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Author Topic: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest  (Read 4840 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #30 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.

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #31 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

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #32 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

Scroll down to the Flyright-Matchbox series

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #33 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.)


Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #34 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/

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






Offline oddenda

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #35 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. 

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #36 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

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








« Last Edit: September 07, 2013, 12:24:10 PM by jphauser2000 »

Online Johnm

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #37 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

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #38 on: September 07, 2013, 12:25:41 PM »
Thanks John!  I'll check the thread.
Jim

Offline wreid75

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #39 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. 

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #40 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

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #41 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

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


Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #42 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

« Last Edit: November 16, 2015, 07:17:19 PM by jphauser »

Offline tinpanallygurl

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #43 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

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #44 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.


 


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