collapse

* Member Info

 
 
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

* Like Us on Facebook

I was born in the mountain, schooled in a lion's den. My daily occupation's taking women from monkey men - Wilson Thunder Smith - Santa Fe

Author Topic: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest  (Read 5309 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10507
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #15 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

Offline dj

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 2615
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #16 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.   

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #17 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

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.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2013, 10:29:24 PM by jphauser2000 »

Offline uncle bud

  • Administrator
  • Member
  • Posts: 8314
  • Rank amateur
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #18 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.
« Last Edit: March 09, 2013, 07:42:21 AM by uncle bud »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #19 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."


« Last Edit: March 09, 2013, 05:12:46 PM by jphauser2000 »

Offline Shovel

  • Member
  • Posts: 160
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #20 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.

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #21 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).



Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10507
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #22 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
« Last Edit: March 10, 2013, 11:22:50 AM by Johnm »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #23 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


Offline Shovel

  • Member
  • Posts: 160
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #24 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. 

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #25 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!

Offline Rivers

  • Tech Support
  • Member
  • Posts: 6928
  • I like chicken pie
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #26 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.
« Last Edit: March 11, 2013, 10:27:25 PM by Rivers »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #27 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. 

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #28 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  (Link to details about the death of Martin Tabert.)


(Amended to correct spelling from Talbert to Tabert.)
« Last Edit: March 16, 2013, 06:50:09 PM by jphauser2000 »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 129
  • Howdy!
Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #29 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


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