John Henry Folktales in the Classroom
John Henry TRADITIONAL FOLKTALES Story Telling, The Oral Tradition,
Ballads, Folkmusic, and Folktales used in the classroom.
- FOLKSONG HISTORY and RELATED RESOURCES
FOR FOLKLIFE EDUCATION ANDFOLK MUSIC
- Nursery Rhymes Tell Stories
- National Children's Folksong Repository
Children's playground songs and rhymes are telling their story.
The Ballad John Henry - Etymology of
The song is about a terrible kind of accident or crime. It's a mourning song, a hammer song, a work song. Tunnel work in the 1870s was widely recognized as the most dangerous and nastiest job. You needed some sort of force to get people to do that work. African Americans went westward as workers, both as slave laborers and free men and women laborers between 1870-1885.
JOHN HENRY FOLK SONG
From: John Garst Thu, 1 Dec 2005
Subject: "John Henry" on TV ca 1960?
I have just received from the West Virginia Department of Archives and History a copy of the first page of a letter typewritten to Kyle McCormick, who was probably then director of the Archives. This page bears no date and no signature. No other page could be found.
The letter begins by thanking McCormick for his "long and informative and extremely helpful letter in response to my questions regarding the John Henry." I suppose that "the" was inserted or "legend" omitted inadvertently.
It goes on to assure McCormick, "It is my hope that no one in my script will appear a burlesque creation." Evidently McCormick had expressed concern about the way in which TV had depicted West Virginians in other broadcasts.
The letter discusses the significance of the John Henry legend. At the bottom of the page the author states that his setting will be Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, and that he hopes to present "a realistic character (no twenty pound hammers) who is fallible in" ... page ends.
In 1957 Kyle McCormick was Director, West Virginia Department of Archives and History. On Nov. 4, 1957, he issued a press release on the subject of John Henry. This press release was published in the Parkersburg (WV) Sentinel on Thursday, Nov. 7, 1957, and from that source it is quoted in full on p 56 of Singa Hipsy Doodle and other Folk Songs of West Virginia (Marie Boette, editor; Junior League of Parkersburg, Inc., Parkersburg, WV, 1971).
The essence of McCormick's press release is that records fail to show that steam drills were ever used at Big Bend Tunnel and that there was a steel-driving contest. Even so, "a strapping big Negro named John Henry (Martin) who weighed 275 pounds" was employed as a driller there. He was paid $1.50/day instead of the usual $1.25. "He had a son who became a prominent Negro educator."
That the legendary John Henry was John Henry Martin was indicated to Guy B. Johnson by several of his informants. My suspicion is that when the ballad reached the Big Bend area, people there remembered John Henry Martin and he became the second legendary steel driver named "John Henry."
In 1957 some of the records of the C & O construction were owned by grandsons of James Twohig, "contractor's foreman on the Big Bend job." It is these and other records on which McCormick's statements are based.
Review of Digging Deep for the Real 'John Henry'
By Jennifer Howard The Chronicle Section: Research & Publishing Volume 53, Issue 23, Page A13
The songs sung about John Henry say he knew, when he was a little baby sitting on his mother's knee, that a hammer would be the death of him. They say he grew up strong and drove steel on the railroad. And they agree that one day he took that hammer and raced a steam drill. The drill made it only nine feet into the rock. The man drove in 14 feet and then collapsed, calling for a cool drink of water before he died.
Now a historian believes that he has found the flesh-and-blood man behind that legend. Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, thinks he knows where John Henry fought the machine, won the battle, and died with a hammer in his hand. The historian thinks he also knows where the man lay buried for more than a century, as tales of his heroic feat traveled across the land.
Mr. Nelson lays out his case in Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press). Aimed at a general readership, the book tells a nifty historical detective story. It begins with the historian and his dog driving west just as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway did in the 1870s toward the hard mountains on the Virginia-West Virginia border, following the tracks of a legend.
Mr. Nelson published some of his findings in a 2005 article in the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. Now his book takes that scholarship and spins it into a tale that combines highly specialized historical knowledge, needle-in-a-haystack archival work, and a first-person narration that historians rarely dare to use.
Whether or not one accepts his thesis some rival investigators do not Mr. Nelson's work demonstrates what can happen when a historian applies the tools of his trade to subject matter traditionally reserved for folklorists and bluesmen. It hammers home the idea that historical detail can be just as compelling as a legend and, like legends, can still require a leap of faith.
"John Henry" is the quintessential workingman's song. It's about steel and muscle and
and about working until you drop. In Work Songs (Duke University Press), the musician and music historian
Gioia writes, "It is the song in which all of these themes come to a head: the inroads of automation,
mythical power of the tool, the idealization of manual work, and the inherent dignity of labor as well as
dangers and degrading circumstances."
The exact origins of "John Henry" lie deep within the late-19th-century railroad tunnels of the American South. But Mr. Nelson's work builds off a century's worth of investigation and speculation about the song and the man behind it, much of it by folklorists.
Scholars first collected versions of the song in the early decades of the 20th century, at which point the narrative had already branched out into dozens of sometimes contradictory versions. Two rival studies from the 1920s and 1930s still stand as the main sources of oral testimony about John Henry. In 1929, Guy B. Johnson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, turned the results of his inquiries into John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Louis W. Chappell, a professor of English at West Virginia University, collected testimony from 1925 on, with a special emphasis on the area around Big Bend, W.Va., and published the results in 1933 as John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study.
"We really don't know what was sung about John Henry before the 1900s, and what we do have from the 1910s is fragments," says Norm Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (University of Illinois Press, 1981), which remains the authoritative work on railroad ballads and lore.
The song most likely took shape in the 1870s or 1880s, probably first as a hammer song, which railroad tunnelers used to pace themselves as they bored through solid rock. In his book, Mr. Gioia describes the bone-splintering work that building railroads required in 19th-century America: "The hammer was used primarily to drive spikes and to drill rock in preparation for exploding charges of powder. The latter task required a rhythmic coordination between two laborers, one holding and turning the drill and the other handling the hammer."
Etymology of Rock n' Roll
Folklorists notably Archie Green, author of Only a Miner, which was published by University of Illinois Press in 1972 have argued that rock 'n' roll goes back to the rhythmic exchanges between the hammer man and his shaker, who held the drill and rolled it between blows.
Mr. Nelson attempts to track the song as it spread among railway workers and into the wider world, through different groups of workers, into the hands of scholars and the repertoires of performers.
As the song traveled and the legend grew, the more heroic the steel-drivin' man became. "Over time," Mr. Nelson says, "as trackliners think about the song, the idea of beating a steam drill seems impossible, and so John Henry becomes stronger and stronger, ... and a whole bunch of stories grow up about John Henry: that he was 10 feet tall, that he carried two 20-pound hammers."
African-American and Anglo-American musical traditions meet in different versions of the song. Mr. Cohen's Long Steel Rail points out lines (like "Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet?," a question sometimes asked of John Henry's woman) that were borrowed from much older British ballads such as "The Lass of Loch Royal." And, he notes, a contemporary of Chappell's identified the standard John Henry tune as one often heard in the ballad "Earl Brand."
Mr. Nelson also hears African-American burial songs in many versions of "John Henry," as well as echoes of an Igbo tradition, brought over from western Africa by slaves, of songs designed to propitiate the souls of those who have died in extraordinary or terrible circumstances. By the historian's count, more than 200 recorded versions of "John Henry" exist.
In his book, he takes a close look at the song's performance and recording history. In 1924 a white performer named Fiddlin' John Carson, one of the earliest country singers, "merged fiddle traditions and black folks songs together" and made the first known recording of "John Henry." Blues singers, along with such figures as the poet, folk performer, and activist Carl Sandburg, and song collectors such as John and Alan Lomax, "rescued" and popularized it in the early decades of the 20th century.
Workin' on the Railroad
For many early American folklorists, Mr. Gioia (Irish Africa)
observes, "seeking the 'real' John Henry was their 'holy grail' quest." It's a
chase that has lasted almost a hundred years. In 1909 a Wellesley College student named Louise Rand Bascom
reported a couplet she had heard in the mountains of her native North Carolina: "Johnie Henry was a
hard-workin' man/ He died with a hammer in his hand." Mr. Nelson's pursuit of the man behind
mythic battle was slower to take shape. When he wrote his dissertation, on the history of the Southern
Railway, the Chesapeake & Ohio's chief rival, he "was not really a railroad fan, which made it
kind of tedious," he recalls. "But I learned how the construction happened, how the work happened,
how tunneling worked."
The dissertation became Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). In doing research for the book, he dug up reports of the board of the Virginia State Penitentiary in the Library of Virginia. The reports "told a terrible story about railroad work" done by inmates at the prison, he writes in Steel Drivin' Man. "In 1872, the worst year of its record, the board made a full report on mortality to the State Assembly. Forty-eight black convicts died in that year, or nearly 10 percent of the entire penitentiary."
The board asked the prison's surgeon to account for the deaths. More than half, he judged, had been caused by railway work. Deadly for the prisoners, that kind of labor must have been good business for the penitentiary, which in 1871-72 alone leased 380 black convicts to the C&O. (Mr. Nelson's account suggests that the going rate was 25 cents a day.)
Since his topic was the Southern line, not the C&O, Mr. Nelson set the report aside for a time. But four years later, in 1998, when he agreed to deliver a conference paper about songs used by railway workers, he came back to that material to reinterpret the railway work song to beat all railway work songs: "John Henry."
Initially, Mr. Nelson felt uneasy about using a song and its many variants as primary documents. He listened to dozens of recordings. He did close readings of verses. "Taking lyrics seriously to describe events that I know about in another way was strange," he acknowledges. He frittered away time, he says, trying to decode "crazy little phrases" in different versions. ("CC rider," for instance, is a corruption of "easy rider," a woman who rode the train free to visit a railway worker. )
Such work was "outside of my comfort zone as a historian," Mr. Nelson recalls. "I was a little between the place of the amateur blues scholar who writes for Rolling Stone and the professional music scholar who's looking at chord changes and tonal progressions and their relationship to a particular sound." Existing scholarship played down the gloomier twists in "John Henry." But Mr. Nelson's detailed knowledge of railroad construction and its hardships led him straight to those aspects. Snappy modern versions fail to convey that "the song is about a terrible kind of accident or crime," he says. "It's a mourning song."
Interpretations of the song as a paean to heroism or an exhortation to work hard also disturbed Mr. Nelson. "I was reading this material by folklorists, by musicologists, and it just didn't make any sense at all," the historian says. "Tunnel work in the 1870s was widely recognized as the most dangerous and nastiest job....You needed some sort of force to get people to do that work."
Hammer songs, he writes in Steel Drivin' Man, "cursed hard work, bosses, and unfaithful women. They predicted pain and death." Here is a verse from one version reproduced by Guy Johnson in his 1929 study:
- The hammah that John Henry swung,
It weighed over nine poun',
He broke a rib in his left-hand side,
And his intrels fell on the groun'.
- Another version goes
"This old hammer, huh
Killed John Henry, huh
Killed my brother, huh
Won't kill me, huh
Won't kill me, huh."
(Each "huh" marks a swing of the hammer.) As Mr. Nelson writes, "these were songs about escape or death, not exhortations to work hard like some hero out of the Iliad."End of the Line Mr. Nelson can be startling in his frankness about What Historians Really Do. "History in the archives is not rational inquiry," he writes, "and it is seldom disinterested. It is disorganized, messy, and obsessive, much like junk-road scavenging....We are suspicious of other people's narratives, but we always assemble our own stories out of the flotsam and jetsam we find." Pluck, luck, gut instinct, even an old picture postcard of the Virginia penitentiary all played their roles in Mr. Nelson's process of discovery. As he traced the song's story to its roots, he went back to the prison records that he had found in his earlier research. He persuaded an archivist at the Library of Virginia to unseal the remaining records of the penitentiary, and he found an entry for one John William Henry, convicted of "housebreak and larceny" in Prince George County, Virginia, and sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary in Richmond. The man was processed at the prison on November 16, 1866. Nineteen years old, he hailed from Elizabeth City, N.J., and stood 5 feet 1 inches tall.
Far from diminishing the song's protagonist, John W. Henry's modest stature "would have made him perfect for drilling," Mr. Nelson says. "To do that kind of mining, you had to be a very small person, because the drilling had to take place in these tiny little holes. Then the nitroglycerin would be put in, and you would widen the holes." Even after the first rounds of drilling cut all the way through the mountain, "you could barely crawl through....It would gradually be expanded. Once you had a continuous run from one end to the other, you'd make it big enough for a railroad."
"He was just about the only Northerner at the penitentiary at that time," Mr. Nelson points out, and that "foreignness" would have made him conspicuous among the other convicts. He would have talked differently, maybe even carried himself differently, than the others: "He probably would have had a kind of sense of himself, not ever having been a slave, that must have made him appear different, and maybe heroic, almost, to folks."
The Northerner probably came to Virginia with the Union army, either as a soldier or a laborer, and later somehow ran afoul of the law. Evidence of actual wrongdoing is shaky. Even if he did break into a store to steal something, as the authorities alleged, the punishment surely exceeded the crime. His case was handled, or mishandled, by three authorities the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Freedman's Bureau, and the federal government which exercised jurisdiction over him at different stages.
In 1868, after two years at the prison, John William Henry was rented out, along with many fellow convicts, to the C&O Railway and set to work digging tunnels through the mountains on the Virginia-West Virginia border. The Lewis Tunnel was dug in 1871, and the Big Bend Tunnel in 1872.
The timing works out, according to Mr. Nelson's calculations. When the Lewis Tunnel was cut, steam-powered drills, like the Burleigh, were a new and unreliable technology. Only a few years later they would improve enough to tunnel through the Alps. But in 1871, Mr. Nelson observes, it would still have been possible for a man to beat one.
Such a victory would have come at a terrible cost. As the surgeon told the penitentiary board, many of the convicts involved in that work died in mining accidents, of overwork and malnutrition, or of silicosis brought on by the "bad air" of the tunnels, which filled their lungs with microscopic particles of rock. To fulfill the C&O's contractual obligation to account for every convict it used, Mr. Nelson argues, those who died on the job were shipped back to the penitentiary and buried near the railroad tracks:
- They took John Henry to the white house,
And buried him in the san',
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel-drivin' man,
So was the penitentiary's graveyard the final resting place of the real John Henry? Not quite. If Mr. Nelson is correct, the steel driver's grave, along with many others, was dug up in the early 1990s, during redevelopment of the former prison grounds. Now the remains are at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington.
A definite identification is highly unlikely, says Kari Bruwelheide, an anthropologist at the museum. In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, she points out that the Smithsonian did not conduct the exhumation, and that the bones of many individuals had commingled as the site was used and reused for burials and then turned over to the tender ministrations of construction crews.
"I am familiar with the theory that John Henry died and was buried at the penitentiary," she writes. "However, identifying his remains as part of the series at the museum has not been done, nor do I believe it would be possible to do so with the current information and poor condition of the bones from the site." Tunneling Into the Past If John William Henry was indeed the John Henry, where did the race with that steam drill happen? The strongest tradition places it at the Big Bend (also known as Great Bend) Tunnel, in West Virginia; other clues have pointed to Alabama. Still other Southern states have tried to stake claims, too.
Mr. Nelson returned to the accounts of John Henry collected by Johnson and Chappell in the 1920s to try to place the duel exactly. Most were secondhand or thirdhand, describing events that, when the researchers collected them, were already half a century old. From a modern perspective or, at least, from Mr. Nelson's Chappell's methods in particular presented problems. That scholar believed from the get-go that Big Bend Tunnel was the spot he was looking for, and so he scoured that area and neglected other possibilities.
In Guy Johnson's account, Mr. Nelson notes, "three engineers who worked for the C&O say that there were no steam drills at Big Bend." No one had been able to check that against the engineering records of the C&O, which were thought to have been destroyed by fire. But Mr. Nelson found an 1893 book, Tunneling, Explosive Compounds and Rock Drills , which lists the C&O tunnels in an appendix; it says hand labor was used at Big Bend and a mix of hand-and-steam drilling at nearby Lewis Tunnel, just across the border in Virginia.
Mr. Nelson traced the names of the C&O's chief construction engineer and others mentioned in various accounts, and found that the engineering reports had, in fact, survived and found their way into the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society, in Cleveland. Correspondence refers to drills at the Lewis Tunnel, with no mention of Big Bend. And at the Lewis Tunnel, the records said, convicts and steam drills had worked side by side.
For Mr. Nelson, the capper came when he paid a visit to the two sites. He had to do a bit of trespassing, but what he saw convinced him that Big Bend Tunnel was the wrong place. The drilling shafts left there were simply too small to have accommodated a steam drill. He was convinced that Lewis Tunnel was the place where, if the contest ever took place, John Henry raced the drill and died. I, Historian
Mr. Nelson believes that he has found the real John Henry, having tracked him from prison to tunnel
to grave. Others say the evidence remains circumstantial. No first-person account of John
Henry's contest with the drill has ever been unearthed. But that hasn't stopped scholars, all the
back to Johnson and Chappell eighty years ago, in the 1920s and 30s, from feeling fiercely territorial about
their preferred versions of the story. Indeed, Chappell spent a good portion of his book taking shots at
Johnson, whom he felt had stolen some of his work without giving credit where credit was due. "His
marvelous freedom in handling this material would seem to call for an explanation of some sort,"
writes. "But his disregard of my rights is largely personal and need not require the attention of
who are not interested in trifles...." Steel-Drivin' Man builds off years of Nelson's
scholarship, but it does not have an extensive scholarly apparatus, just footnotes. That opens the author to
the charge that he, too, does not acknowledge how high he stands on the shoulders of other
scholars, and that he has not explained in detail where he thinks they went wrong.
"very passionate and historically wonderful.... He did some really interesting and original things." That accomplishment, however, also has a downside: "Nelson is all alone pursuing this quest, and he brings history and doing history alive," she says. "But to be true to this genre, he has to ignore others' contributions.... He doesn't really give credit to other people's discoveries or perspectives.... If he disagrees with other arguments, he might not mention them. He might have given more attention to Johnson and Chappell, or Archie Green, or Norm Cohen, or even me. But in reading his book, I often felt he was alone on his quest."
That dramatic approach has paid off for Mr. Nelson and his book, which has had enthusiastic reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, and elsewhere. Colleagues at William and Mary started calling him "Hollywood" after interest was expressed in turning the book into a feature film.
Ask Mr. Nelson what he thinks of other scholars' work on John Henry, and he is quick to acknowledge their influence on his research. rock 'n' roll riffs For instance, he mentions that his discussion of rock 'n' roll riffs off the folklorist Archie Green's work on miners' songs, a debt recognized in Steel Drivin' Man in an endnote. Of Ms. Williams's work, Mr. Nelson says, "I felt myself disagreeing with her about a lot of particulars, particularly in the 1870s," but "in retrospect I couldn't have written my book without the groundwork she lays out." Mr. Nelson's own book, unfortunately, does not have a bibliography, so readers must rely on endnotes, which condense a great deal of reading and research into a small amount of space.
Man vs. Man
Mr. Nelson's most vocal critic is an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of
named John Garst. A longtime student of American ballads, he champions the theory that John Henry
fought the steam drill and died in Alabama in the early 1880s, a possibility that was raised but not fully
explored by Guy Johnson decades ago. In 2002, Mr. Garst published an article in Tributaries, the journal of
the Alabama Folklife Association, which lays out the pro-Alabama evidence. He took a close look at detailed
testimony from one of Johnson's informants and identified likely locations of Alabama towns and tunnels
connected with John Henry stories, locations that previous researchers had been unable to trace.
As Mr. Garst reads it, Mr. Nelson's theory "depends on a long string of assumptions, and I think several of them are dubious.... I don't think that finding a person named John Henry in the records has much significance in itself. He has no evidence that John William Henry, the convict laborer, was a steel driver. He has no evidence that he was a noted steel driver. A little bitty guy like that, it seems to me, would probably not be a contest winner in competitions with bigger and stronger men."
Mr. Nelson and Mr. Garst have traded swipes at each other on the History News Network's blog and elsewhere. Mr. Garst sums up their disagreement this way: "Evidently he doesn't think much of my work, and I don't think his evidence is very good." Mr. Nelson says a friend compared the situation to the intelligent-design debate:
"When Garst says that I don't teach the controversy' and I sputter that there is no controversy, then it looks like I'm repressing him."
Some scholars, including Ms. Williams and Mr. Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail, have noted the fight with bemusement."It's kind of descended to an ad hominem argument," Mr. Cohen says. "It's become very uncollegial, which is always a shame....What we're seeing is that human nature is unquenchable. It's just so easy to become ego-involved in a dispute of this sort."
Other observers wonder whether John Henry shouldn't remain, at heart, a mystery. Ann K. Hoog, a folklore specialist at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, has worked with many researchers, including Mr. Nelson and Mr. Garst. "There's nothing wrong with approaching an old ballad with new eyes," she says. But "you have to be careful when you're trying to be conclusive about this sort of material."
Folklorists call ballads like "John Henry" examples of "expressive culture," a study in how a group or groups of people communicate and transmit their experiences not the best medium for recording hard facts. Besides, Ms. Hoog says, "isn't it a little more interesting to keep it open?" Regardless, the search for the real John Henry has driven scholars for a century. Mr. Cohen judges Mr. Nelson's argument to be plausible but not unassailable.
But he also sees merit in Mr. Garst's work, and has been surprised by how much new information both scholars have been able to turn up over the past decade: "It's a testimony as to how much easier it is to do some kinds of research, now that so many things are available electronically."
Men died so that the railroads could carve their way through the landscape of the postwar South. In a sense, every one of them is John Henry. Mr. Nelson's findings humanize the legend; they do not diminish its pathos and its power. "I'm dying to find out the truth," Mr. Cohen says. "But I'm not sure I ever will."
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