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No matter what a young person thinks he or she is really hot stuff at doing, he or she is sooner or later going to run into somebody in the same field who will cut him or her a new asshole, so to speak - Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

Author Topic: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest  (Read 5058 times)

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Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #45 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.






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..."




"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:   

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.

Offline oddenda

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #46 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

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #47 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???

Offline oddenda

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #48 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

Offline oddenda

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #49 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

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #50 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

Another example comes from John Lee Hooker's "Birmingham Blues"


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


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

Jim Hauser

« Last Edit: April 02, 2019, 12:20:39 PM by jphauser »

 


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