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* in Jamaica?
Yes. The tradition could have been taken from the US to Jamaica by laborers. Indeed, this is highly likely. Further, there is testimony that the ballad "John Henry" was known before 1894.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was in Jamaica does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

VA: A John William Henry was a convict in the Virginia Penitentiary who was leased to work on the C & O RR. He then disappeared from the records. A stanza of the ballad "John Henry," found occasionally, states that he was taken to the "white house" and buried "in the sand" where locomotives pass by. At Virginia Penitentiary there was a white workhouse and a mass grave with a nearby railroad. Steam drills were used in boring the C & O's Lewis Tunnel in Virginia. The hypothesis is that John William Henry was a steel driver who raced a steam drill and died at Lewis Tunnel, thereby giving rise to the legend. No song or legend places JH at Lewis Tunnel.

Is this evidence plausible, given that JH *was* a steel driver who raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel?
Yes.
Is this evidence plausible, given that JH was *not* a steel driver who raced a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel?
Yes. Men named "John Henry," white houses, sand, and railroads are all common enough for the observed correspondences with a stanza of the ballad to be pure coincidence. There is no evidence that John W. Henry was a steel driver, that he was ever at Lewis Tunnel, or that he died there.

The evidence that is alleged to support the hypothesis that John Henry was at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia does not discriminate between that hypothesis and others.

Before any evidence is considered, all tunnels that were bored in the South between between the Civil War and about 1888, when the ballad appeared, have equal probabilities of being the John Henry tunnel. I don't know exactly how many there were, but I'm sure there were at least 100, probably many more. Thus, the "prior probability" that JH was at Big Bend or Lewis Tunnel is no greater than 0.01. Since the evidence, in the best-case scenarios, does not discriminate between these and other sites, this evidence, after being considered, leaves the probabilities of Big Bend and Lewis Tunnels at their prior value, 0.01 or less. The prior probability for Jamaica is even smaller, and it, too, is left unchanged by consideration of the evidence that is alleged to support it.

As JH sites, Big Bend Tunnel, Jamaica, and Lewis Tunnel can be dismissed for lack of evidence.

Only one site that has been seriously considered remains: a tunnel at Dunnavant, Alabama. In that case, the evidence is more complex.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 25 Jun 12 - 03:39 PM

I have filled eleven pages with evidence for John Henry in Alabama in 1887. This is evidence only, not arguments, which will follow the evidence itself. After I finish, I think I will have to redo it all.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 30 Oct 12 - 05:18 PM

Try this for a scary portrait of steel driving.

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/earlyphotos/b/largeimage54051.html


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 07 Dec 12 - 05:21 PM

Earlier I wrote that Furry Lewis gave John Henry's woman as "Nella Lee." Listening to Blues Masters Vol. 5, recorded July 21, 1968, at Ardent Studios, Memphis, Tennessee, I hear the name as "Neva Lee."


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 11 Jan 13 - 04:52 PM

On Furry Lewis' 1929 recording, he doesn't give a name for John Henry's wife/woman.

On his Shake 'Em On Down album (1961), he gives "Neva Lee" as John Henry's wife.

On his Blue Horizons Sessions (1968), he gives "Neva Lee" as John Henry's woman.

On his Fourth and Beale album (1969), he gives "Polly Ann" as John Henry's woman.

On his Party! At Home album (2001), he doesn't give a name.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Jan 13 - 01:39 PM

The first post in the thread, *Origins: John Henry*, was by Peter Turner on February 12, 1998.

If anyone has contact information for him, I would appreciate getting it.

Thanks.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 13 Jan 13 - 04:13 PM

Contact information can be sent to me privately at

garst@uga.edu


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,Carl Ellis
Date: 14 Jan 13 - 03:35 AM

A little pure speculation from the unqualified, for your consideration -

"John Henry had a little woman -
"Name was Peggy, an'
"When John Henry was sick,
"An a-laying in bed,
"Peggy drove steel, like a man, Lord,
"Peggy drove steel, like a man."

Possible example of a missing link between the hypothesized Margaret and Polly-Ann? And -

"Well they took John Henry to the white(s') house,
"Buried him 'neath the sand,"
&c.

If they had taken a dead or dying black laborer to a white
peoples' house, for care/reviving-if-possible, whatever, it would surely have been remarkable enough to make it into the song. If he was a champion driller and/or friend of his captain I suppose it might not have been unthinkable. Any Isabell or Howard houses in the area at the time?

I always supposed The White House was just thrown in to imply that John Henry was such an awful feller that the U.S. President would take note of his passing, but if you're trying to link it to something less fanciful, seems to me the sense "the whites' house", later losing the 's' if it even had one originally, would be an obvious candidate for consideration.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Jan 13 - 01:57 PM

Thanks for the thoughts, Carl.

Yes, that's a nice way to get Polly Ann from Margaret, through Peggy Ann, but it does not account for the occurrence of "Maggadee/Maggie D" and "Mary Magdalene," which have actually been collected. To my knowledge, "Peggy" and "Peggy Ann" have never been collected.

I suspect that there were Isbell and Howard houses in the area at the time. I have talked with some Isbells and Howards but not about white houses.

I had not thought of "white's house." It is not immediately obvious to me how I could pursue that idea.

I think that singers and hearers of "white house" immediately think "White House" and that that makes the "white house/White House" stanza attractive enough to be preserved in tradition, but a literal interpretation, that they took John Henry to the White House, is fanciful. I doubt that the white house in the song was originally a reference to the White House. Unfortunately, there too many white houses around to allow a reference to one to have much value as evidence.

I take it that you are from the Dunnavant area. Do you live there now?

Thanks,

John


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 15 Jan 13 - 04:07 PM

It is commonly asserted that John Henry was trying to save his job and those of his fellow steel drivers by showing that he was better than the steam drill.

Where did this idea first appear?

I have not found it in any of the early songs or studies.

Thanks,

John


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 23 Jan 13 - 05:13 PM

Norm Cohen and Brett Williams, in their books (*Long Steel Rail* and *John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography*) argue against the job-saving interpretation because it is "too narrow" (Cohen) and because the story is really one of a "family tragedy" (Williams).

"For each John Henry left unemployed there will be a job for a steam-drill operator—not to mention for the factory worker who makes the steam drill and the mechanic who repairs it … The tragedy is not that the old ways of performing tasks are superannuated by newer ones, but that society finds it more convenient to discharge the old laborer than retrain him, or at least retire him in dignity." (Cohen, pp 74-75)

"It is this family context that gives John Henry his human dignity and complexity, renders his most profound statement, "A man ain't nothin' but a man," so proud and sad, and makes fictional parodies of him so often offensive. The song is a wonderful reaffirmation of the worth of a human life—a worker's in a workplace which denies it, a black man's in a context reminiscent of slavery, a southerner's during a time of bitter humiliation and drastic change—and, ultimately, of every ordinary person who through dignity and strength of will can be great. The ballad not only praises John Henry's courage and skill, but it also reminds us that the details of his personal life matter. Like all of us, he is a member of a family." (Williams, p 124)

To David Mamet, "the meaning of the song was not that he won but that he died—that the one person capable of defeating the machine is no more. The song, seemingly a paean to resistance, is, I think, more an assertion of its uselessness—'The hero died in the attempts; what do you think you could do?" (*Jafsie and John Henry*, pp 131-32)

These and similar interpretations are views of the *legend*, not of the historical John Henry. John Henry Dabney was earning his living, getting paid a little more than the typical dollar a day for black laborers in Alabama in 1887. Captain Fred Y. Dabney bet a steam-drill salesman that John Henry could beat his machine, and he offered John Henry fifty dollars and a new suit if he did it. John Henry's motives were simple: (1) to win prizes, (2) to win a steam drill for the Captain, (3) to live up to the Captain's boast, and (4) to justify his own pride.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 05 Apr 14 - 02:31 PM

My book on John Henry is finished, but I have not yet found a publisher.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST
Date: 11 Apr 14 - 10:45 AM

Heads up:

On BALLAD-L, Jim Hauser has pointed to many versions of "John Henry" in which he resists, rebels, or complains in his statements to the Captain.

Therefore John Henry can be seen as a "rebel."


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
From: GUEST,John Garst
Date: 14 Dec 14 - 03:24 PM


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate
  Share Thread:
More...

Reply to Thread
Subject:  Help
From:
Preview   Automatic Linebreaks   Make a link ("blue clicky")


Mudcat time: 8 April 3:32 PM EDT

[ Home ]

All original material is copyright © 1998 by the Mudcat Café Music Foundation, Inc. All photos, music, images, etc. are copyright © by their rightful owners. Every effort is taken to attribute appropriate copyright to images, content, music, etc. We are not a copyright resource.