John Henry [Laws I1]
DESCRIPTION: The boss of a railroad crew has brought in a steam drill. John Henry, the best driver in the gang, vows he will never be outclassed by the machine. In a contest between the two, Henry is victorious (in most versions), but dies of the exertion
EARLIEST DATE: 1909 (JAFL)
KEYWORDS: train work death technology railroading worker
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,MW,SE,So)
REFERENCES (36 citations):
Laws I1, "John Henry"
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 61-89, "John Henry" (2 texts plus many excerpts and a copy of the Blankenship broadside, 2 tunes)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 327-328, "John Henry Blues" (1 text)
BrownII 270, "John Henry" (2 texts plus 5 fragments, 1 excerpt, and mention of 1 more, but only the "A" text, plus probably the "C" fragment, is this song; the fragments are of "Take This Hammer," "Swannanoah Tunnel," etc.)
BrownSchinhanIV 270, "John Henry" (7 excerpts, 7 tunes, of which "A," "A(1)," and perhaps "C" appear to be "John Henry"; "E," "G," and "J" appear to be "Take This Hammer," and "H" appears to be "Swannanoa Tunnel")
Chappell-FSRA 103, "John Henry" (1 short text, which despite the title appears to have two "John Hardy" verses and only one of "John Henry")
Morris, #99, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rosenbaum, pp. 188-189, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach, pp. 756-759, "John Henry" (2 texts)
Leach-Heritage, pp. 168-169, "John Henry" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 383, "John Henry" (6 texts, but only three are true versions of "John Henry"; the rest appear to be variants of "Take this Hammer")
PBB 109, "John Henry" (1 text)
McNeil-SFB1, pp. 150-153, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Sandburg, pp. 24-25, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Combs/Wilgus 81, pp. 164-165, "John Henry (The Steel-Driving Man)" (1 text)
Lomax-FSUSA 74, "John Henry" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Lomax-Singing, pp. 258-261, "John Henry" (1 text plus an excerpt, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSNA 298, "John Henry-I"; 299, "John Henry-II" (2 texts, 2 tunes, the first containing a large portion of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me/Been All Around This World" or a relative)
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 3-10, "John Henry" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Jackson-DeadMan, pp. 233-237, "John Henry" (2 texts plus an excerpt, 1 tune)
Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 240-241, "[John Henry]" (1 text, 1 tune)
Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 52 "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand (John Henry)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hodgart, p. 243, "John Henry" (1 text)
Arnett, p. 111, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-SoFolklr, p. 748, "The Death of John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune -- a strange version, sung, and partly spoken, by Dave Macon. It starts with the death and funeral, then goes back to the familiar story)
Courlander-NFM, pp. 111-115, "(John Henry)" (1 text); pp. 280-285, "John Henry" (3 tunes, partial texts); also pp. 137-138, "(John Henry)" (1 text, with a fragment of the plot of "John Henry" but many lyrics from "Take This Hammer")
JHCox 35, "John Hardy" (9 text, some of John Henry, some of John Hardy, some mixed: A is John Hardy with a John Henry second verse, B, C, and G are John Hardy with a John Henry opening verse, D, F, and I are pure John Hardy, E is John Hardy with material from John Henry and a "Pretty Little Foot" song, H is John Henry)
Darling-NAS, pp. 230-234, "John Henry" (3 texts plus a text of "Take This Hammer")
PSeeger-AFB, p. 82, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Greenway-AFP, p. 107, "John Henry" (1 text)
Fireside, p. 170, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 123, "John Henry" (1 text)
DT 317, JHNHENRY* JOHNHENR
ADDITIONAL: Zora Neale Hurston, _Mules and Men_ (New York,1990 (paperback edition of 1935 original)), pp. 251-255, "John Henry" (with tune)
Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, Editors, _The Leadbelly Songbook_, Oak, 1962,, p. 31, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune, adaptedy by Lead Belly)
Harold Courlander, _A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore_, Crown Publishers, 1976, pp. 383-392, "[The John Henry Epic]" (1 text plus some related pieces, 1 tune)
Rich Amerson, "John Henry" (on NFMAla3)
DeFord Bailey, "John Henry" (Victor 23336, 1932/Victor 23831, 1933; rec. 1928)
James "Iron Head" Baker, "Little John Henry" (AFS 202 A1, 1934) (AFS 1853 B1, 1853 B2, 1937)
Dock Boggs, "John Henry" (on Boggs2, BoggsCD1)
Big Bill Broonzy, "John Henry" (on Broonzy01)
Callahan Brothers, "John Henry" (Decca 5998, 1941)
Fiddlin' John Carson, "John Henry Blues" (OKeh 7004, 1924)
Bill Cornett ,"John Henry" (on MMOKCD)
Bill & Jean Davis, "John Henry" (on CloseHomeMS)
(Joe) Evans & (Arthur) McClain, "John Henry Blues" (Oriole 8080/Perfect 181/Romeo 5080/Conqueror 7876, all 1931; on BefBlues3)
G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, "John Henry the Steel Driving Man" (Gennett, unissued, 1927)
Woody Guthrie, "John Henry" (Stinson 628, mid-1940s)
Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston, "John Henry" (onWoodyFolk, ClassRR)
Fruit Jar Guzzlers, "Steel Driving Man" (Broadway 8199, 1928; on TimesAint03)
Willie Hamilton, "John Henry" (on HandMeDown1)
Vera Hall, "John Henry" (AFS 1320 A2, 1937) [Note: Dixon/Godrich/Rye also identifies this AFS number with a Vera Hall recording of "Po' Laz'us"; one of them is clearly in error, but I don't know which - PJS]
Sid Harkreader, "John Henry" (Broadway 8114, c. 1930)
Sid Hemphill, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1700)
Doc Hopkins, "John Henry" (Radio 1411, n.d.)
Furry Lewis, "John Henry" (on FLewis01, DownHome)
Earl Johnson & his Dixie Entertainers, "John Henry Blues" (OKeh 45101, 1927; on TimesAint02, ConstSor1)
Buell Kazee, "John Henry" (on Kazee01)
Ed Lewis, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1705)
Furry Lewis, "John Henry (The Steel Driving Man), parts 1 & 2" (Vocalion 1474, 1930; rec. 1929)
Uncle Dave Macon, "The Death of John Henry" (Vocalion 5096=Vocalion 15320, 1926) (Brunswick 112, 1927; Brunswick 80091, n.d., Coral MH-174; probably the same recording as the preceding)
J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, "John Henry was a Little Boy" (Bluebird B-6629, 1936); "John Henry" (King 550, 1946)
Earl McCoy, Alfred Meng & Clem Garner, "John Henry" (Columbia 15622-D, 1930)
J. J. Neece, Cleve & V. L. Sutphin, "John Henry" (on CloseHomeMS)
New Lost City Ramblers, "John Henry" (on NLCR05)
George Pegram, "John Henry" (on ClassOT)
Virgil Perkins & Jack Sims, "John Henry" (on FMUSA, AmSkBa)
Leslie Riddle, "John Henry" (on CloseHomeMS)
Mike Seeger, "The Death of John Henry" (on MSeeger02)
Pete Seeger, "John Henry" (on PeteSeeger05) (on PeteSeeger16) (on PeteSeeger47) (on PeteSeeger23)
Ernest V. Stoneman, "John Henry" (Edison 51869, 1926) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5194, 1926)
Glen Stoneman, George Stoneman & James Lindsay, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on LomaxCD1702)
Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett, "John Henry" (Columbia 15019-D, 1924; Silvertone 3262, 1926 [as Gibbs & Watson])
Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, "John Henry" (Columbia 15142-D, 1927)
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, "John Henry" (on ClassAfrAm)
Henry Thomas, "John Henry" (Vocalion 1094, 1927)
Welby Toomey, "Death of John Henry" (Champion 15198/Silvertone 5002, 1927)
Willie Turner, "John Henry" (on NFMAla6)
Doc Watson, Gaither Carlton & Arnold Watson, "John Henry" (on WatsonAshley01)
Williamson Bros. & Curry, "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" (OKeh 45127, 1927; on AAFM1, TimesAin't3)
Martin Young & Corbett Grigsby, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on MMOKCD)
cf. "Take This Hammer" (lyrics)
Shelton Brothers, "New John Henry Blues" (Decca 5173, 1936)
NOTES: The popularity of this song is shown by its influence on other songs: Not only is John Henry's hammer mentioned in "Take this Hammer" and relatives, but it also inspired W. C. Handy's "John Henry Blues." Quite a record for a song which came into existence only well into the railroad age.
The bibliography of this song is huge, and no attempt is made to reproduce it here. In 1983, when Brett Williams published John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press), the bibliography was 13 pages long (though some of the books in the "Background" section are pretty irrelevant). But it lists 13 films about John Henry, and a page and a half of printed works inspired by him -- how many folk songs have such a legacy?
And, of course, more has been published since.
The first two major scholarly books on the topic were Guy B. Johnson, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, 1929, and Louis Chappell, John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study, 1933. Both were attempts to find "the real John Henry." And both eventually turned to West Virginia's Big Bend Tunnel, on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) line -- by far the most common location cited in versions of the ballad. In that case, the contest took place in the early 1870s.
More recently, Scott Nelson's book 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man offered the suggestion that John Henry was John William Henry, a prisoner in the Virginia State Penitentiary, leased to C & O to work at Lewis Tunnel. His body was returned to Pen for burial near the white workhouse there.
The most detailed detective work, however, has been done by John Garst, who has comparied the versions of the song with local traditions about John and such external testimony of witnesses as he can find. (He also looked over this note to make sure I didn't misrepresent him, and made extremely valuable suggestions. And I do mean *extremely* valuable; this is not a perfunctory thanks. He corrected several errors, and amplified points which I had missed. Any remaining errors are of course mine.) He has published an initial version of his findings in "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi," Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5, 2002, 92-129, and an updated (but necessarily short and minimally documented) version in the Old Time Herald, Volume 11, #10 (April-May 2009), pp. 14-23.
His conclusions are in stark contrast to what has gone before. He argues that
* The John Henry story took place near Leeds, Alabama, in the Dunnavant Valley, near Oak Tunnel, in the vicinity of Coosa and Oak Mountains (which are two miles apart).
* That the "Captain" of the song is Fred Dabney (born 1835), who was entitled to be called Captain; he had served at that rank in the Confederate Army. He worked for the C & W railroad -- he was the chief engineer and responsible for building the line through the Dunnavant Valley
* That John Henry was perhaps (John) Henry Dabney, born c. 1850 -- possibly a slave on the Dabney family plantation, or possibly Henry, slave to Captain Dabney's father, Augustine "Gus" Dabney, a lawyer in Raymond, Mississippi. John Garst tells me that the plantation was owned by Captain Dabney's uncle, Thomas Dabney. In 1860, Thomas owned 154 slaves, while Gus owned eight, one of whom we know by name, Henry. Gus's Henry was a teenager during the Civil War, "just the right age to have been John Henry."
* That the wife in the song may have been Margaret Foston, whom he married in 1869. According to John Garst, "This depends on the assumption that the Henry Dabney of Copiah County in the 1870 and 1880 censuses was John Henry. The data suggest that the census Henry and the slave Henry could be the same person, and that makes a tidy story, but that is conjecture. What we have are three separate items that we can interpret as overlapping: (1) Spencer's testimony that he was John Henry Dabney, (2) Letitia Dabney's testimony about the slave boy Henry in her (and Captain Dabney's) family, (3) census and marriage records for Henry Dabney of Copiah County, Mississippi (1870 and 1880)."
* That the most likely date for the contest is Tuesday, September 20, 1887
* That John Henry may be one of the first people buried (in an unmarked grave) at Sand Ridge cemetery, about two miles from the C & W line.
What we unfortunately still lack is, obviously, John Henry's grave -- and also external evidence of a contest with a steam drill (though even here, Dunnavant has a better case, since steam drills apparently were not used on the Big Bend Tunnel. John Garst tells me that "We know that Coosa Tunnel was bored using Ingersoll steam drills. The case for Big Bend rests on the possibility, for which there is testimony, that a steam drill was tried out there against John Henry. The use of steam drills in boring Big Bend is therefore not required for the Big Bend theory."). These are the sorts of things that, of course, do not show up in census records or the like.
The Old-Time Herald article by itself is not entirely convincing -- too much of the evidence has to be offered in extremely condensed form. John Garst has said himself that it is too short to document the material he has -- and his postings to the Ballad-L mailing list demonstrate this conclusively: He has more than is in the OTH article. We can only hope that he will someday be able to publish in full form -- including not only his conclusions but his source data. (Most notably, I think he needs a textual analysis of the versions of the song "John Henry," attempting to isolate what is original and what a later accretion.)
With all that scholarly caution, however, I must add that I think John Garst has by now presented a very compelling case. I was never persuaded by earlier arguments about John Henry's existence. I now incline to think he was real. I look forward to John's full-length publication of his data.
John Henry's career which ends with him dying "with his hammer in his hand" may have been partly inspired by real people. Robert Napier, a key figure in the history of Scottish steamships, came from a family of blacksmiths and liked to declare that he was BORN with a hammer in his hand; see Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isumbard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, Harper Collins, 2003, p. 33. - RBW
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