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JOHN HENRY solved????

17 Mar 02 - 02:13 PM (#670801)
Subject: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Art Thieme

Joel Mabus recently sent me this fascinating article on what might be the final answer to the puzzle. (But maybe not.)

Anyhow, I've just now sent it to KatLaughing in hopes that if I start this thread she might be able to easily insert the tale therein.

We'll never know for sure, of course, but I found this fascinating.

Art Thieme


17 Mar 02 - 02:20 PM (#670806)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Amos

Well, c'mon Kat -- where's the scoop!?

A


17 Mar 02 - 02:30 PM (#670813)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: katlaughing

I found it fascinating, too, Art. Thanks so much. Here 'tis:

From the Wm. & Mary News,
December 10, 1998 edition

History Professor Locates Gravesite Of Folk Hero
Postcard yields clues about John Henry's final days

Caption: Whitewashed barracks, train tracks and sand pictured in this 1912 postcard of the Virginia State Penitentiary led Scott Nelson to identify folk hero John Henry as a convict laborer.

Like so many good things, Scott Nelson's discovery of the identity and fate of folk hero John Henry was serendipitous.

If the assistant professor of history hadn't been humming the folk ballad John Henry" while studying a 1912 postcard of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, he may never have connected several important clues to determine that the folk hero was probably a convict who died while working on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad line in the 1870s and was buried on the grounds of the penitentiary.

Nelson, a labor historian, presented his findings at the Social Science History Association Meeting in Chicago on Nov. 21. Henry was the railroad worker who inspired the ballad "John Henry," a song which reflects the brutality of railroad tunnel construction in the 1870s.

After the Civil War, thousands of African-American men performed the backbreaking work of tunneling through mountains, connecting the American South to the West. Many workers lost their lives in tunnel cave-ins, dynamite explosions and drilling accidents. Others died from easily preventable diseases such as scurvy, consumption and dysentery.

"This is one of the uglier stories of civil engineering, of modern corporate systems built from the dead," Nelson said.

For decades, the final stanza of "John Henry" has stumped historians: "They took John Henry to the white house and they buried him in the sand/Now every locomotive that come roarin' by says there lies a steel-driving man."

"Folklorists have not known what to make of this passage," Nelson said, "and have wondered how John Henry's body might have ended up at the Oval Office, where there is no railroad and no sand."

Caption: Scott Nelson hopes his discovery about John Henry will shed light on the fate of thousands of other railroad workers in the new South.

But as Nelson was researching his soon-to-be-released book, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence and Reconstruction, he came across the postcard and realized he may have found the mysterious "white house" of the ballad's last stanza.

Folklorists long ago concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked as a "hammer man," digging his way through railway tunnels of the South. The lyrics in the ballad date his death to the early 1870s, while he worked on the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. This passage through the Allegheny Mountains was built between 1870 and 1873. The ballad describes a competition between John Henry and the modern steam drill, which was introduced to the South in 1870. The African-American folk hero won the contest but died in the process. Like many hammer men, John Henry was literally worked to death.

"Horrible, disfiguring deaths were regular features of railroad construction," Nelson said.

While most folklorists have believed that John Henry was a paid laborer, Nelson knew from his previous research into Southern railroad history that most railroad workers on the C&O line in the 1870s were convicts.

"Most accounts of John Henry claim he was a high-priced railroad worker," Nelson said. "This seems unlikely, however, given that the Chesapeake & Ohio had a near-monopoly on Virginia's convicts in 1871 and 1872."

Digging deeper, he learned that convict workers on the C&O were buried on the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary until 1877, when Richmond city officials ordered more suitable burials off-site.

While Nelson's knowledge of convict railroad workers put him one step closer to identifying John Henry as a convict laborer, he needed one more link to make the final connection.

The 1912 postcard, mirroring the setting of the ballad's puzzling last stanza, was that missing link.

"The Virginia State Penitentiary had a red house for administration and a white house as a barracks and workshop," Nelson said. "Sand borders the perimeter. Nearby were the tracks of the Richmond & Petersburg and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads."

While the prison was being torn down when the land was sold to the Ethyl Corp. in the early 1990s, construction workers, digging behind where the white house had been located, discovered scores of bodies, buried together in large boxes. Galvanized rubber jewelry found on the skeletons helped archaeologists to date the site to the second half of the 19th century. The remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they are being studied.

While Nelson's theory may never be proven, he has made perhaps the strongest possible case for the fate of an American legend.

And his speculations have brought attention to the fates of the thousands of nameless and faceless "John Henrys who died on behalf of the railroad corridor and the new South."

by Amy Ruth


17 Mar 02 - 02:31 PM (#670815)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: katlaughing

Thanks, again, Art. I will fix the line breaks a little later.


17 Mar 02 - 02:33 PM (#670816)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Amos

The makes a hell of a lot more sense than my childhood misconception of big engines running within 100 yards of the D.C. White House, where train never ran!!

A


17 Mar 02 - 02:34 PM (#670817)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Steve Latimer

That's fascinating.


17 Mar 02 - 03:05 PM (#670834)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

This material is discussed in the long, long thread "The Origins of John Henry." John Henry
I tend toward the Chesapeake and Ohio origins of the song, but John Garst would dispute, setting John Henry in Alabama. Some of the material in the news report is sheer conjecture.
The myths go on....!


17 Mar 02 - 06:07 PM (#670955)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Uncle_DaveO

"Galvanize rubber jewelry"????

What the heck is "galvanized rubber"? I know about galvanized iron, but rubber?

Dave Oesterreich


17 Mar 02 - 06:10 PM (#670958)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Amos

I think thats one of those sheer conjectures!! Probably of vulcanic origin,. hmmmm?

A


17 Mar 02 - 06:24 PM (#670963)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: katlaughing

According to the first item listed at Pedro's galvanized rubber, in this instance, is recycled inner tubes.

Art, I still find this very interesting. Thanks for including it.


17 Mar 02 - 08:17 PM (#671019)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

My first reaction was that vulcanized was meant, but to galvanize means to subject to an electric current (as well as to treat iron with molten zinc). Maybe there is such a thing as galvanized rubber (or is it just overactive rubber?).
I must have 25 or so versions of John Henry. None of them mentions a "white house." The closest to that stanza that I have is one in Lomax:

Dey took John Henry to de graveyard,
An' dey buried him in de san',
An' every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says, "Dere lays a steel-drivin' man,
Lawd, Lawd, dere lays a steel-drivin' man."

But all of these conjectures are wrong! John Henry was from Colorado (You can investigate the story when you get there, Kat).

When John Henry was a baby
Sittin' on 'is mother's knee,
He said, O the Colorado Mountains
Will be the death of me.

Reported in White, N. L., 1928 (1965), American Negro Folk Songs, p. 190, Ms. of B. A. Wooten, heard in Marengo Co., Alabama.

But it was John Henry's "little woman" who did the real work and deserved the credit, not her lazy, no-count John:

John Henry had a little woman,
And her name was Polly Ann;
John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
And Polly drove steel like a man.

Same reference, Ms of J. C. Hay, 1915-1916,heard in Huntsville, Al.
Haven't got any Canadian John Henry's yet. But they probably would be Chinese or Irish.


18 Mar 02 - 01:01 AM (#671110)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Sandy Paton

A series of posts to the Ballad-L listserv by John Garst, a remarkable researcher, ought to be archived somewhere and available. Can anyone point the way to them? Pretty convincing stuff supporting his Alabama theory.

Sandy


18 Mar 02 - 01:28 AM (#671112)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Pene Azul

Archives of BALLAD-L@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU

search for (John Henry)

(John Henry) and (John Garst)

Jeff


18 Mar 02 - 02:17 AM (#671119)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: heric

The "white house" version seems to be legitimate, if rare:

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

Sonny Terry sang it that way.

The postcard in question is viewable at http://www.wm.edu/wmnews/121098/henry.html


18 Mar 02 - 11:31 AM (#671319)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Amos

Rare? It was widely distributed in the late Fifties, or early Sixties by (if memory serves) a recording by Harry Belafonte. While he is scarcely an authoritative source, it made the "white house" version of the verse widely known -- or so it seemed to me as a yonker.

A


18 Mar 02 - 01:06 PM (#671373)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

The reference to the Univ. North Carolina site provided by Dan Kelly is welcome because it reproduces a version of "John Henry" from G. B. Johnson, 1929, "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend," the one with the "white house" verse. This hard-to-get book (which I would like to find) supports the C & O Virginia stories, disputed by Garst, who supports the "Alabama" John Henry. In a way, both may be correct, in that the songs may be composites extolling the deeds of a number of strong, proud railroad workmen.

Songs by Belafonte, Terry, and most singers of the folk song era often contain material that they have edited or made up to fit their ideas of how the songs will be accepted by the public. We owe a lot to these singers, but their songs cannot be used to determine the provenance or background of a song. This is difficult, even with songs collected by knowledgable folklorists, such as Johnson.


18 Mar 02 - 01:43 PM (#671393)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Art Thieme

Fine continuing duscussion, this. If nothing else, thought provoking. In the other big thread on J.H. I laid out my ideas about John Henry being an ex-slave who is working for a real wage for the first time and therefore explains the pride he took in being picked by his peers to be their champion. Well, if he was a prisoner it shoots my conjecture all to hell. So on we go...

Art Thieme


18 Mar 02 - 01:52 PM (#671395)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: CarolC

I don't know, Art. You could still be right in a way. Even if he was a prisoner, he might still take pride in being picked by his peers to be their champion. I guess prisoners might not often get opportunities to feel proud of themselves.


18 Mar 02 - 02:20 PM (#671408)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

Prisoner or hero? The two ideas are not mutually exclusive, Art. A look through ballads collected from prisons in Texas show several extolling the abilities of certain prisoners. Many of the laborers on railroads, roads, farms, docks, factories, were in prison at one time or another.
I tend to the idea that John Henry is a composite, based first on workers in VA-WV area, later extended outside of that area. One man who figures strongly in these songs is John Hardy, who apparently was a steel-driver who later was executed for killing a man in a crap game (1894). Other songs talk about a John Henry. Has fact been fictionized or has fiction become fact? Does it matter? We have a heroic figure, a symbol who continues to intrigue us over 100 years after his origin.


18 Mar 02 - 05:48 PM (#671512)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: katlaughing

Dicho, there are several copies of that book listed at www.bookfinder.com. Here's a link to the search I did: clickety. Looks as though there may be new reprints of it, too.

kat


18 Mar 02 - 08:27 PM (#671581)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

Kat, thanks for the refrence. The one I hadn't seen was an offer by Amazon of a 1969 reprint for $25, which is better than the rest. I certainly don't want to buy the first ed. for $649. (When I clicked on that one in the Bookfinder list, Amazon immediately responded with my name- no such thing as anonymous look-up any more). I hate that.
Be sure and look up that Colorado John Henry!


19 Mar 02 - 01:36 PM (#672056)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

The Max Hunter Collection has a version where John Henry is buried in a tunnel: John Henry

They took John Henry to a tunnel
An' buried him in the sand
An' ever woman that come down the road
Say, there lay a steel drivin' man, Lord, Lord
There lay a steel drivin' man.


28 Mar 02 - 04:21 PM (#678433)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,John Garst

"white house" may be a "late" mutation.

One version speaks of taking John Henry's body down a "long white road." This could have led to "white house."

I was on a white road this past weekend. It was surfaced with a crushed white rock, perhaps limestone, marble. It was the entrance road to the Francis Biedler Forest, Four Hole Swamp, nortwest of Charleston, SC.

Leeds, AL, is the site of limestone quarries and cement plants. In years past everything around has been covered in white dust. In 1887 perhaps the Dunnavant to Leeds road was surfaced with crushed limestone (I've not been able to check this out).

It was suggested to me that "white road" might itself be a mutation of "wide road." The only argument I have against this is that "wide road" is probably a more common expression than "white road." I would think that mutations in oral transmission probably tend to go from the unusual to the usual. Also, before John Henry's body was taken along the "white road," it was on the "smokey road." The context, therefore, is one in which roads are described by appearance (I think).

Nothing in the Nelson article makes a convincing case.


08 Jun 04 - 10:29 PM (#1203199)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,Runchbox

Not an authoritative source, but Coleson Whitehead wrote a book called John Henry Days which talks about the mystery a fair amount, and some of the early versions of the song. It's a fiction book and a great read.


09 Jun 04 - 06:01 AM (#1203374)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: greg stephens

For what's is worth ,the immortal Lonnie Donegan recorded his version in 1954: released as the B-side of Rock Island line....well the resrt is history. And he sang (if memory serves me correctly)

They took John Henry down to Washington
And they buried him in the sand


09 Jun 04 - 09:40 AM (#1203516)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: wanderhope

This is a fascinating thread, but the word "solved" sure needs that question mark at the end of it. Looks like it's solved the say way Patricia Cornwell "solved" the jack the Ripper case.


09 Jun 04 - 04:44 PM (#1203848)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Nerd

Uh, this article is six years old...and academic research is already old by the time the news finds it, so it ain't exactly cutting edge.

By the way, as a folklorist, I get a bit annoyed when people in other disciplines say "folklorists have long wondered how he came to buried at the oval office." Er, no. Folklorists generally don't take every word of a song literally, and even if we did, we would realize that a "white house" doesn't necessarily refer to our presidential mansion, and we would also know very well that the "White House" verse occurs in just a few versions of the song among many. As people on this thread have mentioned, this version was popularized by Belafonte, Seeger and others in the 1950s, but as Dicho points out it's far from "standard" in the tradition.

Folklorists would be the LAST people to be puzzled as to why some versions of the song mention a "white house." We might try to find out if people whose families come from certain region or ethnic or occupational group sing the "white house" version, to see if it what we call a cultural Oicotype, or in other words, particularly suited to one cultural group. We might come up with theories along the lines of "wide road"--"white road"--"white house" one mentioned above, but overall it would not tend to be a big part of a folkloristic analysis until some interesting evidence arrived. So a folklorist, just like a historian, might take the 1912 postcard and say "this might be relevant!"

However, having worked with many turn of the century postcards, I can testify that there's no guarantee that a house that looks "red" or "white" on a period postcard actually was that color! A gray house would look white, and indeed a truly red house might paradoxically be too dark for the artists to tint it red!

If you could verify that

(1)the house was white
(2)it was commonly referred to as "the white house,"
(3)the "white house" verse is one of the oldest parts of the tradition
(4)there was a guy named John Henry who WAS a convict
(5)he WAS buried there

then this outlandish tissue of supposition might get taken seriously by someone in academia. Until then, it's just a publicity stunt for him to get what looks like a legitimate book about convict labor and the Klan mentioned in the newspapers. Looks to me like our assistant professor was hoping to make a publicity splash to aid in his search for tenure. Hope it didn't backfire!


09 Jun 04 - 04:51 PM (#1203856)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Nerd

Looks like Nelson is still at W & M, and still gives lectures about John Henry!


09 Jun 04 - 05:05 PM (#1203862)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Benjamin

Dan Kelly, the link didn't work.


09 Jun 04 - 05:40 PM (#1203882)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

When I was a kid, 'white' houses were still common. Nothing like whitewash to cover up rot, dirt, crumbling mortar, etc.
Prisoners and soldiers were kept busy whitewashing everything in sight.
Agree with Nerd. No clear evidence no how. John Henry has been speculated about ever since the song(s), in all its various guises, appeared. Like all good myths, the origin, real, fictional or composite, has been lost. And Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care.


09 Jun 04 - 05:49 PM (#1203891)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Big Al Whittle

you mean patricia cornwall didn't solve the jack the ripper case, I've bought that book and I haven't read it yet. how come she thinks she did solve it? It says she solved it on the cover.....


09 Jun 04 - 05:54 PM (#1203897)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Burke

Benjamin, Dan Kelly's message & link is over 2 years old. You might want to try a search on Google.


05 May 05 - 10:40 PM (#1479146)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,Michael Roy

My choir and I are preparing a concert slated for June 11, 2005 in Miami, and we will perform a large medley of train songs. I included "John Henry" in the medley arrangement, and my singers immediately wanted to know what this "whitehouse" stuff was about.

One conjecture was that perhaps a locomotive "roundhouse" was the more accurate thought. I decided to check Mudcat to see if anyone else ever wondered about John Henry's "whitehouse," and lo, here it all is!

I'll read the fascinating notes from this thread to my choir folk in our next rehearsal on "Trains." The mystery may not be solved, but it will raise a smile or two among my curious singers. Thanks to all who contributed.

Michael Roy
Michaelroy99@Yahoo.com


06 May 05 - 08:41 PM (#1479745)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Louie Roy

I first heard this song in 1930 sang by Dad who came from West Virginia and he said he learned in a logging camp in Dry Fork West Virginia about 1905 and what I remember of the song went something like this
John Henry was a steel driving man he carried two guns every day
and he shot Bull Dooley in the West Virginia mine and you should have seen John Henry get away poor boy and you should have seen John Henry get away.There were several other verses about the law chasing him down but my memory don;t comprehend Louie Roy


06 May 05 - 10:04 PM (#1479779)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Uncle_DaveO

That's basically "John Hardy", Louie Roy. That's not to say your Dad didn't learn it with "John Henry" as the protagonist, of course.

But it's two different songs.

Dave Oesterreich


06 May 05 - 11:01 PM (#1479814)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Louie Roy

Thanks Uncle Dave O for setting the record straight Louie Roy


07 May 05 - 07:05 PM (#1480264)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Les B

Once in a great while I do a medley of John Henry and John Hardy and call them "The Big Bad Johns"! :)


23 Aug 06 - 02:13 PM (#1817181)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,John Garst

Scott Nelson, "Steel Drivin' Man," September or October 2006, Oxford University Press.

I have an "Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy" of this book, which will surely be available soon from Amazon.

Nelson does not address the evidence for Alabama at all. He doesn't even acknowledge my work. Insofar as far as the evidence goes in support of his John Henry candidate, he adds nothing in this book that wasn't in his 2005 paper. Yet he has the gall to claim that his is the "true" story of John Henry.

I persist in considering the Virginia case to be much weaker than the Alabama one.

John


23 Aug 06 - 02:20 PM (#1817184)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Are we invited to the duel?


24 Aug 06 - 10:19 AM (#1817831)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: skipy

Dicho,
This may have been said above, but am at work so no time to read it all.
on ABE both books are awailable:-
guy johnson 1929 tracking down a negro lengend 8 copies cheapest 27-20
louis chapell 1933 john henry a folk-lore study 2 copies both 136-02.
Hope that helps
Skipy


24 Aug 06 - 10:23 AM (#1817838)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: skipy

Dicho
addition to above:-
2 p in chappell.
Also by searching ABE without putting the date in found copies of Chappell book as low as 27-17
Skipy


24 Aug 06 - 11:04 AM (#1817882)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,John Garst

Q asks,

>Are we invited to the duel?

Absolutely. The facts speak for themselves.

J


24 Aug 06 - 11:53 AM (#1817928)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Hi, Skippy. That was 4 years ago, but thanks. There are other books I would rather have now.
Incidentally, Abebooks always is my first choice for older books, since so many dealers list with them. Local booksellers here set their prices from Abebooks, so few local bargains anymore.


24 Aug 06 - 11:59 AM (#1817932)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: skipy

Sorry Q, didn't notice the date!
Skipy


25 Aug 06 - 08:16 AM (#1818611)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: Dave'sWife

Dave my husband often has to buy out of print books for his prouduction company and he swears by Alibris if anyone cares.


26 Aug 06 - 11:20 AM (#1819419)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST,John Garst

I wrote here (28Mar2002):

>"white house" may be a "late" mutation.

Others have thought this possible (for example, see Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, 2nd Ed, 2000, p xxii: "The few texts that definitely predate the 1920s do not include the phrase ('white house')."

Actually, "white house" is found in the (possibly composite) version published by John A. Lomax in 1915 ("Some Types of American Folk-Song," a speech given a couple of years earlier before the American Folklore Society, Journal of American Folklore, p 14):

They brought John Henry from the white house
And took him in the tunnel to drive,
He drove so hard he broke his heart,
He laid down him hammer and he died.

Although Nelson's scenario is one in which John Henry was taken *to* the white house for burial, having him taken *from* the white house may also fit his case. Nelson identifies "white house" with the prison workshop at the old Virginia Penitentiary (Richmond), so if John Henry were leased out from there he *was* taken *from* the white house. A while back I found a text of another song in which "white house" clearly referred to a penitentiary, supporting for Nelson's idea about this.

Even so, I don't give a lot of weight to this kind of evidence. There are no really early texts. The earliest report of a fragment was published in 1909 (and the earliest longer text in 1913 (from Kentucky, manuscript, 1912). Lomax's text may date from the same period. The undated Blankenship broadside has been believed, without good reason, to have been from the period 1890-1900, but W. T. Blankenship's other known broadsides (two of them) can be dated to 1912 and 1917 from the topical events they describe. Therefore the most reasonable hypothesis is that the Blankenship "John Henry" also dates from the 1910s.

If John Henry did his thing in 1871 then all of these texts are from a time at least 38 years later. If it was 1887 instead, then they are from at least 22 years later. Both time gaps are more than enough for massive mutations in tradition. Therefore there is no text that can be warranted from its date as being "early." That doesn't necessarily mean that no "early" texts are extant. It simply means that we can't recoginize them by date. Other criteria might identify them.

The Blankenship broadside does not mention "white house." Instead, "They carried John Henry to that new burying ground." An important point remaining to be established is whether or not Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, AL, about a mile from the C & W tracks and visible across of valley, was new in 1887. The earliest remaining markers there are from the early 20th century, but there are many unmarked graves, including one lying just outside the bounding fence of the cemetery, possibly John Henry Dabney's grave. I'm not sure how to go about finding the date for the establishment of Sand Ridge Cemetery.

The 1912 KY text does not mention "white house" and has the line "That big tunnel on the C & O line / Is going to be the death of me." It could be significant that this is "big tunnel," not "Big Bend Tunnel." The two tunnels at Dunnavant, AL, are known today as "'Short' Tunnel" (Oak Mountain) and "'Long' Tunnel" (Coosa Mountain). I suspect that they have also been called "the little tunnel" and "the big tunnel." The construction of Coosa Tunnel was very difficult - it delayed the opening of the C & W by at least 6 months. Thus, I suspect that Coosa could have been referred to, in an early version of the ballad, as "that big, bad tunnel," an obvious lead-in for "that Big Bend Tunnel" in tradition.

Lomax's 1913(?) text does mention "white house," as noted above.

My suspicion is that people in the WV-VA area introduced the "white house" business, describing the leasing of Virginia Penitentiary prisoners for C & O work, after the song reached them from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, probably in about 1888. They weren't too concerned with the fact that prisoners were not leased for work on Big Bend Tunnel, where John Henry Martin was a well-known steel driver, so aspects of the Big Bend and Lewis Tunnel situations got mixed up.


30 Aug 06 - 03:20 PM (#1822910)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST

A while back (June 2004) Nerd wrote, speaking of what we then knew of Scott Nelson's evidence for John Henry:

>However, having worked with many turn of the century
>postcards, I can testify that there's no guarantee that a house >that looks "red" or "white" on a period postcard actually was
>that color! A gray house would look white, and indeed a truly
>red house might paradoxically be too dark for the artists to tint
>it red!

>If you could verify that

>(1)the house was white
>(2)it was commonly referred to as "the white house,"
>(3)the "white house" verse is one of the oldest parts of the
>tradition
>(4)there was a guy named John Henry who WAS a convict
>(5)he WAS buried there

>then this outlandish tissue of supposition might get taken
>seriously by someone in academia. Until then, it's just a
>publicity stunt for him to get what looks like a legitimate book
>about convict labor and the Klan mentioned in the newspapers.
>Looks to me like our assistant professor was hoping to make
>a publicity splash to aid in his search for tenure. Hope it didn't
>backfire!

Now we know a lot more of Nelson's evidence. I think he is on firm ground on points 1 and 4 of Nerd's list, and I'm willing to accept the liklihood of point 2, especially since I found a traditional verse in another song in which the "white house" is clearly a prison (sorry - I'm not sure which song and where I found it - I'll look some more).

"White house" was in a version of the song as early as 1915 (and probably 1913), reported by John A. Lomax. If "John Henry" dates from 1871 or 1887, then this is at least 26 years later. My conclusion is that there are *no* versions that we can call "early" by virtue of their date of recovery. Of three long versions from 1910-1915, only one includes "white house."

Point 5 is very weak in Nelson's case. He found documentation that John William Henry was leased out, presumably to work on Lewis Tunnel, but he found no other prison or contractor's record of JWH. He *supposes*, as an explanation, that he died at Lewis Tunnel and that his body was sent back to the VA pen for burial "in the sand." A mass graveyard with coffins separated by layers of sand has been excavated at a site adjacent to the old white house. A railroad ran by there as well.

Nerd doesn't mention them, but there are some other points of weakness in Nelson's evidence.

(1) No evidence that JWH was a steel driver.
(2) No evidence that he was a notable steel driver. (Another man was said to have been the "best" steel driver at Lewis Tunnel.)
(3) No evidence of a contest between JWH and a steam drill, not even a local legend.
(4) No explanation of how a non-entity and non-event at Lewis Tunnel could have given rise to a legend at many other places (but not Lewis Tunnel).

I also think that finding a convict laborer named John Henry is weak evidence. I'm surpised he didn't find several.

As far as promotion goes, he made it. He is now, according to the back cover of "Steel Drivin' Man," Associate Professor of History.

John


14 Apr 14 - 04:53 PM (#3618764)
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
From: GUEST

I think John Henry left us a legacy we should seriously consider. We all need to dig deeper, harder, and perhaps faster. I have versions of ballads from all over the country, each with different lyrics about this folk lore legend. Is it not possible that you are all correct, and all of us are wrong at the same time?