Country Blues > Weenie Campbell Main Forum

John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest

(1/11) > >>

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.

Bunker Hill:

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.

Thanks Bunker Hill.  I'll check out the discussion.

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?   

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."

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. "


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version