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He had a left hand like God. He didn't know what key he was playing in, but he played them all. He could play the ragtime stride bass, but it bothered him because his stomach got in the way of his arm, so he used a walking bass instead. I can remember when I was thirteen - this was 1896 - how Turk would play one note with his right hand and at the same time four with his left. We called it 'sixteen' - they called it boogie-woogie - Eubie Blake remembering William Turk, from Giles Oakley's The Devil's Music, BBC

Author Topic: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest  (Read 6808 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.

Jim Hauser
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home
« Last Edit: October 08, 2020, 06:48:51 AM by jphauser »

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 »

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #51 on: July 08, 2020, 10:41:50 AM »
Hi folks,
I just added a new update to my website John Henry: The Rebel Versions.  It's an essay in which I write about a July 5, 1968 performance of "John Henry" by Furry Lewis, and relate it to the 4th of July holiday and the death just a few months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr.   It pulls together some of the major things I've written about on my website in the past and adds a couple new things including a quote from Paul Oliver about the symbolic nature of ballads.  It has an unusual ending which I almost decided to get rid of because I was afraid readers might think it was strange.  I finally decided that I really liked the ending so I kept it.  It's titled "Furry's Tears."  (By the way, I first learnd about this recording from a post by John Miller on WC.  Thanks John!)

A link to it is below
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/furry-s-blues

Jim Hauser

« Last Edit: October 08, 2020, 06:50:00 AM by jphauser »

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #52 on: September 05, 2020, 07:15:50 AM »
Colson Whitehead's book John Henry Days has a scene in which we learn that a statue in Talcott, West Virginia which honors John Henry is chained to a truck, pulled off the pedestal, and dragged down the road.  Greil Marcus argues that this scene was inspired by an actual event which took place just a few years before the book was published.  A black man named James Byrd, Jr. was chained by his ankles to a truck and dragged to his death by white supremacists. 

Marcus writes that this event in Whitehead's book, and in history "can be seen--heard--as an unsinging of John Henry" and goes on to say that the event is "an argument that any lynching of a black American is an unsinging of "John Henry."   Then he goes on to write that it's also "an argument that the song is a symbolic unsinging* of any and every lynching of a black person, an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him, even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity."  [from pages 223-224 of the hardcover edition of The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs]

When Marcus writes about the modern day lynching of Byrd being an "unsinging" of John Henry, I interpret that as meaning that it's an attempt to wipe the ballad from memory, to make John Henry an unsung hero.  The white supremacists are symbolically trying to turn back the clock, trying to erase progress towards racial equality by wiping out a symbol of racial equality, a symbol who inspired black people to fight for equality.  Clearly, Marcus is saying that "John Henry" is a black freedom song. 

* My guess is that the third time the word "unsinging" appears is a mistake of some sort on the part of Marcus or his editor, and the intended word is "unlynching."  Then it would read: "an argument that the song is a symbolic unlynching of any and every lynching of a black person..."  And the meaning would be that John Henry defeats white power through his victory over the steam drill and thereby undoes lynching's intended effect of aiding in the maintaining of white supremacy through creating fear among black people.

Jim Hauser

John Henry: The Rebel Versions website  https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home

Edited to identify the title of Marcus's book and add the last paragraph.  Also, edited to provide explanation which follows the asterisk.

« Last Edit: October 08, 2020, 06:47:00 AM by jphauser »

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #53 on: September 22, 2020, 05:27:18 PM »

Marcus writes that this event in Whitehead's book, and in history "can be seen--heard--as an unsinging of John Henry" and goes on to say that the event is "an argument that any lynching of a black American is an unsinging of "John Henry."   Then he goes on to write that it's also "an argument that the song is a symbolic unsinging* of any and every lynching of a black person, an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him, even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity."  [from pages 223-224 of the hardcover edition of The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs]

When Marcus writes about the modern day lynching of Byrd being an "unsinging" of John Henry, I interpret that as meaning that it's an attempt to wipe the ballad from memory, to make John Henry an unsung hero.  The white supremacists are symbolically trying to turn back the clock, trying to erase progress towards racial equality by wiping out a symbol of racial equality, a symbol who inspired black people to fight for equality.  Clearly, Marcus is saying that "John Henry" is a black freedom song. 


More from Greil Marcus on "John Henry" and Colson Whitehead's book from a post made yesterday on Marcus's website.
https://greilmarcus.net/2020/09/21/john-henry-days-lecture-notes-2014/

Jim Hauser

https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home
« Last Edit: October 08, 2020, 06:47:35 AM by jphauser »

Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #54 on: September 23, 2020, 06:56:43 AM »
Oops, I forgot to put in the link to Greil Marcus's website in my previous post.
Jim Hauser

https://greilmarcus.net/2020/09/21/john-henry-days-lecture-notes-2014/


Offline jphauser

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Re: John Henry as a symbol of black resistance and protest
« Reply #55 on: November 08, 2020, 08:19:30 AM »


Putting the story of John Henry in the context of the black worker in Reconstruction and Jim Crow America helps us to realize that his job of carving tunnels out of mountains with a long steel rod, a sledgehammer, and explosives was extremely brutal and life-threatening.  And it helps us to see that John Henry’s greatest struggle was not to save his job, but to survive his job.

It also helps us to gain a better understanding of the meaning of certain key verses of the ballad, including one frequently appearing verse in which John Henry tells his baby son that he wants him to be a steel drivin’ man or his son proclaims that he wants to be a steel-drivin' man. For example, here's a verse which appears in Guy B. Johnson's book about John Henry.

John Henry took that liddle boy,
Helt him in the pahm of his han',
And the last words he said to that chile was,
"I want you to be a steel drivin' man,
I want you to be a steel drivin' man."


 According to Russell Ames in his article “Protest & Irony in Negro Folksong,” African Americans often used irony to express protest in their music.  I believe that when a black man sang that verse in which John Henry expresses his wishes to his son – his hopes for his son’s future – the words spoken in that wish were pure irony.


Here's a variation to the verse in a version by Furry Lewis which strips away the irony and makes a more direct protest.

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."

And here is a link to a full transcription of the version by Lewis in Weeniepedia.
https://weeniecampbell.com/wiki/index.php?title=John_Henry_(The_Steel_Driving_Man)_Take_1

Jim Hauser
Jupiter, FL

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

 


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