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Country Blues => Weenie Campbell Main Forum => Topic started by: jphauser on March 04, 2013, 09:32:37 AM

Title: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 04, 2013, 09:32:37 AM
I am a new member and would like to share with you some information about the ?John Henry? ballad.   I have been looking at the ballad in connection with an essay I am writing, and would greatly appreciate getting your feedback about my ideas. 

There are eight ?rebel? versions of ?John Henry? which I have come across in my research, and which I believe are a very important?but unknown--part of the John Henry story.  I believe that you will be very surprised by their lyrical content.  They remind me of Lawrence Gellert?s collection of black protest songs.  Below is the key verse from one of the versions.  I believe these versions are largely unknown to performers, music fans, and music scholars.
 
John Henry told his captain,
?A man ain?t nothing but a man.
Before I?d let you beat me down,
I?d die with the hammer in my hand.?

(All eight versions are near the end of this post.)
   

In my opinion, these "rebel" versions may reveal that John Henry was widely regarded among African Americans as a figure of resistance and protest, and that much of that resistance and protest is symbolic or coded.  In all of these rebel versions, a well-known verse from the song which begins ?John Henry said to the captain? has been transformed from a statement of resolve concerning defeating the steam drill into a rebellious challenge against the captain.  Possibly, these alternate lyrics are decoded counterparts to the better known lyrics. If John Henry is coded, then his victory over the steam drill may actually be symbolic of him defeating the captain.  W.C. Handy wrote that when a slave sang about Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go, he was actually ?thinking about his own freedom.  But he dared not sing about himself, so he sang of Pharaoh.?  Similarly, African Americans may have sung of John Henry defeating the drill because they dared not sing about him defeating the captain.

It only makes sense that John Henry would be a figure of black resistance and protest when you consider that he was a great symbol of manhood to African Americans.  Wouldn?t this great symbol of black manhood do what a real man would do?  Wouldn?t a big and powerful man like him stand up for himself and his people and fight back against being whipped or mistreated by the captain?  I?m not saying that the song was not a story of man against machine or a protest against the loss of jobs due to industrialization.  But I am saying that it may also have been a protest against white oppression.
 
I would greatly appreciate it if you could tell me of your own opinions or thoughts about John Henry and about the possibilities that I have raised above.   I imagine that what I am presenting could be quite controversial and might meet with some resistance. 

I am also interested in any suggestions about how I might get an article about my research published.  I've
never had anything published before.   Are there any writers out there who could point me in the right direction?

Thank you so much for your time and input!

Jim Hauser



All eight rebel versions are below.  Four of them are in Howard Odum and Guy B. Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs.  Two of them are from Guy B. Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. 

Commonly known version of the key verse:
John Henry said to the captain
A man ain't nothing but a man
Before I let that steam drill beat me down
I will die with a hammer in my hand.



Rebel versions of the key verse:

Rebel versions 1 to 3: 
John Henry warns his captain against beating him.  Rebel version 1 is what sparked my research.  It's from a book by a white criminal named Ernest Booth who turned to writing while in prison.  It was published in 1929.  According to Booth, he heard it at the age of ten in a black brothel.  He had been taken in by the brothel's madame shortly after he and a friend had decided to see the world by hoboing on trains. 

Rebel Version 1 (from Ernest Booth's Stealing Through Life)
John Henry tole his cap?en one day:
?A man ain?t nuffin? but a man,
But ?fore ah?d let yo? hit me on the --- wid dat strap,
Ah?d die wif dis hammer in mah han? . . . ?
Hey . . . hey . . . hey . . . 

Rebel Version 2  (from Odum & Johnson)
John Henry 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?.? 

Rebel Version 3 (from Johnson)
John Henry told his captain,
?A man ain?t nothing but a man.
Before I?d let you beat me down
I?d die with the hammer in my hand.?


Rebel versions 4 and 5:
John Henry warns his captain that he will not let ?a man??that is, any man?beat him down, and this implies that he will not let the captain beat him.  It might seem that this is an indirect, rather than direct, challenge against the captain. But, in the Jim Crow south?an environment where absolute subservience was demanded of black people in their interactions with whites?even the slightest indirect challenge by a black worker would probably have been perceived by his boss or captain as a direct and intolerable challenge to his authority.

Rebel Version 4 (from Johnson)
John Henry said to the captain,
 ?A man ain?t nothing but a man,
Before I let a man beat me down
I will die with my hammer in my hand.?

Rebel Version 5  (from Odum & Johnson)
John Henry said to his captain
?Lawd, a man ain?t nothin? but a man,
Befo? I let a man beat me down
I?d die wid de hammer in my han?.?



Rebel versions 6 and 7:
In versions six and seven, John Henry warns the captain against overworking him.

Rebel Version 6  (from Odum & Johnson)
John Henry said to his captain,
?Man ain?t nothin? but a man,
Befo? I work from sun to sun
I?d die wid de hammer in my han?.?

Rebel Version 7  (from Odum & Johnson)
John Henry told his captain
?A man ain?t nothin? but a man,
Befo? I work from sun to sun
I?d die wid de hammer in my han?.?



Rebel version 8:
John Henry warns his captain against driving him down, which I believe means working him to the point of collapsing.

Rebel Version 8  (from Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man)
John Henry told-a the Captain,
He said, ?A man ain?t but a man,
And before I?ll stand to let you drive me down,
I will die with the hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,


I've also identified seven other versions of the song in which John Henry does not threaten his captain, but does step over the boundary of what people in the Jim Crow south considered to be acceptable behavior for a black man.  For example, he tells the captain to "shut up" in a version by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Bunker Hill on March 05, 2013, 02:27:53 AM
Welcome.

Back in 2005 there was a lengthy discussion of John Henry which has 61 "replies". To view this and others relevant JH topics just click on the John Henry Tag below.

Have fun.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 05, 2013, 07:47:08 PM
Thanks Bunker Hill.  I'll check out the discussion.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 06, 2013, 07:39:11 AM
There is some great info on that John Henry discussion recommended by Bunker Hill.  Several posts mention Scott R. Nelson's book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend which I have read.   In commenting on the many layers of the book, doctorpep writes, "And it's the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest."  Nelson is one of the few writers I've come across who makes a connection between John Henry and black resistance and protest.  (Also, Barry Lee Pearson has commented that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee recorded a protest version in which John Henry tells the captain to "shut up."  He noted that there are some other versions with protest lyrics, but only identifies one--Pink Anderson's in which Henry warns the captain not to hurry him and threatens to quit.)

Nelson points out that black convict lease workers were used to do the extremely dangerous and back-breaking work of tunnel-building, and that many of them died.  It was practically a death sentence.  If you weren't killed in an accident, tiny particles of dust entering your lungs would eventually kill you.

Nelson points out that the hammer songs that mention John Henry have a theme of overwork and death.  They set a tone that is a sharp contrast to the many upbeat recordings of the ballad.   Still, there are a few versions of "John Henry" which are not upbeat.  Nelson mentions one recorded on Parchman Farm in the 1940s that sounds like a dirge.  (I haven't had a chance to track it down and give it a listen.) Ernest Booth's book (Stealing Through Life) states that the version of "John Henry" he heard in the black brothel sounded like a dirge.  And the great Paul Robeson recorded a sad and mournful version.  His version ends with the line "Polly drove steel like a man."  The upbeat versions of the song give me the impression that the "Polly drove steel" line is praising her prowess with a hammer or celebrating her determination and spirit to keep on going despite the loss or sickness of her man, John Henry.  But Robeson's version makes Polly's situation sound like a tragedy, not triumph.  It reminds me of the line from "Ain't No Cane on the Brazos" that goes "They drove the women just like the men."

Regarding the protest aspect of "John Henry," does anybody out there know of a writer who has interpreted "John Henry" as a coded black protest song?   Or does anyone have knowledge of a writer who has pointed out the open resistance in "John Henry" that we see in the eight "rebel" versions?   

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 07, 2013, 07:57:17 PM
Based on some feedback I've received, I want to clarify the case I am making regarding John Henry as a symbol of black protest and resistance.  I am not trying to say that there is one and only one correct interpretation of John Henry.  There are many versions of the song and they have given rise to a good number of valid interpretations.  But I am saying that the long-forgotten and overlooked  rebel versions of the song  give us a more complete picture of the various possible meanings of John Henry.   In particular, they reveal that--for at least some African-Americans--"John Henry" was a song of defiance, protest, and rebellion. 

The eight rebel versions call out for a new (i.e. additional) interpretation to give us a more complete understanding of the significance of the ballad.   As far as I have been able to determine, there is no existing interpretation of the ballad in which John Henry is viewed as a direct threat to his captain or that the captain is possibly a representative of the white system of power.  Existing interpretations only seem to view John Henry as an indirect or non-militant agent of resistance.  For example, in Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Lawrence Levine likens John Henry to the boxer Joe Louis stating that ?They won their victories within the confines of the legal system in which they lived.  They defeated white society on its own territory and by its own rules.  They triumphed not by breaking the laws of the larger society but by smashing its expectations and stereotypes.?

I am also interested in exploring the possibilities suggested by the rebel versions of ?John Henry.?           Were these versions simply variations or offshoots of the legend that were of secondary importance or do they represent something much more significant?   I think it's possible that the latter is the case.  It may be that defiance, resistance, and protest are deeply ingrained in the legend.  One of my reasons for seeing this as a real possibility is that the theme of manhood courses through the legend.  Here are the lyrics from a version of ?John Henry? by Henry Thomas.

Henry went on the mountain top, givin' his horn a blow. 
Last words the captain said,
"John Henry was a natural man. 
John Henry was a natural man."


Henry Thomas - John Henry (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ochN-6Yr8lM#)


I imagine that Mr. Thomas took special delight in singing this verse.  (As did other black musicians who sang similar lyrics in which John Henry is referred to as a natural man, Tennessee man, steel drivin' man or lyrics in which John Henry declares those lines himself.)   In black speech, the term natural is an intensifier?in other words, John Henry was a re-e-e-al man, a man in full.  Apparently, John Henry's captain knew better than to call him ?boy.?    (According to the book Big Bill Blues, Big Bill Broonzy wrote a song titled ?When Will I Get to be Called a Man?? in 1928, right around the time that Henry Thomas recorded "John Henry.")

Anyways, I'm not saying I have the secret to ?John Henry.?  I'm just saying that we need to explore the possibilities.  I'd like to write an article that brings out things like this and try to stimulate some discussion and further research.  If not me, then maybe the words of James Baldwin will give us the incentive to do this:

"It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. "
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Mr.OMuck on March 07, 2013, 09:34:56 PM

I'd have to weigh in with those who see this as essentially a protest song, a boasting song, a Labor song and a tragic death song. One only has to read about workers in the early part of the twentieth century's fears regarding losing their jobs to machines (kind of like my adjunct professor fears concerning MOOCs) and sometimes sabotaging those machines, to realize the context in which this song appeared and its universal class meaning. John Henry is not just fighting his battle for himself and Black men, but for all working men, which makes him a transcendent, universal hero and symbol. Its also apparent to me coming from a leftwing background that much of the lyric content of Blues touches on racism and African American resistance and resentment and sometimes depressingly necessary submission for the purposes of sheer survival. So you're not barking up the wrong tree at all and I suggest reading this thread:


http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4484.50 (http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4484.50)
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Johnm on March 07, 2013, 09:43:36 PM
Hi all,
I would add only that for me, the real rebellion happens post-John Henry, as in "Spike Driver's Blues", when John Hurt sang,
   This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won't kill me, but it won't kill me, but it won't kill me
   Take this hammer and carry it to my captain, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone
The real rebellion it seems to me, lies in saying, "I'm not going to kill myself working for somebody else.  I'm out of here."  I think the implication is that John Henry was played, but the singer won't be played that way, drawn into competition with a machine or anything else that will cause his death by overwork.  Just step away.  In this regard, I think John Henry was a cautionary example for those who followed him, an example of what not to do.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Bunker Hill on March 07, 2013, 11:09:50 PM
This is pretty ancient (1998) but I reckon a reasonable summary of older information

http://tinyurl.com/cm584lv (http://tinyurl.com/cm584lv)
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Mr.OMuck on March 08, 2013, 06:38:25 AM
Interesting article from a surprising source B.H. Thanks. :)
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Bunker Hill on March 08, 2013, 07:03:08 AM
Interesting article from a surprising source B.H. Thanks. :)
About a decade or so ago Paul mentioned to me that he was thinking of revising it. Would it be worthwhile my enquiring if he undertook such?
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: dj on March 08, 2013, 07:49:38 AM
That was an interesting article you posted, B.H.  It makes me wish I had several thousand spare dollars floating around, 20 extra feet of bookshelf, and a lot more time to read.  If you hear anything about a revision, please let us know.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 08, 2013, 08:35:03 AM
Regarding Paul Garon's article on "John Henry" books, it doesn't mention Odum and Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs which has about 10 or 12 versions of "John Henry" including four of the "rebel" versions that I've identified.  My guess is that he is aware of the book, but maybe didn't include it in his article because it's not specifically about the steel driver.

I e-mailed Paul about a week ago and haven't heard back, yet.  We've corresponded briefly several times in the past, but not on John Henry.  He could contribute a lot to the discussion along the idea of resistance and protest in black music.

Jim
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 08, 2013, 11:32:15 AM
John Henry is not just fighting his battle for himself and Black men, but for all working men, which makes him a transcendent, universal hero and symbol.
[float=left](https://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/proxy.php?request=http%3A%2F%2F&hash=f81115b3ee1da6df78304c125dfbcd19)[/float]

I agree.  He is a hero who appeals to more than just black people.   And he is a hero to different groups for different reasons.   I've already discussed one reason why he was a hero to the black community.  Alan Dundes in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel suggests another reason saying that he is a black hero for winning a contest with the odds stacked against him and in which "the white man appears to possess all the power."   In this respect, he is the type of hero described by Levine who does not pit himself directly against the laws of white society, but smashes its stereotypes and expectations.

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 08, 2013, 11:43:47 AM

I would add only that for me, the real rebellion happens post-John Henry, as in "Spike Driver's Blues", when John Hurt sang,
   This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won't kill me, but it won't kill me, but it won't kill me
   Take this hammer and carry it to my captain, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone
The real rebellion it seems to me, lies in saying, "I'm not going to kill myself working for somebody else.  I'm out of here."  I think the implication is that John Henry was played, but the singer won't be played that way, drawn into competition with a machine or anything else that will cause his death by overwork.  Just step away.  In this regard, I think John Henry was a cautionary example for those who followed him, an example of what not to do.

I agree that this is another important aspect of the story of John Henry.  Scott Nelson covers similar territory in his book.  I think that in Johnson's book, he actually suggests that the John Henry hammer songs preceded the ballad.  I doubt that anyone could prove which came first.  I'm not sure what Johnson's reasoning was.  I'll have to check the book when I get back home.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: yogi on March 08, 2013, 12:23:51 PM
So many blueas songs have implicitly rebellious lyrics. Very few, if any at all, are explicit. I suppose this is because the african-americans weren't numerous enough to actually pull of a revolution so they had to be very careful. It is a very different thing but the people subjected to the nazi concentration camps didn't rebel either and if they protested I think it was mainly implicitly.

Off topic perhaps but I've often wondered why there never was a popular uprising in the USA, a real rebellion, an attempted revolution. The slaves and their decendants had good reasons to do so as did many workers in the first part of the 20:th century. The living conditions they had to endure would have, I think, a far greater potential to spark a rebellion had they occured in Europe (which I suppose they did).

Maybe it's the inherent "pecking order" in the USA due to the general attitude towards people of african decent. I mean in Europe, if you were poor and oppressed you were part of a more or less homogenous majority while in the USA, if you were black you probably didn't have the numbers to succeed with a revolution and if you were white you may have found comfort in the fact that you actually weren't at the bottom yet. Things could be worse so to speak.

I don't look at the civil war as a rebellion in this way, that's more of a state surpressing a rebellious group. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement only occurred when enough whites had developed a sympathy for the blacks and the horrible situation they were in. The anti war- and the hippie movements aren't revolutions either.

I haven't studied this so maybe I should do that rather than pestering this thread. Please disregard me if you feel that way, if you don't I'd very much like to hear what someone who has studied this has to say on the subject.

Also, I'm not quite sure which terms to use for populations of different decent so please don't be angry with me if used expressions I shouldn't have. Naturally I realise a term like "the whites" does not correspond to a group of people which have the same interests, it's a obviously a generalisation.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Johnm on March 08, 2013, 02:52:57 PM
Hi all,
In the interest of averting thread creep, and as a courtesy to jphauser2000, who started the thread, can we confine comments to the subject of rebellion as it pertains to John Henry?  Thanks.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: dj on March 08, 2013, 05:21:12 PM
jp,

I don't have too much to quibble with what you're saying, but I keep coming back to one phrase in your original post:

Quote
John Henry was widely regarded among African Americans as a figure of resistance and protest, and that much of that resistance and protest is symbolic or coded.

I really don't like that word "coded", for two reasons.  First, because the meaning of the verses you quote is obvious to us, and therefore would have been obvious to any native English speaker of 100 years ago, and second because most of the versions you cite were sung by black Americans to the white Americans who were collecting the songs.  So the verses you cite were fairly obvious and were freely sing to members of the group that they were protesting against.  I think a better description of what was going on is not that the songs were a "coded" protest, but rather that slipping a mild protest into the words of a character in a song made the protest safe, or at least safer than it would have been to speak the words as one's own.  The singer, if questioned, could always say "That's what John Henry said, it's not what I think."

Other than that, I think you're on pretty solid ground with your assumptions.   
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 08, 2013, 07:42:11 PM
I really don't like that word "coded", for two reasons.  First, because the meaning of the verses you quote is obvious to us, and therefore would have been obvious to any native English speaker of 100 years ago, and second because most of the versions you cite were sung by black Americans to the white Americans who were collecting the songs.  So the verses you cite were fairly obvious and were freely sing to members of the group that they were protesting against.   

Thanks for bringing this up dj. 

What I was trying to say?and could have been clearer about?is that these rebel versions which contain open protest and opposition against white oppression may be decodings of the much better known versions which (on the surface) do not appear to contain that protest.  More specifically, possibly for some African Americans--maybe many--John Henry's victory over the drill was symbolic of defeating the captain.  If so, the protest comes from many more voices than just those who sang the rebel versions. 

It goes back to the argument of whether the blues contain protest or not.  Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, and Peter Guralnick have written that there is little protest in the blues.  Others have argued that there is a coded protest in blues.  And they argue that there may also have been much more open protest in the blues, but we have little documentation of it because the performers censored themselves from revealing those blues of open protest to the white researchers who were collecting and recording the songs.   

Your comment about making a protest safe (or safer) by having it come from a character in the song is something I never thought of.  It makes a lot of sense.   I'm going to keep it in mind as I continue to do my research and listen to black music.

Also, I want to share this video interview of Odetta.  She talks about the significance of African American work songs and how they were a music of resistance.  She calls them liberation songs.   I think the same thing could be said of the blues.  Would anybody like to share their thoughts about black music or the blues as being songs of resistance or protest or liberation songs?  We've already heard a little bit along those lines in earlier posts. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

Let me explain what I mean by the blues being liberation songs.   Ralph Ellison wrote that the blues are not political protest, but that "they are an art form and thus a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice."   I think that through this transcendence, the blues can be seen as songs of liberation.  Ellison goes on to say that the blues are a survival technique.  I agree that the blues (and black folklore) were survival techniques.   And despite Ellison's statement that the blues are not social protest, I think that they are.   As a survival technique, they are a form of resistance--a way of saying "no,"  a way of saying (to make reference to what Odetta says in the video) "get your foot off my throat, I am going to make it despite your attempts to destroy me."   Through sheer force of will, the blues are songs of self-liberation.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: uncle bud on March 09, 2013, 07:12:08 AM
I don't disagree with the premise at all, I just wonder, from a publishing perspective, as suggested in the original post, what is new about this interpretation? It would seem to me to be the standard take on the song as sung by African Americans.

edited to add: I say that without having gone back to confirm it in the literature. I would just be taken by surprise if this hadn't been dealt with before.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 09, 2013, 08:59:54 AM
I don't disagree with the premise at all, I just wonder, from a publishing perspective, as suggested in the original post, what is new about this interpretation?


When I first came across a version of the ballad in which John Henry rebels against his captain, I thought it was unusual but wasn't exactly sure.  I did some research and couldn't find anyone interpreting the song in a way that viewed him as a militant type who would strike back against his captain.  (And, by the way,  I think it's fair to consider the possibility that, in striking back against the captain, he is also symbolically striking back against the white system in general.)  From what I've found, the legend is largely seen as a protest against industrialization and the changes that come with that including the loss of jobs.    One writer (possibly Norm Cohen in Long Steel Rail ) suggests it's not really a protest against machines replacing laborers, but more about the way that displaced workers were just cast aside without any help.  The black vs. white aspect of protest takes a back seat to the labor aspect.  And when writers discuss the song in terms of black vs. white, they don't see John Henry as a militant figure.  For example, I mentioned in an earlier post that Lawrence Levine sees John Henry as a hero who achieves his victories within the boundaries set by white society rather than crossing those boundaries.   

One of the most surprising interpretations I came across regarding the black vs. white aspect was one by Alan Dundes in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel.  In trying to explain the ballad's appeal to white people, he suggested that John Henry may have been a figure who eased the fears of whites about blacks because he wasn't a "bad n*igger."     Instead, John Henry is the loyal worker who engages in a contest to win a bet for his captain, and even goes as far as sacrificing his life to win the bet.  So the captain takes his winnings and John Henry pays for it with his life.  Dundes even suggests that some whites may have seen John Henry as an Uncle Tom.  (By the way, Dundes is one of the most respected names in the field of folklore.) 

Again, I think Dundes was just trying to offer an explanation of John Henry's appeal to whites as far as the racial aspect goes.   If he is correct in his theory, then we can see how our interpretation of the legend has changed over time.  On that note, one writer who I've corresponded with has stated that "the folk revival (notably the white singers like Burl Ives and The Weavers) turned it into a kind of generic anthem to the glory of individuality and humanity."

I do think that the 8 rebel versions which I've identified show that at least some blacks saw John Henry as a figure of rebellion.    And, as far as I can tell, this is not reflected in literature discussing the meaning and significance of the legend.   The eight cases that I've found are not an insignificant number, and they don't all only come from one region of the country.  They come from the west (Texas and California) and various areas in the east.  The fact that they come from across the country and are all variations of the same verse is amazing in my opinion and an indicator that there was a "standard" rebel version of the ballad.   

I am not making a claim for having proved something that we didn't already know.  I am not a trained folklorist so there may be some flaws in my thinking.   But I believe that I've gathered evidence of a very intriguing possibility.  And if that possibility turns out to have some legs, it could have some real impact on some very important issues.   

1. Was there actually a race with the drill or was it just symbolic?1   (Not that we'll ever have iron clad proof that the race did or didn't happen.)

2. Do the rebel versions of "John Henry" add to the mounting evidence that Lawrence Gellert's collection of black protest songs are genuine?   

3.  Will these rebel versions (even though "John Henry" is not a blues song) result in changing the opinions of those who argue that there is little protest in the blues?

My main goal is to bring all of this to the attention of the experts and also to the blues and folk community in general including musicians and music fans.   Time will tell if I really have come up with something of significance.

Jim

Note 1.  Here is an example of how it might be symbolic.  Scott Nelson's book documents that convict lease workers were among those who built the railroad tunnels.   He also shows that some workers were killed for mutiny.   Possibly one of those mutineers performed a great act or acts of rebellion.  Maybe he stood up to a particularly vicious captain or even killed him.    He would have been a hero to the other workers.   But obviously they wouldn't be able to sing about him defeating the captain--at least not in "mixed" company.  And let's say that the story of this mutineer spread and as it spread his legend grew and eventually some black man decided that he was going to start singing about him on the job right in front of his own captain.   He couldn't sing about John Henry defeating the captain, so he sang about him defeating the steam drill instead.   He could have gotten the idea from someone saying something like "that old John Henry was so bad that he could outhammer a steam drill."


Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Shovel on March 09, 2013, 11:02:00 PM
3.  Will these rebel versions (even though "John Henry" is not a blues song) result in changing the opinions of those who argue that there is little protest in the blues?

Is your premise that a 16 year old Dock Boggs would think, man SCREW the captian of that coal mine!  Have's always out to get the Have Nots!  Love that song!

Whereas a 16 year old Lead Belly might think, man SCREW the captain of that gang, whites always out to get the blacks!

So basically, are we projecting a veil of reactionary racism onto our pure hearted Lead Belly in this interpretation of the song? Or, put differently, Lead Belly wouldn't hate the guy because he was a rough as pig-iron boss man who treated him bad, maybe partly that, but Lead Belly has another level of disdain for the guy and love for his demise because he is white, and lead belly doesn't differentiate individual whites, he just has anger at whites in general, and the bossman fits the bill so he gets an extra dose of lead belly's resentment compared to Boggs, who only hated him because he was a mean human, regardless of race.

i dont know, when i think about the 'blues', or whatever you want to call it, i find it tough to think that somewhere in the universe of the blues, there are two teams battling over whether there is a 'little' protest in the blues or "more than a little" or "a lot", pushing a blues-football from the 18 yard line, up to the 25, back to the 19.  and somewhere else in the universe of the blues, there are walls of texts like this one.  i just dont know what to think about it.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 10, 2013, 09:32:10 AM
i dont know, when i think about the 'blues', or whatever you want to call it, i find it tough to think that somewhere in the universe of the blues, there are two teams battling over whether there is a 'little' protest in the blues or "more than a little" or "a lot", pushing a blues-football from the 18 yard line, up to the 25, back to the 19.  and somewhere else in the universe of the blues, there are walls of texts like this one.  i just dont know what to think about it.


Pardon me for getting on my soapbox here:

Some people think that the issue of whether there is protest in the blues isn't very important.  And some people think that it's important, but that there are more important issues.  Samuel Charters, in an article written in the year 2004 in which he examines Lawrence Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest, writes that "For some time the controversy has simply been a side issue in blues scholarship, since there has been so much else that took precedence." 

We all have different interests and opinions, and personally I can't think of a more important issue than the question of whether protest exists in the blues.  How many black people do you see in the audience when you go to a blues festival?  Blacks in the audience are probably outnumbered by the black performers.  They don't want to have anything to do with the blues because they see it as impotent.   Wynton Marsalis had that attitude at one time.  I don't have the quote at my fingertips, but he said something along the lines that when he was younger he could care less about music in which a black man whines about how he's been mistreated by his woman to cover up the fact that some white man has his foot up his ass.   (With that comment, Marsalis is--knowingly or unknowingly--making a comment on the coded protest contained in the blues and echoing statements made by Willie King, Willie Foster, and Brownie McGhee concerning singing about your woman in place of the bossman.)   I've heard black people refer to the blues with disdain as "slavery music." 

James Cone (in The Spirituals and the Blues) states:

Much has been said about the absence of social protest in the blues.  As Samuel Charters put it:  "The blues do not try to express an attitude toward the separateness of Negro life in America.  Protest is only a small thread in the blues."   There is some truth in Charters' observation.  the blues do not openly condemn white society, and there is little direct complaint to white people about about the injustice of segregation.  But my difficulty with Charters' interpretation and others like it is the implied and often stated conclusion that the absence of open attack upon white society means that black people accepted their oppressed condition.  As Paul Oliver openly states:  "That the number of protest blues is small is in part the result of the Negro's acceptance of the stereotypes that have been cut for him." 

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who has been writing books about black heroes geared  towards inspiring younger blacks, wrote a book about his "journey through the Harlem Renaissance" which put the blues in a very bad light.  I know he's a big jazz fan.  I would think that he would also appreciate the blues, but it does not appear so based on his book.  He might even think that the idea of writing a book about blues musicians to inspire young people is laughable.    Here's a link to a review I made in Amazon on the book I referenced (On the Shoulders of Giants)  Look for the review titled "A good book with a bad mistake." 

I commend Jabbar for trying to inspire young blacks, but he's not going to turn them on to the blues.   And that's unfortunate because blues is an amazing part of black culture and could be a great source of inspiration for the kids that read Jabbar's books.  As long as there is this perception out there that the blues is something to be ashamed of, black kids will carry that shame inside them.   

I'm going to step off my soapbox now.  I guess I climbed up on it in other posts preceding this one and it's probably getting tiresome.  So, I'll try to tone it down (and be briefer).


Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Johnm on March 10, 2013, 11:02:41 AM
Hi jphauser2000,
I'm not sure black folk need your approval or guidance as to how they should relate to their cultural heritage.  In fact I'm sure they don't.  It is nobody's business but that of the individuals in question whether they like, promote, take pride in, or choose to ignore the blues. 
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 10, 2013, 01:59:01 PM


I'm not sure black folk need your approval or guidance as to how they should relate to their cultural heritage.  In fact I'm sure they don't.  It is nobody's business but that of the individuals in question whether they like, promote, take pride in, or choose to ignore the blues. 
All best,
Johnm

You make a good point, JohnM.   I agree and admit that I'm wrong.

And in response to an earlier post, I'll admit that I can't prove that some white guy (Woody Guthrie, for example) didn't ever sing his own rebel version of "John Henry" in response to something that happened to a white laborer.  (Not that he wouldn't have created it in response to something that happened to a black laborer.)   I just think that, as far as being correct about who created the rebel versions and their significance, the odds are in my favor.  (Not that I'll ever be able to provide absolute proof that I'm right.)

Jim

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Shovel on March 11, 2013, 05:01:53 AM

And in response to an earlier post, I'll admit that I can't prove that some white guy (Woody Guthrie, for example) didn't ever sing his own rebel version of "John Henry" in response to something that happened to a white laborer.  (Not that he wouldn't have created it in response to something that happened to a black laborer.)   I just think that, as far as being correct about who created the rebel versions and their significance, the odds are in my favor.  (Not that I'll ever be able to provide absolute proof that I'm right.)

Thanks for following up man.  Yeah, I haven't done a tremendous amount of research on the topic, but I wouldn't necessarily doubt that it could have roots you describe and I wouldn't be shocked if you turned up some evidence that convinced me.  I'm not really closed minded about it, and in general its a nice feeling every time I find out someone is interested in or has some level of obsession with the old music/blues.  It's like when I hear someone stopped eating McDonald's because they found out teh olde food is made of realer stuff and will nurture you better. 

And it can often be dicey to talk race because there is so much to it.  Then talking race and its impact on anything else is inherently going to be similarly dicey when trying to form solid opinions, at least it often is for me.  I also think it's tough to find the balance between talking in generalities and stereotypes vs talking about the uniqueness of the specific artist.  I feel both have their place but I often feel discussions tread too much on the former and not enough on the latter.   

I absolutely applaud you sharing your ideas and I hope to read more of your ideas in the future. 
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 11, 2013, 08:26:06 AM
And it can often be dicey to talk race because there is so much to it.  Then talking race and its impact on anything else is inherently going to be similarly dicey when trying to form solid opinions, at least it often is for me.  I also think it's tough to find the balance between talking in generalities and stereotypes vs talking about the uniqueness of the specific artist.  I feel both have their place but I often feel discussions tread too much on the former and not enough on the latter.   

Thanks.  Your comments and comments by others have helped me to see that I need to broaden my approach/perspective.   I came into this discussion on the defensive, but everybody has been great with their comments and criticism, both on and off the board.  And thanks to all who've contibuted to the discussion!
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Rivers on March 11, 2013, 10:23:02 PM
I would just chime-in here to say there are many instances of hidden narrative within this category of music. While the artist may not overtly state them they are there and we, the audience, feel them. This adds the depth and dimension that draws us to art in the first place. While they may be 'secondary' to the main narrative they are actually equally- or more important when weighing the final effect.

Whether or not we as listeners chose to attempt to objectify and explain these 'secondary' abstractions and the images they evoke beyond the on-the-face-of-it simple lyrical framework is entirely personal. Like any work of art the full power becomes apparent from absorbing and combining all the literal- and abstract devices on display.

Politics, race and struggle are just examples of abstract ideas interwoven within stories. I daresay there are thousands of others; focusing on just one aspect I find less interesting than understanding the mechanism at large.

Anyway, great thread, food for thought.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 12, 2013, 08:25:47 PM
I would just chime-in here to say there are many instances of hidden narrative within this category of music. While the artist may not overtly state them they are there and we, the audience, feel them. This adds the depth and dimension that draws us to art in the first place.
Well said!  Don't they say that great musicians are great communicators?   They express a lot more than what's being said through the lyrics. 
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on March 16, 2013, 06:46:50 PM
In response to a question posted earlier concerning whether Leadbelly (or any other black person) who lived in the Jim Crow south would have been a racist for interpreting a rebel version of "John Henry" as a protest against white oppression, my answer is "no."   It took me a while to give a direct answer to this question (see my post referencing Woody Guthrie for my indirect answer) because, for me, it was a very difficult question.   It was a fair and great question because it forced me to think of what I was working on from a different perspective.  And the question really does demand an answer.   

One of the reasons the question made me think was that I was aware of the fact that, back in the 1920s, a 23-year-old white convict lease worker named Martin Tabert was whipped to death in Florida.   So the question made me realize that a white person could have also created or sung rebel versions of "John Henry."   But to finally answer the question, here is my opinion.  I believe that you can't fault a black man for seeing a captain who whipped him--whether it was in prison or on the job-- as an extension or representative of the system which was oppressing him.

http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/timeline/1921.html (http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/timeline/1921.html)  (Link to details about the death of Martin Tabert.)


(Amended to correct spelling from Talbert to Tabert.)
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on May 31, 2013, 01:25:41 PM
I've been continuing my research into "John Henry" and came across a version by Reese Crenshaw in which John Henry complains of being dogged by the Captain.  John Henry is on a chain gang in this one.  At least that's the way I hear it.  Here are the lyrics as I hear them for that particular verse.

John Henry told his captain
"Don't see how in the world it can be
Been seven years on your chain gang
You don't dog nobody but me. "  (last line is repeated three more times.)

Here is a link to the recording.

http://archive.org/details/ReeseCrenshaw-JohnHenry (http://archive.org/details/ReeseCrenshaw-JohnHenry)


I came across something on the web indicating it was recorded in a Georgia state prison in the mid-thirties.

Does anyone know anything about Crenshaw?

Jim Hauser
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Bunker Hill on June 01, 2013, 12:46:20 AM

I came across something on the web indicating it was recorded in a Georgia state prison in the mid-thirties.

Does anyone know anything about Crenshaw?

Jim Hauser
FWIW.

From 1978 booklet notes by Bruce Bastin to Red River Runs
Flyright-Matchbox Library of Congress Series: Volume Seven
FLY LP 259


Milledgeville lies south east of Atlanta on the main route from Macon to Augusta, now somewhat off the beaten track but to ante bellum Georgia it was the state capital. As well as its more distinguished residences it also houses the Georgia State Prison, where some recordings were made shortly before Christmas in 1934. As the 1940 State guide described it; 'The Georgia State Prison... is housed in twenty five buildings on a 4,000 acre form. The main building is a rambling, red brick structure surrounded by well kept grounds. Executive officers occupy the front of both floors. On the first floor are the dining hells, print shops, and machine shops. On the second floor ore separate dormitories for white and Negro male prisoners. The women prisoners are housed in camps about a mile away'.

'The greater part of the 1,000 inmates are white. Prisoners, though well cared for, receive no wages for the labor required of them. The diversified crops and livestock raised by the prisoners provide food for the entire institution. Negro women work to the fields, and white women sew for all the prisoners. All are allowed to listen to radio program, and once a weak motion pictures are shown'.

This rather rustic picture of southern correctional agrarianism hardly fits the picture of the Georgia penal system as given by Lawrence Gellert in the 1930s:

'Near Augusta, Georgia, I hung around a chain gang for days. One of the Negro convicts somehow aroused the wrath of the guards. Two of them want for him, pummelled and kicked him until he lay still and bleeding on the ground. "Isn't there a law of some kind against a guard beating a prisoner?'.' I asked a third guard lolling on the grass beside me, watching the proceedings. "Hell", he answered, "there ain't no law for niggers. We has to use our own good judgement." And he showed me the horrible abrasions and ring sores, brass knuckles had caused in the exercise of his "good judgement". "We 23 ain't 'lowed to use no whips no more", he explained.'

John Lomax recorded many songs in Georgia prisons but few of them had instrumental accompaniments. Those recorded in Milledgeville from Reece Crenshaw are fine examples of the east coast style of guitar playing. Nothing else is known about Crenshaw, whose playing on Trouble deserves to rank him among better known Georgia bluesmen. Towards the end of the song, another convict trades verses with Crenshaw, who identifies him at the end, singing:

If anybody ask you, who composed this song,
Tell   him Cool Breeze and his companion,
been through here and gone.

At the end of the disc, John Lomax confirms Crenshaw's statement, saying that 'Cool Breeze assisted on the first sang'. A further snatch of Crenshaw's guitar is to be heard on the anonymous Archive of Folk Song disc AFS 260 B 1, Stocktime which unfortunately has serious speed fluctuations.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on June 01, 2013, 06:58:54 AM
Bunker Hill, thanks so much for the notes by Bruce Bastin describing Crenshaw and the prison at Milledgeville!  Coincidentally, I just returned Bastin's book Red River Blues to the library.  I'll have to check it out again to see if it has any additional info on Crenshaw.

Based on the recording, I believe that Crenshaw was black, but I'm not sure.  Do you agree?

Jim
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Bunker Hill on June 01, 2013, 07:58:00 AM
Yes BB does discuss Crenshaw and Milledgeville Penn. in his book on pps 53-4. It's only three paragraphs saying much the same as in the book but does state that there were a  "1,000 inmates, mostly whites". I've always thought he was black but...

It was John Cowley in 1973/4 who was responsible for "disinterring" the Lomax recordings of the period to 1938 and the fruits of his labours can be seen in the 8 LP's issued by Flyright at Stefan's discography:

http://www.wirz.de/music/flyrifrm.htm (http://www.wirz.de/music/flyrifrm.htm)

Scroll down to the Flyright-Matchbox series
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on June 01, 2013, 09:43:14 AM
Yes BB does discuss Crenshaw and Milledgeville Penn. in his book on pps 53-4. It's only three paragraphs saying much the same as in the book but does state that there were a  "1,000 inmates, mostly whites". I've always thought he was black but...

I'm pretty sure that Crenshaw was black.  It's surprising to me that the prison held mostly white inmates according to Bastin.   I wonder if maybe he made a mistake.  I've always assumed that the prisons in the Jim Crow south had largely black populations.  Years ago, I read somewhere that blacks in prison during the years of Jim Crow were relatively peaceful compared to whites because only the worst of white criminals were sent to prison.

Thanks for the link to the discography.  There are a good number of "John Henry" recordings included there that I will follow up on.  (Didn't know that John Lee Hooker did a version.)

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on September 05, 2013, 03:51:20 PM
Since my original post on this subject in which I identified eight rebel versions of "John Henry," I've identified three more.  One of the three is a Memphis Slim recording and another is a recording by Irma Thomas which appears on a Hugh Laurie CD.   The third appears in the book Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes which, in a relatively recently published edition, was edited by Charles K. Wolfe.   Talley was an early black folklorist and the book was originally published in 1922.


I've created a webpage in which I list and discuss all 11 rebel versions and over a dozen other versions in which John Henry challenges or stands up to his captain or is in conflict with him in some way.   Here is a link to the page.

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/ (https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/)

You can also find it quickly by Googling "John Henry" rebel.

The webpage also includes a discussion of John Henry as a symbol of black manhood and the possible significance of that role.  I'm sure that there will be a good bit of disagreement over my ideas and interpretation of the John Henry legend.  And I'm open to the possibility that I might be wrong.  I'll continue to research and think and write about the subject and see where it all takes me.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the discussion so far.  You have added to my knowledge and understanding of the subject, and have, in some ways, shaped my approach to it.

Jim Hauser





Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: oddenda on September 07, 2013, 01:08:53 AM
1.) "John Henry" was the usual opener for Peg Leg Sam's busking performances, folk festivals, and in the medicine show(?) - he told me that it drew crowds and that it was the most popular song in his (vast) repertoire.

2.) Henry "Rufe" Johnson recorded an unusual version for me that was issued on his album (TRIX 3304).

3.) I recorded John Cehas playing it (as did others). One of the few NON-slide versions I've heard.

4.) Most folks I recorded said that it was (one of) the first songs they learned to play on the guitar as playing in an open tuning was simpler than fingering. I have many versions, but have not issue them because it's such a common song in repertoires and they all sound the same!

Peter B. 
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on September 07, 2013, 11:00:48 AM

Henry "Rufe" Johnson recorded an unusual version for me that was issued on his album (TRIX 3304).

Peter B. 

Hi Pete,
dj describes Henry Johnson's version in a post to WC (see link below) as "The story is about John Henry taking sick and his wife going to work for him." 

http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4256.5;wap2 (http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4256.5;wap2)

As you know, a verse about John Henry's wife taking up his place with a hammer after he falls sick or dies is commonly found in the ballad.  But I've never heard a detailed story concerning it like the one that dj describes as being in your recording of Johnson.

I read about a version of JH by Valentine Pringle done for a box set CD project which was put together by Harry Belafonte which contains the "Polly drove steel like a man" verse, and apparently there is a line in it which goes something like "and they called on Polly Ann" suggesting that she was forced to take his place.  Have you or anyone else heard the Pringle version or another one that suggests a similar thing?

I think I've noted in a previous post that the "Polly drove steel like a man" line reminds me of the line "They were driving the women just like the men" from "Ain't No More Cane On the Brazos."   When you hear a version of "John Henry" that is not an upbeat rendition--such as the one by Paul Robeson--the "Polly drove steel" line can convey a very different meaning.
Jim








Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: Johnm on September 07, 2013, 12:20:37 PM
Hi Jim,
If you go to the "Henry Johnson Lyrics" thread, which can be found via the tags index, I transcribed the lyrics and long spoken narration of the Henry Johnson version of "John Henry" there.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on September 07, 2013, 12:25:41 PM
Thanks John!  I'll check the thread.
Jim
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: wreid75 on September 07, 2013, 12:49:14 PM
I had a lecture in college talking about John Henry and Stagger Lee as symbols of black resistance.  It focused on the contrast between the two, one being largely positive and one being largely negative.   Interestingly enough the class was split upon which image or legend we identified with or supported.  The younger students while admitting that there wasn't much redeemable about Lee still supported the story due to the imagery of fighting oppression for people who were completely oppressed.  The older group (unfortunately included me :'() identified heavily with Henry and the fact that he used his strengths in a positive way. 
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on September 07, 2013, 07:44:13 PM
Interestingly enough the class was split upon which image or legend we identified with or supported.  The younger students while admitting that there wasn't much redeemable about Lee still supported the story due to the imagery of fighting oppression for people who were completely oppressed.  The older group (unfortunately included me :'() identified heavily with Henry and the fact that he used his strengths in a positive way. 

I guess the younger folks see Stagger Lee as more of a man of action.   He was definitely an appealing figure for young, militant blacks in the sixties.   Black Panther Bobby Seale was heavily influenced by the legend.
Jim
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on October 19, 2014, 01:38:42 PM
In my continuing research into "John Henry", I've come across a recording of the song by a blind black musician named Bailey Dansley.   In the second line of the final verse of the song, it sounds like John Henry tells his captain that he has made a "bad mistake."   I've come across two recordings by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with similar lines in this verse--one in which John Henry says "Shut up! You don't know what you sayin'" and another in which he says "Captain, you are wrong."  It sounds to me like the second line in Dansley's version contains the phrase "you's a bad mistake" which I interpret to mean "you made" or "you are making" a bad mistake.  Am I hearing it right???  The webpage with the recording (link is below) includes a transcription which has the word "that's" instead of what I hear as "you's." 

 http://digitalcollections.uark.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/OzarkFolkSong/id/2333/rec/7 (http://digitalcollections.uark.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/OzarkFolkSong/id/2333/rec/7)

Below is the verse as I hear it.  Note that based on context and on a number of other versions of the song, including the versions by Terry and McGhee, Dansley mistakenly switches John Henry and the Captain in the first line.

Henry told his Captain, "The mountain's falling in." 
"No Captain, you's a bad mistake.
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind.
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind, God knows.
My hammer handle ringing in the wind."


Below is a transcription of the verse that appears on the webpage which contains the recording.  Note that it's clearly inaccurate and that it even does not include Dansley's mistake of switching John Henry and the captain in the first line of the verse.

Captain told John Henry the mountain's falling in
Henry say to the Captain, That's a bad mistake
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind, God knows
That's my hammer handle ringing in the wind



This is quite an interesting version of the song with some unique lines in other verses!


Jim Hauser
https://sites.google.com/site/JohnHenryTheRebelVersions/home (https://sites.google.com/site/JohnHenryTheRebelVersions/home)

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on November 16, 2015, 05:17:34 PM
It's been about a year since I've added to this thread and I want to let those who may be interested know that I am still actively researching "John Henry" and continuing to find some interesting things. 

I just recently updated my website to include versions of the ballad by Furry Lewis and Virgil Perkins which include protest verses from black work songs.   I originally posted to WC about these versions about a month ago and the link below is a link to that thread.

http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=10839.msg95307#msg95307


Below is a little info about some of the more interesting versions I've come across but not yet mentioned on WC.

The book Stars in de Elements written by an African American music professor and folklorist named Willis Laurence James has a bad man version of "John Henry" with the following verses.  The lyrics are in the AAB format.

John Henry was a man didn't 'bey no law (twice)
Didn't need no gun, could whip an' man he cross.

De white man say, John Henry, do lak yo' please  (twice)
Done hear 'bout yo', all de way f 'om Tennessee.


A version which I imagine is unknown even to many of those who have researched the John Henry legend is a version collected by Mary Wheeler (author of the book Steamboatin' Days: Folk Songs of the River Packet Era) from the lower Ohio River Valley in the mid-193os.  It was performed for her by a black woman named Minerva Williams and it is not one of the versions contained in Wheeler's book.  It can be found in the Mary Wheeler Collection of the McCracken County Public Library in Paducah, Kentucky.  A couple of verses from that version are below.

John Henry said to the walking boss,
I'm nothin' but a man,
And before I take any abuse from you,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand,
I'll die with this hammer in my hand.

John Henry drove steel in the mountain with his woman right by his side,
And the water came a running down John Henry's cheeks,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky,
Like the rain out of the deep blue sky.


Clicking on the link below will take you to a webpage containing a digital image of Mary Wheeler's typewritten transcript of the complete verses/lyrics to the song (which is identified as John Henry #3).   Note: In some versions of some web browsers, the image may not download and you may only get a list of details about the song in a column on the left side of the webpage.  In this case, clicking on the "Printer Friendly" link on the upper right side of the page may display the image containing the verses.  If not, try clicking on the link in a different browser.
   
http://digitalcollections.mclib.net/luna/servlet/detail/McCracken~13~13~113~2256:John-Henry,-


You can get to my website with the link below.
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home

Jim Hauser

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: tinpanallygurl on November 17, 2015, 02:07:08 PM
Much better than the Stagger, Stack o Lee.  John Henry reminds me of 1960s America, Stack o Lee reminds me of 2015 America
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on November 22, 2015, 07:04:26 AM
In addition to the update on what I've found so far about the legend, I want to give you an idea of the direction in which my research may be headed.  One of the things I've observed after reviewing many versions of "John Henry" is that, if you judge based upon the frequency that the commonly occurring verses appear in the song, John Henry's victory over the drill is relatively less important than the "a man ain't nuthin' but a man" verse.  This verse of pride and defiance appears much more frequently than the verse describing John Henry's victory (John Henry drove fourteen feet, the steam drill only made nine).  It's true that there are so many verses to the ballad that many of them are going to be left out of a typical performance.  And early recordings of the song were also limited in the amount of time in which the song could last.  But wouldn't musicians most often sing the verses that were most meaningful to them?  The "a man ain't nuthin' but a man" verse was probably the most meaningful verse in the ballad, especially for a black man trying to endure life in the Jim Crow south.  Blacks could have interpreted this verse as being about John Henry--a black man--asserting his manhood and his humanity in defiance of a white authority figure and the system which denied him both his manhood and his humanity.  For blacks, this aspect of the legend--this act of standing up and defying the system-- was likely just as important if not more important than John Henry's victory over the drill. 

On a related point, I think the idea that John Henry challenged the drill in order to save jobs is largely overstated and an oversimplification of the story.  Here is a quote from a post to mudcat.org by researcher John Garst,

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)

Here is a link to Garst's post. 
http://mudcat.org/detail_pf.cfm?messages__Message_ID=3470521

Again, if you look at the verses which appear most frequently in the many documented versions of the song, I believe you will find that the "a man ain't nuthin' but a man verse" appears much more frequently than the "steam drill only drove nine" verse.  You'll also find that other verses appear more frequently including:

-- the "who's gonna shoe your pretty feet" verse which expresses John Henry's concern for how his woman will survive without him

-- the "the mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small" verse expressing the difficulties faced by John Henry--something that laborers in general would certainly have identified with

-- the "Polly drove steel like a man" verse expressing, among other things (see Part 3 of my website for more), Polly's strength and determination to survive

I believe that as the ballad was popularized over the years, the job-saving aspect of the story was overemphasized and much of the ballad's meaning was lost.  In all the early versions of "John Henry" I've looked at, I've only found one that makes reference to the loss of jobs.  It is in Guy Johnson's book "Tracking Down a Negro Legend."  There may be others, but I believe you will find that they are extremely rare.  Here's the verse from Johnson's book.  It was collected from a black student named Junius Byrd.

Old John Henry
Got to find a job,
Old John Henry
Got to find a job
Dat steam driller's here,
Here a good man to rob.

I think that a great topic for research would be to look at how the ballad was popularized over the years while keeping in mind the points raised above.  It might lead to some very interesting conclusions.

Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on January 09, 2018, 09:57:16 AM
For those who might be interested in my work on "John Henry," I want to let you know I've been continuing my research and slowly but surely coming up with some interesting discoveries.  Below are some of the highlights of what I've found since I last posted to WC.


Below are some verses from versions of the ballad by Furry Lewis expressing black protest and resistance. 

This first verse is from a version on Lewis's Fourth and Beale album.  Protest is expressed through describing the cruelty of a system which exploited black laborers and convicts by literally working them to death.  Lewis does this through a variation to a verse from the prison work song "Go Down Ol' Hannah."  This verse also appears in another version by Lewis on the Take Your Time album and in the Samuel Charters book The Country Blues which was published about the 10 years before these recordings.  (Unfortunately, Charters does not identify whether or not the verse is from an actual  recording by Lewis.) 

John Henry looked at the sun one day,
And the sun had done turned red.
And he looked back over his shoulder, Lord,
And he see'd his partner fallin' dead, dead, dead.

Here is a link to a recording of it.  The key verse is the last one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPccUT5tyvA




Furry also recorded at least a couple versions of the ballad in which resistance is expressed through John Henry telling his son not to be a steel driver or not to follow in his footsteps.  Of course, these verses are variations to a standard verse in which John Henry tells his son that he wants him to be a steel driver.  The first verse below is from Part One of Lewis's 78 rpm recording.  The second one is from the CD Shake Em On Down.  A link to the second one on YouTube is below.

John Henry had a little baby,
Which he sit in the palm of his hand
Cryin' '"Baby, baby, take your daddy's advice,
Don't you never be a steel drivin' man, man,
Don't never be a steel drivin' man, man."

John Henry had a little baby boy
He was settin' at home on his mother's knee.
Cryin' "Baby take your Daddy's advice,
Don't you never take no pattern after me, Lord, Lord..."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqvZwFRceO8&spfreload=10


"John Henry" clearly meant a great deal to Furry, and he made a long string of recordings of the ballad.  I plan to one day write a piece specifically devoted to them and the insight that they bring to the meaning of the ballad to African Americans.


Lewis's "partner fallin' dead" version is not the only one which expresses protest through the use of a variation to a black work song.  A black musician named Virgil Perkins expressed protest in "John Henry" with the verse below which he borrowed from a song titled "Grade Song."

John Henry said to his captain
He said, "Captain, my hands gettin' cold."
He said, "That don't make no difference, boy, what you said.
I wanna hear that hammer roll."

Link to Virgil Perkins version:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIWACYX2Lns

The song from which Perkins borrowed probably first appeared in Howard Odum's article "Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes" which was published in the year 1911 in the Journal of American Folklore.  "Grade Song" includes a number of short verses in which complaints and a threat are made to or about the captain.  The verse also appears in a song collected by Lawrence Gellert titled "Told My Captain" which appears in his book Me and My Captain: Chain Gang Negro Songs of Protest (published in 1939).

Told my captain my han's wus cold.
"God damn yo' hans, let the wheelers roll!

More details and sources about the above versions can be found in Part 4 of my website.  (A link to my website appears later in my post.)



Tom Maxwell, a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, cites my work in an online article which is part of a series of writings he is doing on American protest music.   It is titled A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry.  Here is a link to it.

https://longreads.com/2017/10/04/a-history-of-american-protest-music-this-is-the-hammer-that-killed-john-henry/



I have a number of other discoveries which I haven't yet written about so check my website periodically for updates if you are interested.  A link to it is below.  Also, I am putting together a mailing list to notify people about updates to my website.  If you would like to receive these updates, send me an e-mail at jphauser2000@yahoo.com.  Put the words "mailing list" in the subject line.  I anticipate sending out about two or three updates per year.

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home


My next website update should be coming out soon, hopefully within one or two months.  But I hope to finish following up on a couple of leads first.  It deals with the phrase "a man ain't nothin' but a man"--a phrase which appears in the most frequently occurring verse of the ballad--as an assertion of racial equality.  As a preview of that update, here is a verse from Willis Lawrence James's book De Stars in de Elements.   It comes from a song in which a conversation takes place between two trees, a white pine and a black jack.   The white one thinks it is superior to the black one.  The verse appears in the book exactly as it appears below, including the parenthetical explanation of the word "biggity."   

De black jack said to de tall white pine,
Just 'cause you high in de breeze,
You needn't talk so biggity (bigoted),
Trees ain't nothin' but trees.

The update will also include a discussion of what Bob Dylan said about "John Henry" being  a source of inspiration for the lyrics to the first verse of "Blowin' in the Wind."  It's from his MusiCares Person of the Year speech in February 2015.  Again he cites the "a man ain't nothin' but a man" verse.

These songs didn't come out of thin air... If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me-- John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said "a man ain't nothin' but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I'll die with that hammer in my hand."  If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you'd have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too.

That's all for now.  Again, if you want to be added to my mailing list, send an e-mail message to jphauser2000@yahoo.com with the words "mailing list" in the subject line.
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: oddenda on January 16, 2018, 06:27:11 PM
I don't remember if I'd already shared this here, but Peg leg Sam told me that his most requested song while street busking was "John Henry"!

pbl
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on January 17, 2018, 05:57:09 AM
I don't remember if I'd already shared this here, but Peg leg Sam told me that his most requested song while street busking was "John Henry"!

pbl


I remember seeing your post, although I'm not sure if it was here or on the Blindman's Blues Forum.  If I remember correctly, you also mentioned that you have a lot of recordings of musicians performing the ballad that have not been released.  I imagine that you have an extensive archive of your recordings (many unreleased), notes, photos, documents, etc. and I hope that they are or will one day be available somewhere for researchers like me.

Regarding "John Henry" being Peg Leg Sam's most requested song, I imagine that he may have had some interesting "John Henry" stories to go along with it.  I've also heard that "John Henry" was the first song that many guitarists learned to play.  I don't know if that is due to the popularity of the song or if possibly it's an easy song for a beginner to learn???
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: oddenda on January 17, 2018, 05:59:37 PM
jp -

          You are correct in the fact that "JH" was often the first song qua song that budding guitarists learned to play. MOST learned the song in an open tuning using a slide of some sort... chording made easy! A few did not - John Cephas , and George Higgs come to mind, but they are in the minority of my experience. As for Sam, he was a professional giving his temporary audience what they wanted, often requested.

pbl
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: oddenda on January 19, 2018, 02:20:52 AM
Jeff Harris' most recent "Big Road Blues" radio show deals with heroes and villains in recorded black song. Check it out!

pbl
Title: Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
Post by: jphauser on April 02, 2019, 06:58:51 AM
I've had several updates to my website John Henry: The Rebel Versions since I last posted on WC.  The updates document that the phrase "A MAN AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT A MAN" was used by Afican Americans to assert racial equality.  A couple examples are below.

The link below is to a 1964 NY Times article titled ?HAPPY? NEGROES DISPUTE SHERIFF; Mississippians Write of Life in Letters to The Times.  The phrase appears about half way through the article.

https://www.nytimes.com/1964/08/09/archives/happy-negroes-dispute-sheriff-mississippians-write-of-life-in.html (https://www.nytimes.com/1964/08/09/archives/happy-negroes-dispute-sheriff-mississippians-write-of-life-in.html)

Another example comes from John Lee Hooker's "Birmingham Blues"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6_RRthVaL0 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6_RRthVaL0)

The webpage containing the updates is below.
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/a-look-at-resistance-and-rebellion-in-the-legend-of-john-henry-part-2 (https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/a-look-at-resistance-and-rebellion-in-the-legend-of-john-henry-part-2)


If you would like to be added to my mailing list which I use to notify people about new updates to my site, let me know by sending an e-mail to jphauser2000@yahoo.com


You can find my website by Googling "John Henry rebel" or clicking on the link below.
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home (https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home)

Jim Hauser