A look at resistance and rebellion in the ballad and legend of John Henry (Part 1)


John Henry:  The Rebel Versions

by Jim Hauser  Contact: jphauser2000  (at)  yahoo.com

Originally posted on May 2013. 
Latest update: January 2015  
Latest update is the addition of a version of "John Henry" collected by Mary Wheeler.  It is identified as rebel version 12.



Introduction

    In this webpage, I identify about 25 versions of the folk song "John Henry" in which John Henry challenges or stands up to his captain or is in direct conflict with him in some way.  For example, there are versions in which John Henry tells his captain that he will fight back against being whipped, mistreated, or overworked.  Also, there are versions in which John Henry complains to his captain of inadequate wages and then informs him that he is quitting and going to work for another employer who pays better.  I classify most of these songs as rebel or complaint versions, and I point out that they have been missed, overlooked or ignored by folklorists and researchers who have studied the John Henry legend and made interpretations of its meaning.  I go on to make the argument that our current understanding of the significance and meaning of the John Henry legend is too narrow as a result of it having been interpreted by folklorists, researchers, and others without taking into account the resistance and rebellion directed by John Henry against his captain.  I also suggest how the singers of the rebel, complaint, and other versions of John Henry cited in this webpage may themselves have viewed the legend and its meaning.

    My research on the John Henry ballad and legend focuses primarily on gaining a better understanding of what John Henry meant to African Americans.  Originally, John Henry was an African American hero.  But, as the song and legend about his great victory in a contest with a steam drill spread to all parts of the United States, he became transformed into an Everyman figure whose heroic appeal extended to people of all races.  The popularization of his legend has made him a model of courage, strength, and perseverance for all people of all races who are trying to overcome difficulties and obstacles in their lives.  But John Henry had an added dimension for African Americans.  For them, he was a powerful symbol of black manhood, a symbol who emerged and rose to prominence during a time when the black man was denied his manhood by white society.  My discussion below will look closely at what John Henry meant to African Americans and will include examining John Henry in his role as a symbol of black manhood.  And in viewing that role, I will also look at John Henry in relation to how black manhood is connected to the African American struggle for freedom.  


    The versions of John Henry which I cite and discuss below suggest that at least some African Americans, possibly many, saw John Henry as a figure of black resistance and rebellion.  In these versions--almost all of which are from black performers or informants--John Henry does something quite extraordinary: he challenges his captain by refusing to be brutalized, mistreated, overworked, or underpaid.  In doing so, he steps over the boundaries established by white society for black men in the days of Jim Crow.  In those days, acts of resistance such as the ones by John Henry against his captain--by a black man against a white authority figure--amounted to acts of racial defiance and rebellion against the white system of power.   In other words, these acts of resistance cast John Henry in the role of a race rebel.  Also, these acts signal the possibility that some or even many African Americans looked beneath the surface of a story about a powerful black man opposing a steam drill and saw a hidden message of racial opposition.  Possibly, some even saw John Henry's battle against the drill as a symbol of the black struggle for freedom.

   

The Rebel Versions

    There are eleven rebel versions of the John Henry ballad which I have identified in my research, and which I believe are a very important—but long-forgotten and now unknown--part of the story of  John Henry, the legendary steel driving man.  According to the legend, John Henry was in a contest against a steam drill to determine which could drive steel faster.  John Henry won the race but died as a result of overexerting himself.   
 
    I refer to certain versions of the ballad as rebel versions because, in each one,  a key, well-known and commonly appearing verse which begins “John Henry said to the captain” has been transformed from a statement of resolve concerning defeating the steam drill into a statement which can be interpreted as a rebellious challenge against the captain, the man who oversaw the work of John Henry and his fellow steel drivers.  The key verse is below in its commonly known form in which John Henry states his intention to defeat the drill in their race. 

Commonly known version of the key verse:

John Henry said to the captain
A man ain't nothing but a man
Before I let that steam drill beat me down
I will die with a hammer in my hand.


    All of the rebel versions contain a key verse which is a variation to the above verse.  An example of one of these rebel version variations is below.
 

Example of a rebel version of the key verse:

John Henry told his captain,
A man ain’t nothing but a man.
Before I’d let you beat me down,
I’d die with the hammer in my hand.”


    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.  It appeared in a book titled Stealing Through Life which was written by a white criminal named Ernest Booth who had turned to writing while serving time in prison.  According to Booth, he heard this version of John Henry in a black brothel.  Although I wasn't sure if I could trust the book, I was intrigued by what I had found and began researching the ballad of John Henry.  I looked at many versions of the ballad and at what folklorists and scholars had written about it and how they had interpreted it.
    
    I was surprised by what I found.   I identified ten additional rebel versions of the ballad for a total of eleven.  As noted earlier, each of these rebel versions contains a verse which is a variation to one particular well-known, commonly appearing verse.  The additional rebel versions consist of two commercial recordings and eight versions collected by various folklorists.  The existence of eleven documented rebel versions of John Henry indicates that versions of the ballad such as these were fairly common.  They were also widely distributed within the United States with most of the non-commercial versions being found east of the Mississippi and at least two found west of it.  African Americans were almost certainly the sources for at least ten of the eleven rebel versions.  (see Notes 1 and 2)

    The key verse, as it appears, in each of the 11 rebel versions is shown below.   Also, for the purpose of comparison, the commonly known version of the key verse is shown again below.   The key third line is highlighted in bold print for all versions. Most of these versions may be interpreted in more than one way, but at least one interpretation involving John Henry speaking directly to his captain in a rebellious manner.


Commonly known version of the key verse:

John Henry said to the captain
A man ain't nothing but a man
Before I let that steam drill beat me down
I will die with a hammer in my hand.



Rebel versions of the key verse:

Rebel version 1:  
    In rebel version 1, John Henry warns his captain against beating or whipping him with a strap.  The warning includes a vow to fight back until he falls dead with his hammer in his hand.  This is the version which sparked my research.  It's from a book by a white criminal named Ernest Booth who turned to writing while in prison.  It was published in 1929.  The lyrics below are exactly as they appear in the book including the expurgated third line. According to Booth, he heard it at the age of 10 in a black brothel.  He had been taken in by the brothel's madame shortly after he and a friend had decided to see the world by hoboing on trains.   (see Note 3)


Rebel Version 1 (from Booth p. 23)

John Henry tole his cap’en one day:
A man ain’t nuffin’ but a man,
But ‘fore ah’d let yo’ hit me on the --- wid dat strap,
Ah’d die wif dis hammer in mah han’ . . . ”
Hey . . . hey . . . hey . . .  


Rebel versions 2 and 3:
    Rebel versions 2 and 3 are open to several interpretations depending on whether the word "beat" in the third line of both versions is taken to mean "strike repeatedly with the intent of inflicting pain and physical harm" or to mean "defeat."  Due to the similarity of the third lines in versions 2 (Befo’ I let you beat me down) and 3 (Before I'd let you beat me down) to the third line in the commonly known version (Before I let that steam drill beat me down), it could be argued that John Henry is stating his resolve to defeat the captain's drill, and, by extension, defeat the captain, also.  (see Note 7)

    A second interpretation of versions 2 and 3 is that John Henry is stating that he will fight to the death (i.e. until he falls dead with his hammer in his hand) against any attempt by the captain to beat (repeatedly strike) him.  During the days of the Jim Crow south, it is likely that many people--especially blacks and individuals who had been beaten by a captain or boss, or who had seen a beating administered by a captain or boss--would have made this second interpretation. A third interpretation is that John Henry is warning his captain against trying to defeat him by breaking him down in some way, either mentally or physically, or possibly both.  In this case, we can envision the possibility that, as a result of being at odds with each other, the captain was intending to work John Henry so hard that he would be driven into submission and be broken of his rebellious spirit.   


Rebel Version 2  (from Odum & Johnson p. 235)

John Henry went to captain,
Say, “Man ain’t nothin’ but a man.
Befo’ I let you beat me down
I die wid de hammer in my han’.”  


Rebel Version 3 (from Johnson p. 126)

John Henry told his captain,
A man ain’t nothing but a man.
Before I’d let you beat me down
I’d die with the hammer in my hand.” 


Rebel versions 4 and 5:
    Rebel versions 4 and 5 are open to several interpretations, again depending on the two different meanings of the the word "beat."  The verses below for these versions are similar to the verses above for versions 2 and 3 with the only real difference between them being that versions 4 and 5 have the phrase "a man" in place of the pronoun "you" in their third lines. This results in John Henry declaring to his captain that he will die with a hammer in his hand before he will let a man beat him down.  One interpretation is that John Henry is warning his captain against beating him, i.e., striking him repeatedly.  But, rather than the direct warning issued in versions 2 and 3, it is an indirect one, with John Henry stating that he will fight to the death against a man--that is, any man, including the captain--who tries to beat (strike) him.  Another interpretation is that John Henry is indirectly telling the captain that he won't let him break him down mentally or physically.  A third interpretation is that John Henry is telling his captain that he will defeat any man who challenges him to a steel driving contest, including possibly a challenge from the captain and his drill.
  
 
Rebel Version 4 (from Johnson p. 131)

John Henry said to the captain,
 “A man ain’t nothing but a man,
Before I let a man beat me down
I will die with my hammer in my hand.” 

When the above verse for Rebel Version 4 is taken in context with three other verses in this particular version--a verse in which John Henry tells the captain that he "ought to be dead and in the ground," another verse in which John Henry asks the captain"What make you treat me so mean?" and a third verse in which John Henry shoots the captain--the first two of the three interpretations suggested above for Rebel Version 4 would appear to be more fitting.   The three additional verses appear below after the last of the rebel verses.


Rebel Version 5  (from Odum & Johnson p. 229)

John Henry said to his captain
Lawd, a man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
Befo’ I let a man beat me down
I’d die wid de hammer in my han’.” 



Rebel versions 6 and 7:
    In versions six and seven, John Henry warns the captain that he will resist being worked from sun to sun by fighting back until he dies with his hammer in his hand.  John Henry's resistance against being overworked is a direct challenge to the captain's authority.


Rebel Version 6  (from Odum & Johnson p. 226)

John Henry said to his captain,
Man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
Befo’ I work from sun to sun
I’d die wid de hammer in my han’.” 


Rebel Version 7  (from Odum & Johnson p. 231)

John Henry told his captain
A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
Befo’ I work from sun to sun
I’d die wid de hammer in my han’.” 



Rebel version 8:

    John Henry declares that he will fight to the death against any attempt by the captain to drive him down.  To drive someone down means to drive him to the point where he collapses or suffers physical harm.  This is the subject of a verse in an old Texas prison song "Ain't No More Cane On this Brazos."  The lyrics to a version of the song performed by convicts at Central State Farm near Houston, Texas are in John A. Lomax's book American Ballads and Folk Songs. That version contains the following lines: "Cap'n doncha do me like you did po' Shine, Drive dat bully till he went stone-blin'." (see Note 10)

      Rebel version 8 was performed by a convict on a Texas prison farm in the year 1965.  Texas convicts worked in the sugar cane and cotton fields for long hours under the broiling sun.  It was not a rare thing for a convict working under these conditions to collapse and die of sunstroke.  An occurrence such as this is made reference to in some versions of the song "Ain't No More Cane On the Brazos;" for example, the version cited from Lomax's book in the above paragraph includes the line "Well, you may get a pardon an' you may drop dead." 


Rebel Version 8  (from Jackson  p. 235)

John Henry told-a the Captain,
He said, “A man ain’t but a man,
And before I’ll stand to let you drive me down,
I will die with the hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I will die with the hammer in my hand.



Rebel version 9:
    This version is very similar to versions 4 and 5 and may be interpreted in the same way.


Rebel Version 9 (from a recording by Memphis Slim which appears on the album Memphis Slim and the Real Honky Tonk on Folkways Records FG 3535  http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW03535.pdf )

John Henry told his captain,
"Captain, a man ain't nothin' but a man,
Before I let anyone beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand, oh Lord
I'll die with my hammer in my hand"
Said, "I'll die with my hammer in my hand 
I will die with my hammer in my hand."



Rebel version 10-A:
    As in some of the other versions above, rebel version 10-A may be interpreted in several ways due to the various meanings of the word "beat."  One possibility is that John Henry is expressing his determination to defeat the captain's steam drill.  An argument against this possibility is that a steam drill is not mentioned in this verse or any of the other verses of this particular version.  Another possibility is that John Henry is warning his captain against trying to beat (i.e. repeatedly strike) him or break him down mentally or physically.  (see Note 8)


Rebel Version 10-A (from a recording made by Irma Thomas and Hugh Laurie which appears on the CD Let Them Talk on the Warner Brothers label.

John Henry said to his captain
"You know a man ain't nothin' but a man,
I'm bettin' right now, you won't beat me down,
I'm gonna die with my hammer in my hand
I'm gonna die with my hammer in my hand."



Rebel version 10-B:
    In rebel version 10-B, John Henry is clearly challenging his captain by issuing a warning in which he declares "you can't push me down."  Jean McClain (a.k.a. Pepper MaShay) sang this version as part of Hugh Laurie's band while he was on tour to support his Let Them Talk album.  The verses in McClain's version closely match those in Irma Thomas's version (rebel version 10-A) with the main difference being that McClain uses the phrase "you can't push me down" while Thomas uses the phrase "you won't beat me down."


Rebel Version 10-B (from a live performance by Jean McClain http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqDnEOSk1dc )

John Henry said to his captain
"You know a man ain't nothin' but a man,
I'm bettin' right now, you can't push me down,
I'm gonna die with my hammer in my hand
I'm gonna die with my hammer in my hand."



Rebel version 11:
    One interpretation of this version is that John Henry is telling the captain that he will resist any attempt by the captain to beat (repeatedly strike) him.  Another possibility is that John Henry is expressing his determination to top or outdo all the other men in his work group (section gang).  Charles K. Wolfe has pointed out that this version of "John Henry" "might well be one of the first black derived versions to reach print."


Rebel Version 11: (from the book Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes)

John Henry said to his Cappun: "Boss,
A man hain't nothin' but a man,
An' 'fore I'll be beat in dis sexion gang,
I'll die wid a hammer in my han'."



Rebel version 12:
    In rebel version 12 John Henry warns the walking boss against "abusing" him.  This could be interpreted as a warning from John Henry against whipping or beating him.  Another possibility is that he is warning the boss against overworking him or treating him poorly in some other way.  This version was performed by an African American woman named Minerva Williams and was collected from the lower Ohio River Valley by Mary Wheeler around the year 1935.


Rebel Version 12:  (from a version performed by Minerva Williams)     

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 also challenges the walking boss in the verse which follows the one above.  In it, he declares to the boss "I ain't blind, I can see."  Clicking on the link above 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 downloading the image with a different browser.




More about Rebel Version 4 
   Rebel version 4 includes three other verses (verses four, seven, and eight) in which John Henry is at odds with his captain, including a verse in which John Henry shoots his captain.  Those verses are below.

verse 4:
John Henry went to the captain's house,
The captain was sleeping sound.
He says, "Wake up, captain, wake up now,
You ought to be dead and in the ground."

verse 7:
John Henry said to his captain,
"What make you treat me so mean?
I am going back to St. Augustine
And work under a captain that don't treat me mean."

verse 8:
John Henry went to the captain's house,
The captain was sleeping sound.
He threw his gun on him and shot him in the side.
Last word I heard the poor man say,
"John Henry, you took my life."



The Complaint Versions

    In addition to the 11 rebel versions, I identified eleven complaint versions of the ballad in which John Henry complains to his captain of inadequate wages or mistreatment on the job.  He does not threaten the captain in these versions, but he crosses over the boundary of what white people in the Jim Crow south considered to be acceptable behavior for a black man in addressing or interacting with his white overseer or boss.  For example, in complaint version 1, John Henry insults his captain by telling him that he is “nothing but a common man” and complains about his wages by saying that “your money is getting mighty slim.”  John Henry also complains about his wages in version 8 by telling the captain that he can make better money with another railroad line.  Additionally, there are six versions (complaint versions 2, 3, 5, 6, 9 and 10), including recordings by Pink Anderson and Furry Lewis, in which John Henry doesn’t just complain about poor pay, but instead, informs his captain that he is quitting the job by asking for the pay he is due and telling him that he can get better wages working somewhere else (see Note 5).   Also, in Anderson’s recording (version 6), John Henry complains to the captain that he is always hurrying him.  He makes the same complaint in a recording by Blind Arvella Gray (version 7).  And in a version by Reese Crenshaw (version 11), John Henry is working on a chain gang (see Note 6) and complains to the captain about "dogging" him.  Lastly, in version 4, John Henry complains to the captain by asking why he works him so hard, and, in this version’s final verse, he refuses to work by stating that he won’t work in the sun or the rain and will lay around awaiting the arrival of the pay train.  At least six of the complaint versions are from black performers (see Note 4).


Complaint Version 1  (from Johnson  p.89)

verse 2:
John Henry said to his captain:
"You are nothing but a common man,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."

verse 5:
John Henry he said to his captain:
"Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain,
Oh Captain will you walk in?"


Complaint Version 2  (from Johnson p. 124) 

John Henry told the captain,
"Captain, Captain, gimme my time!
I can make mo' money on the A. C. and L.
Than I can on the Georgia Line."


Complaint Version 3   (from Chappell p. 117)

John Henry took his hammer
And drive there a few more days.
Then he said to his captain, "Hand me down my time.
I can make more money on the L. and N.
Then I can on the C & O."


Complaint Version 4  (from Chappell p. 106)

verse 7:
John Henry said to the captain,
"One thing I don't understand:
Why do you give me such a hard task
When a man ain't nothing but a man?"

verse 11:
He said he wasn't going to work in no sunshine,
He wasn't going to work in no rain;
He would just lay 'round till the pay train run
And roll in a big dice game.


Complaint Version 5  (from Odum/Johnson p. 231)

John Henry told his captain,
"Hand me down my time,
I can make more money on Georgia Southern Road
Than I can on old Coast Line."


Complaint Version 6 (recording by Pink Anderson  http://archive.org/details/PinkAnderson-JohnHenry )

John Henry said to his captain one day,
"Captain how can this be?
Man I've been on your job,
Just about twelve long years,
You don't hurry nobody but me.
You don't hurry nobody but me."


John Henry said to his captain one mornin,'
"Write me out my time.
I can make more money on the Seaboard Road,
Than I can on the Seven line.
Than I can on the Seven line."


Complaint Version 7 (recording by Blind Arvella Gray  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apnQ8h2Yk68)

John Henry said to the captain,
"Captain, how can that be?
Got 49 men on your job,
You hurry nobody but me, Lord, Lord.
You hurry nobody but me."


Complaint Version 8  (recording of Parchman Farm convicts http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=10703 )

John Henry told his captain,
Says, "You's old enough to know,
That they pay more money on that C & G,
Than they do on that M & O, well, Lord,
Well they do on that M & O."


Complaint Version 9  (recording by Ed Lewis at Parchman Farm http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=4583 )

John Henry he says to the captain,
"Captain pay me my hold back days.
I will make more money on that I C line
I will on this M & O
Oh, than I will on the M & O." 


Complaint Version 10  (recording by Furry Lewis on the album Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends:  Party!  At Home on Arcola Records.  Link to transcription of the lyrics: http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4256.5;wap2)

John Henry told his captain one day,
"You can give me my time.
I can make more money on that C & O
Than I can on that I C line
Lord knows, than I can"


Complaint Version 11 (recording by Reese Crenshaw at Milledgeville State Farm in Georgia  http://archive.org/details/ReeseCrenshaw-JohnHenry)

John Henry told his captain,
"Don't see how in the world it can be,
Been seven years on your chain gang,  (or possibly: Been five long years on your chain gang)
You don't dog nobody but me.
You don't dog nobody but me.
You don't dog nobody but me.
You don't dog nobody but me."



Other Versions of Resistance

Versions by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and another by Bailey Dansley

    We can see John Henry as a figure of black resistance in a version of the ballad by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee which includes the verse below in which John Henry tells his captain to "shut up" and that he (the captain) has made a mistake.  A recording of this version appears on the CD titled Classic African-American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways, SFW CD 40191


John Henry was hammerin' on top of the mountain,
Captain said, "John that mountain is sinkin' in."
John Henry said, "Shut up!  Captain you don't know what you sayin'
That ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind."

Any black man who would talk to his captain or boss or any other white authority figure as John Henry does in the verse above would be risking severe punishment for disrespecting a white man.  

    There are at least two other recordings of the ballad which contain a verse similar to the one above.  One of these is another version by Terry and McGhee which was performed on an Armed Forces Radio Service program broadcast on CBS radio on January 5, 1945.  In this second version, John Henry does not tell the captain to "shut up," but he does again directly tell him that he has made a mistake.  The verse and a link to the radio program are below.  (The song appears at about six minutes into the program.)


The Captain said to John Henry
"I believe this mountain's sinkin' in."
John Henry said to his captain, "You are wrong.
That's only my hammer suckin' wind.
That is only my hammer suckin' wind."


    Another version with a verse similar to the two by Terry and McGhee was recorded in southeastern Arkansas in the fall of 1963 by a blind black musician named Bailey Dansley   The verse and a link to the recording are below.  Note that Dansley mistakenly switches the roles of John Henry and the captain in the first line of the verse and then switches them back to their usual roles in the second and later lines.  Also, be aware that there are several inaccuracies in the transcribed lyrics on the webpage containing the audio file of Dansley's performance, including a failure to recognize the switching of roles in the first line. 


Henry told his Captain, "The mountain's fallin' in.  
No, Captain, yous a bad mistake.  (meaning "No, Captain, you made a bad mistake.")
That my hammer handle ringin' in the wind.
That my hammer handle ringin' in the wind, God knows.
My hammer handle ringin' in the wind."


    In the three similar verses above, John Henry does the same thing he does in the complaint versions: he crosses over the boundary of what white people in the Jim Crow south considered to be acceptable behavior for a black man.  Under Jim Crow social customs, it was taboo for a black man to tell his captain or boss to "shut up" or directly tell him that he had made a mistake.  Conduct such as this would have been interpreted by white bosses as an impudent act by a member of an inferior race who had the gall to think himself to be the equal of a white man.  

    The three verses discussed above are variations to a verse which appears frequently in documented versions of the ballad, a verse in which John Henry acts in a much more socially acceptable manner for a black man by telling his captain of his error in an indirect way.

The captain said to John Henry
"I believe this mountain's sinkin' in."
John Henry said to his captain, "Oh my!
That ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind.
Ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind."

    In the above verse, rather than directly correcting his captain, John Henry instead indirectly and tactfully informs him of the source of the ominous sound he hears.  And, in so doing, he comforts his captain and eases his fear of the possibility that the mountain is caving in on them inside the tunnel.  Still it could be argued that there is also an element of resistance in this particular version of the verse--a much more subtle one--in that the white authority figure (the captain) is in a position of weakness through being portrayed as confused and frightened while, on the other hand, the black laborer (John Henry) is in the position of strength in that he can see that his powerful hammering has struck great fear in the captain.



Version by Grover Wells (recording by Grover Wells at Parchman Farm 

    In 1959, Alan Lomax recorded a work song version of "John Henry" at Mississippi's Parchman Farm prison which was performed by an African American named Grover Wells who was accompanied by a group of unidentified prisoners who sang and struck their hoes to a steady beat throughout the song.  Three key verses from the song, verses two, three, and five, are below.  In them, John Henry speaks directly to his captain making what can be interpreted as an indirect threat against his life and other statements of resistance.  

    In verse two of Wells's version, John Henry makes a statement which any captain or boss would consider to be a thinly veiled threat to kill him.  John Henry issues the threat indirectly by suggesting to the captain that he may accidentally kill him with his hammer.  It appears to have been an incredible act of courage or foolhardiness for Wells to perform this particular verse, considering that he did it as a convict in a prison that was infamous for its cruelty, and in which convicts labored in fields with hoes and other tools which could be used as lethal weapons.  The verse is a variation to one which appears in many versions of "John Henry" in which John Henry speaks similar lines to his shaker, the worker who held the drill in place for the steel driver as he hammered it.  

verse 2:
John Henry told his captain,
"Boss man, do you ever pray?
Well, if I miss this steel and this hammer get away
Tomorrow be your buryin' day.
Lord, Lord
Tomorrow be your buryin' day."

    Resistance is expressed in verse three of Wells's version through John Henry complaining to his captain that his ten-pound hammer is too heavy and asking for a five-pound hammer to replace it.  

(Note:  This third verse is a variation to a commonly appearing verse in which John Henry asks his captain when he goes to town to bring him back a twelve-pound hammer (or a nine or ten-pound hammer in some versions), presumably a heavier one than the one he was using at the time he made the request.  The request for a heavier hammer must have been viewed with irony by prison farm, convict lease, and chain gang workers and also free laborers who were being driven mercilessly hard by their overseers.  And this leads to an important point: convicts who were literally being worked to death must have viewed the idea of John Henry working himself to death in the race against the drill as senseless.  If they identified with John Henry or viewed him as a hero, they may have seen the contest with the drill not as an attempt to stave off the replacement of men by machines, but as symbolic of something else.  Possibly, when they sang about John Henry, they saw his victory over the drill as representing him overcoming his captain, a man like the cruel captain or boss who oversaw and drove them, and who held their lives in his hands.)

verse 3:
John Henry told his captain,
"Boss man, when you go to town,
Bring a five-pound hammer
Lord, Lord
'Cause the ten-pound is gettin' me down
This ten-pound is gettin' me down."

    Wells's version expresses resistance in verse five with John Henry telling his captain that he might leave the job and never come back.

verse  5:
John Henry told his captain,
"Goin' on down this track,
Captain, Captain, Oh Lord,
I may not ever come back.
I may not ever come back."



Version by Ollie Gilbert  (recording of Ollie Gilbert from the Max Hunter collection
 
In 1970, a white woman from Arkansas named Ollie Eva Woody Gilbert recorded a version of "John Henry" with a verse which is very similar to verse two of the version by Grover Wells.  In Gilbert's recording, John Henry calls the captain "Boy" and warns him that he should pray because he might be killed accidentally by the hammer.  As with the Grover Wells version, this statement would most likely be interpreted by a captain or boss as an indirect threat against his life.  Also, the captain--a white man--would certainly take offense to being called "Boy" by any black man, including John Henry.
 
John Henry said to the Captain,
"Boy, you'd better pray.
For if I miss with my nine pound hammer,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day, lord, Lord.
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day."
 


Version collected by Willis Laurence James 

Another version in which we can see John Henry as a symbol of black resistance is the one below which was collected by an African American music professor and folklorist named Willis Laurence James.  James collected it from Georgia and it is in the 12-bar blues format. (published in James's book Stars in de Elements)

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.

In the two verses above, John Henry is a black bad man.  Taking these verses in the context of the many documented versions of the song, including the versions cited in this essay, the figure of John Henry in James's version may be interpreted as being not an evil bad man, but a "ba-a-ad"--that isgreat and powerful--man.  So ba-a-ad that white men let him do as he pleased and he did not have to abide by the laws of the white man's legal system, a system which was used as a tool to oppress blacks.  In this version of "John Henry," the great steel driver is living (to paraphrase Greil Marcus in his writing about Stagolee) the black man's fantasy of no limits.  He is not just "a steel-drivin' man;" he is something much more, something that every black man wanted to be: a free man.




The John Henry Hammer Songs and Other Hammer Songs
 
The John Henry hammer songs are part of the African American work song tradition, and these songs and other black work songs play an important part in helping us to understand the significance of the John Henry legend.  This is because they put the legend in the context of the times during which the ballad was sung and the legend flourished.  They expose for us the harsh realities that many black laborers--whether they worked for wages or on a chain gang or other prison work gang--lived with each day: brutally hard work and the possibility of death or disabling injury on the job.  Many African Americans who sang and told stories about John Henry did exhausting and dangerous work in railroad, tunnel, and levee construction. They also worked in mines.  John Henry was a hero to them, but the hammer songs they sang show us that they saw the hammer as a symbol of death.  We can see this in the following verse and in the variations to it which appear in many hammer songs.   We can also see that John Henry, despite occupying the role of a hero in the ballad, is in a different position--the position of a victim--in the hammer songs.
 
This is the hammer,
That killed John Henry.
But it won't kill me.
No, it won't kill me.
 
In the John Henry hammer songs, it is the worker--rather than John Henry--who is the focus of resistance and rebellion. Typically, these songs include a verse in which the worker abandons his hammer and walks away from the job before it kills him.  An example is below.

Take this hammer.
Give it to the Captain.
Tell him I'm gone.
Tell him I'm gone.

Taken together, these hammer songs suggest the possibility that the legend of John Henry runs much deeper, and is darker and more complex than the simple and grand tale of man against machine at its surface.   Additional examples of these hammer songs are below.  (see Note 9) 
 
 
 
Example 1 (from Johnson p. 76)
Selected verses from this example are below.

This is the hammer,
Hammer killed John Henry.
This is the hammer,
Hammer killed John Henry.
Won't kill me.
Lawd, Lawd, won't kill me.

Take this hammer,
Hammer to the captain.
Take this hammer,
Hammer to the captain.
Tell him I'm gone
Lawd, Lawd, tell him I'm gone.

Take this hammer,
Throw it in the river.
Take this hammer,
Throw it in the river.
It'll ring right on,
Lawd, Lawd, ring right on.


Example 2 (from Johnson p. 72)
    Johnson's informant for this hammer song explained that verses one and two were sung by John Henry and verse three was sung by his partner after John Henry dropped dead on the job.

Ain't no hammer 
In this mountain
Outrings mine, boys,
Outrings mine.

Take this hammer,
Give it to the boss man,
Tell him I'm gone, boys,
Tell him I'm gone.

This old hammer 
Killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, boys,
It won't kill me.


Example 3 ("Spike Driver Blues")
    In the year 1928, Mississippi John Hurt took the John Henry hammer song and transformed it from a work song into an entertainment piece titled "Spike Driver Blues."  Below are some of the verses from his recording.

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain,
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone.
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain,
Tell him I'm gone.
I'm sure is gone.

John Henry, he left his hammer,
Layin' beside the road.
Layin' beside the road.
Layin' beside the road.

John Henry's a steel drivin' boy,
But he went down.
But he went down.
But he went down.

John Henry was a steel drivin' boy,
But he went down.
But he went down.
That's why I'm goin'.


Example 4 ("Section Hand Blues")
    Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" was preceded in 1925 by Sippie Wallace's "Section Hand Blues" a musical recording which may be the first by an African American to make mention of John Henry.  Like Hurt's recording, Wallace's is an adaptation of the hammer work song.  Her reference to Lincoln freeing the slaves serves as a comment on how black laborers were treated after slavery's end.  Selected verses are below.

If my captain ask for me
Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free.
Ain't no hammer on this road
Gonna kill poor me.

This ole hammer killed John Henry,
But this hammer ain't gonna kill me. 

I am heading for the shack,
With my shovel on my back.
Although money's what I lack,
I'm goin' home.



Examples 5 and 6 are from hammer songs which do not mention John Henry.

Example 5 (recording of Ollie Gilbert from the Max Hunter collection http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=829 )
 
    Although the hammer and other work songs were created by African Americans and used by them as they worked, white musicians picked up on them and added them to their repertoires.  The following verses are from a version by a white woman named Ollie Gilbert.  Note that the second verse shows that the laborer is chained and shackled.  A "chains and shackles" verse appears regularly in versions of these songs.  (Gilbert also recorded a version of "John Henry" which is included above under the versions listed as "Other Versions of Resistance.")

Take this hammer an' give it to the captain.
Take this hammer an' give it to the captain.
Take this hammer an' give it to the captain.
Tell 'im I'm gone, tell 'im I'm gone.
 
For I don't like those chains an' shackles.
I don't like those chains an' shackles.
I don't like those chains an' shackles.
They hurt my legs, they hurt my leg.



Example 6  (from Lomax, Our Singing Country, p.381)  
    This version appears in a book by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax titled Our Singing Country.  The song, titled "Take This Hammer," is included in a section titled "Negro Gang Songs."  Selected verses are below.  Note that the Captain directs a racial slur at the laborer in one of the verses, and the laborer threatens to take the Captain's gun from him in another.   Each "huh!" corresponds to a strike of the hammer.

Take this hammer, (huh!) carry it to the captain, (huh!)
Take this hammer, (huh!) carry it to the captain, (huh!)
Take this hammer, (huh!) carry it to the captain, (huh!)
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone. (huh!)

Cap'n called me "a nappy-headed devil," (huh!) (repeat twice more)
That ain't my name, that ain't my name. (huh!)

Cap'n got a big gun, (huh!) an' he try to play bad. (huh!) (repeat twice more)
Go'n' take it in the mornin' if he make me mad.(huh!)


 
Interpreting John Henry

    I learned from my work that those who researched and wrote about the legend did not seriously consider or recognize the possibility that an important facet of the story of John Henry may have been that he was a hero for challenging or resisting his captain.  The only researchers or writers who even make note of versions in which John Henry is in conflict with his captain are Guy B. Johnson and Barry Lee Pearson.  Johnson wrote a book detailing his research on John Henry in which he stated that "one occasionally finds the notion that John Henry was a 'bad man'" and he cites a version from Summerville, Georgia (identified in this essay as rebel version 4) which was accompanied by a story of John Henry's life.  In both the story and the ballad, John Henry's captain or boss mistreats him and John Henry finally shoots him.  Johnson apparently did not think that these bad man versions were significant as he did not explore this aspect of the legend any further in his book.  Pearson points out in the liner notes to a Smithsonian Folkways CD titled Classic African American Ballads that the CD's version of "John Henry" (the version by Terry and McGhee) includes lyrics in which the steel driver tells his captain to "shut up" and he notes that there are versions of the ballad containing protest lyrics including one by Pink Anderson in which John Henry warns his captain not to hurry him and threatens to quit and go to work for another railroad line.

    Except as noted above, I found no evidence that folklorists and researchers saw John Henry as a figure who was in conflict with or pitted against his captain.  Instead, interpreters of the ballad are often silent on the relationship between the two men.  Sometimes they point to John Henry teaming up with his captain in a bet that he will defeat the steam drill, and they view John Henry's telling his captain that he will defeat the drill or "die with my hammer in my hand" as the steel driver's assurance to his captain that he will win the wager for him.  Folklorist Alan Dundes has even suggested the possibility that the story of John Henry appealed to whites because it allayed "the stereotypic white fears of the "bad nigger," [ . . .] the rough, tough, aggressive, militant who refuses to 'stay in his place.'''  Dundes suggested that whites may have viewed John Henry as a "strong, loyal, gentle Uncle Tom worker" who constituted "no threat or danger to the white captain."  

    Historian Lawrence Levine also views John Henry as a figure who is neither a threat to his captain nor a force for rebellion.  In his book Black Culture and Black Consciousness, considered to be a landmark work in illuminating our understanding of African American culture and history, Levine stresses that certain black heroes, such as John Henry and the boxer Joe Louis, won their battles while playing by the rules and avoiding violating the boundaries set by the white majority.  Levine writes that these heroes "triumphed not by breaking the laws of the larger society but by smashing its expectations and stereotypes."  Under this view, John Henry is seen as achieving victory through hard work and superior performance with his hammer, thereby demonstrating that blacks were not inferior to whites.  While Levine notes that part of what John Henry represents is the struggle of black against white (and the struggles between worker and machine, the individual and society, and the lowly and the powerful), he does not see the steel driver as a rebellious or revolutionary hero.


    One of the most helpful things I found in my research was a book titled Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson.  Nelson believes that a black convict lease worker named John William Henry was the actual man who raced and defeated a steam drill.  His research on the history of American railroad construction made him keenly aware of the fact that railroad work was extremely hard and dangerous.  This, plus his study of the hammer songs associated with railroad building--some of which referenced John Henry and his death--made him suspicious of the typically upbeat versions of John Henry, versions which had been recorded many years after the legend was born.  Also, his book brings out the fact that black convict lease workers had been used to build certain railroad tunnels.  The hammer songs were described by Nelson as "bitter," cursing "hard work, bosses, and unfaithful women," and predicting "pain and death."  Nelson believes that originally John Henry was not so much a story praising a hero as it was "a chilling song about death--a song that men at work sang to warn themselves about the dangers of overwork."  He suspects that John Henry originally sounded something like a dirge.  He also pointed to a version in which the ballad is sung as a work song by Parchman Farm convicts in a recording from the late 1940s (complaint version 8).  The Parchman version contains familiar verses, but the tone of the recording is far from being an upbeat version of the song.  And despite the familiar verses, the lyrics make no mention of a steam drill, a contest, or John Henry's glorious victory.  But we do hear a commonly occurring verse, a verse in which John Henry goes up to the mountain and is so discouraged by its size that he lays down his hammer and he cries.  The Parchman version also contains a verse in which John Henry complains to his captain that another railroad pays more money.  A link to the recording is below.




    Learning from Nelson's book that black convict lease workers were used to build railroad tunnels pointed the way to an explanation for the creation of the rebel versions of John Henry.  Black convict lease workers were treated brutally; they worked under the constant threat of being whipped or beaten and often were literally worked to death.  Maximizing profits for the company leasing the convicts meant driving the workers mercilessly and providing the minimum in food and shelter.  Those that died as a result of this cruelty could be replaced with new convicts.  Considering the conditions under which the convicts worked and lived, it's easy to imagine how the rebel versions of John Henry were created.  

    Nelson's suspicion that John Henry may have originally been a mournful sounding song rather than an upbeat one fits with Booth's description of the version of John Henry (rebel version 1) he heard in the black brothel.  He described that version as a "sad, slow moan, dirgelike in its low, primitive prolongation."  The upbeat tone that is typical of most recordings of the song may have come from the influence of white  musicians.  Woody Guthrie used a lively tune and a honking harmonica when he took a John Henry hammer song containing the line "This old hammer killed John Henry, but it can't kill me" and transformed it into the song "Dust Cain't Kill Me" which opens with the verse "That old dust storm, killed my baby, but it cain't kill me, Lord, it cain't kill me."  It's possible that white musicians created a similar transformation with the ballad of John Henry changing a darker sounding tune into a brighter sounding one.

    My research shows that, in the past, for at least some people, John Henry was a hero who was very different from the image we have had of him.  The existence of the rebel and complaint versions reveal that, for these people, at least part of the reason John Henry was a hero was that he stood up to a cruel captain and resisted being beaten, overworked, underpaid, or mistreated.  But, as pointed out above, folklorists and scholars have not viewed John Henry as a hero who challenged his captain or who was at odds with him in any way.  Instead they see John Henry's sole adversary as the steam drill and view his heroic appeal as coming primarily out of his victory over it. 

    The rebel and complaint versions of John Henry give us a broader, more complete picture of the legend and lead to new interpretations of it or add new facets to existing interpretations.  The new interpretations and a new facet which I see in the rebel and complaint versions are below. Other people may come up with different ones.  Mine do not replace prior ones or prove them to be false.  The legend of John Henry means different things to different people, and the interpretation that a performer or listener gives to a ballad is valid for that person.  Dundes has written that there is no particular interpretation of John Henry which is the correct interpretation any more than there is a particular version of the ballad which is the correct version.   And Levine has written "No more than any other epic hero should John Henry be converted into a narrow one-dimensional figure whose significance has to be measured within the framework of any single interpretive device."


John Henry as a labor protest
    The complaint versions add a new facet to the labor protest aspect of John Henry.  For many years, John Henry's race with the steam drill has been interpreted as a protest against the loss of manual laborers' jobs as a result of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution.  A related interpretation comes from Norm Cohen who views the ballad not as a protest against the loss of jobs caused by mechanization, but as a protest against how displaced laborers were uncaringly cast aside by a society which found it "more convenient to discharge the old laborer than retrain him, or at least retire him in dignity."   A new facet is added to these labor protest interpretations by the complaint versions because they do not revolve around the loss of jobs and displaced laborers but rather the treatment of employees.  In these versions, John Henry complains directly to his captain of being underpaid or of being worked too hard or too long. 


John Henry as a protest against the brutalities of the penal system
    The rebel versions of John Henry can be interpreted as a protest against the brutalities of the penal system.  John Henry's refusal to be whipped, beaten, worked from sun to sun, or driven to the point of collapse may be seen as taking place under the circumstance of forced labor on prison farms, chain gangs, or convict lease projects.  Both blacks and whites were subject to the brutalities of being incarcerated, including being beaten and whipped.  Bluesman Son House's "County Farm Blues" protests beatings administered by a man named "Captain Jack"  and House claimed that sometimes prisoners were beaten so severely that they died.  In a relatively famous case which led to the abolishment of Florida's convict lease system, a young white man named Martin Tabert, who found himself laboring as a convict lease worker after being arrested for hopping a freight train, was whipped so brutally that he died later that day.  Since both blacks and whites could be imprisoned and suffer inhumane treatment while incarcerated or while performing forced labor, members of either race might interpret rebel versions of John Henry as protests against the cruelties of the penal system.


John Henry as a protest against racial oppression
    The rebel versions may also be interpreted as racial protests.  In the Jim Crow south, blacks were victimized and exploited by the legal and penal systems.  Many areas established vagrancy laws which, in effect, made it illegal to be unemployed, and then selectively enforced those laws against African Americans. As a result, blacks made up a largely disproportionate share of the population of prisoners and forced laborers, and it's likely they would have seen their situation as resulting from racial oppression.  Many of them would have viewed the captain as a representative or agent of the white system of power, and therefore would have interpreted John Henry's refusal to be whipped, beaten, or overworked by his captain as a form of direct and open rebellion against oppression.  In writing about John Henry, Dundes notes that "To the extent that the song or legend encapsulates the evils of exploitation, it may have special appeal for people who have themselves had personal experience with such exploitation."  As members of a race which had been enslaved for hundreds of years, the rebel versions of John Henry would have had that special appeal to African Americans, especially those who had served time on prison farms, chain gangs, or as convict lease workers.

---------

To go to Part 2 of this essay, scroll up to the top of this page and click on the link for Part 2 in the left hand column.



    This essay and website are being periodically updated as my research continues.  One thing I will be doing in the work ahead of me is to examine the questions raised by the rebel and complaint versions.  What may have led to their creation and when were they created?  What is their significance and how important are they?  Do they signal that we are possibly wrong in some of our assumptions about the legend?  I have begun exploring some of these issues in Parts 2 and 3 of this essay.    




NOTES
 
Note 1.  The geographic locations from which the rebel versions were collected
Rebel version 1 appears in Booth's Stealing Through Life; according to the book, Booth heard this version in Oakland, California.   Rebel version 8, which appears in Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man, was collected from a performance by a convict named Johnny Jackson in a Texas prison.  Rebel versions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7 were collected from the eastern part of the United States.  Versions 2, 5, 6, and 7 are from Odum and Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs.  The authors did not identify the location from which each individual song was collected.  The book's preface explains that its contents represent "the group of songs current in certain areas in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, during the years 1924-25."  Rebel versions 3 and 4 are from Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend.  Version 3 was collected from musicians from Durham, NC.  Version 4 was sent in a letter to Johnson by a woman from Summerville, Georgia.  She apparently received the ballad and an accompanying story of John Henry's life in written form from a man whom she explained "came through from Arkansas and spent the night with us."  It's possible that the man collected the song in Arkansas or he may have collected it somewhere during his travels.  Versions 9, 10-A, and 10-B were not collected from the field; therefore, geographic location of collection is not applicable for these.  Versions 9 and 10-A are commercial recordings and 10-B is a recording from a live commercial performance.  Rebel version 11 appears in Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes.  The geographic location from which it was collected is not identified in Talley's book.  Talley was an African American professor at Fisk University who collected his folk rhymes from his home in Tennessee, his travels, and his colleagues, students, friends and family.


Note 2.   The racial identities of the rebel version informants and performers.
In all likelihood, at least nine of the eleven rebel versions (versions 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10-A/10-B, and 11) were collected from African American informants or are commercial recordings of African American musicians.  A tenth rebel version (version 1) is a white man's recollection of a performance he witnessed by an African American.  One of the rebel versions (version 4) appears to have been collected from a white man who was not a musician but who had recorded it by putting it down on paper; it is not known whether his informant was white or black.  Details follow.  
Rebel version 1, from Booth's book Stealing Through Life, is a white man's recollection of a version he claimed to have heard in a black brothel.  Four of the rebel versions, versions 2, 5, 6, and 7 appear in Odum and Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs.  In their preface to this book, the authors explain that, except where otherwise designated, all songs "were taken directly from Negro singers and do not represent reports of memory from white individuals."  No exceptions were noted for any of the rebel versions in Negro Workaday Songs, which means that the informants for all four of its rebel versions were black.  Rebel version 8 appears in Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man, which collected songs from black convicts in Texas prisons.  Two of the rebel versions, versions 3 and 4, are from Guy B. Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. One of the two from Johnson's book was collected from African American performers.  Specifically, version 3 was collected from a performance by a duo made up of singer Odell Walker and guitarist Robert Mason, both of whom have been described as "almost certainly African American" in an e-mail message sent to me by blues researcher R. L. (Bob) Eagle.  Their names appear in a list created by Eagle of North Carolina blues and gospel musicians which is available at the following link:   https://groups.google.com/forum/fromgroups=#!topic/bit.listserv.blues-l/CTx923MvZvE  Eagle told me that there was a black musician named Odell Walker in Durham, North Carolina in 1927, and he directed me to Bruce Bastin's book Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast for background information on Mason.  Bastin's book describes Mason as a twelve-string guitarist who settled in Durham, and this description matches Johnson's description of Mason as a skilled twelve-string guitarist from Durham, North Carolina.  The other version from Johnson's book (version 4) was collected from a woman in Georgia who had a version of the ballad along with a short account of the story of John Henry that was given to her by a man from Arkansas.  Johnson did not identify the race of the woman or the man.  It seems likely that the man and woman were white, but it is unknown if the man's informant was white or black.  Two rebel versions (versions 9 and 10-A/10-B) are commercial recordings by black musicians Memphis Slim and Irma Thomas/Jean McClain.  Rebel version 11 appears in the book Negro Folk Rhymes by an African American professor named Thomas W. Talley; it appears extremely likely that its source is an African American informant.


Note 3.   Further details about rebel version 1 and Booth's book.
According to Booth’s book, he heard “John Henry” in a black brothel when he was just 10 years old.  He and a 12 year old friend had run away from home planning to see the world by riding the rails like hoboes.  But before they had gotten very far, they were taken in by Lulu, the brothel’s madame.  

Could Booth when he sat down to write the book years later as an adult, accurately remember the lyrics to a song which he heard as a 10-year-old?  The book itself may hold a clue to the answer to this question.  In it, Booth described how—in the relatively comfortable world that was his as a child—he disliked the way that his elders, in order to avoid offending others, never expressed their true feelings.  He wrote that he dreamed of leaving the world of pretense and being transported “into the world of stern hardships and great emotions.”   It seems unlikely that a 10-year old would have these kinds of thoughts and feelings; possibly Booth was at least several years older than he purported himself to be.  Whatever his age at the time, if he actually did have these feelings, then the defiance expressed in that particular verse of “John Henry” may have made a very memorable impression upon him.  Perhaps Booth enjoyed the song so much that he often sang it himself, thereby keeping it fresh in his memory.  Another possibility is that Booth actually heard those lyrics through contact with blacks at a much later time in his life.  Bob Eagle has suggested to me that he may have heard it while serving time in San Quentin prison which held both white and black convicts.


Note 4.   The racial identities of the complaint version informants. 
At least six of the complaint versions (versions 5 through 10) are from black performers.  Version 5 is from Odum and Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs.  Versions 6, 7, and 10 are musical sound recordings of African American musicians Pink Anderson, Blind Arvella Gray, and Furry Lewis, respectively.  Version 8 is a musical recording of African American convicts at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.  Version 9 is a musical recording of an African American Parchman Farm convict named Ed Lewis. 

Version 11 is an Alan Lomax musical recording of a musician named Reese Crenshaw who may be African American.  According to Bruce Bastin's book Red River Blues (pages 53 and 54), Crenshaw was an inmate at the State Farm in Milledgeville (Georgia).  The recording was made in December 1934.  According to Bastin, most of the inmates at the prison were white.  Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc's book Blues: A Regional Experience (page 268) identifies a musician (vocal and guitar) from the Georgia Piedmont region named Reese Crenshaw who was possibly born in Warren County on March 4, 1896.  The 1940 United States Federal Census, includes a black man named Reese Crenshaw, born in about 1902, living in Tallokas (Brooks County), Georgia.  One of these two African Americans may be the person who recorded complaint version 11.

Complaint versions 1 and 2 are from Guy B. Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend and versions 3 and 4 are from Chappell's John Henry: A Folklore Study.  The racial identities of the informants for versions 1 through 4 can not be determined from Johnson's and Chapell's books.  


Note 5.   John Henry asking for his pay
In complaint versions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10, John Henry asks for his pay by asking for his "time," making requests or demands such as "gimme my time" or "hand me down my time."  In complaint version 9, he asks for payment of his "hold back days."


Note 6.   John Henry working on a chain gang
In addition to Reese Crenshaw's version, John Henry is working on a chain gang in a recording made by the duo of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

Well, some said he's born in Texas,
Some said he's born up in Maine.
I just said he was a Louisiana man,
Leader of a steel-drivin' chain gang
Leader of a steel-drivin' gang.
Leader of a steel-drivin' chain gang,
Leader of a steel-drivin' gang.

Here is a link to the recording:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66r3zZoO4dQ


Note 7.   Versions in which the steam drill is identified as the captain's drill
There are a good number of versions in which the steam drill is identified as the captain's drill through a variation to the line "Before I let that steam drill beat me down" which results in the line "Before I let your steam drill beat me down."  There are also versions in which the captain tells John Henry that he is going to bring the steam drill out on the job including a version in Carl Sandburg's collection of folk songs titled The American Songbag.  

 
Note 8.  Similarity between Irma Thomas/Hugh Laurie version and Memphis Slim versions
Irma Thomas appears on Hugh Laurie's Let Them Talk CD as a guest artist, and performs the vocal for a version of  "John Henry" which is so similar to several versions recorded by Memphis Slim that I believe it is based on his version.    

Note 9.  Background on the working lives of the black laborers who sang about John Henry
After slavery was legally abolished in the United States with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, African-Americans were still oppressed and exploited by the white system of power.  In the Jim Crow south, legislators, law enforcement officers, judges, and businessmen practically conspired to make the legal and prison system an arm of state and local commerce in order to create a cheap source of labor--in the form of incarcerated black men and women--for businesses.  Vagrancy laws were established in the southern states which basically made it illegal to be unemployed, and, to a large extent, the laws were selectively enforced against black people.   Anyone arrested for vagrancy could be put to work on the local plantations, thereby providing them with a low cost form of labor.  Also, many southern states leased convicts out to mining companies, railroads, and other businesses.  Many African Americans who were fortunate enough to avoid being arrested and caught up in this system still suffered from exploitation through systems of debt peonage employed on farms and in levee camps, turpentine camps, and other work camps.  Under this system "free" laborers worked long hours under brutal bosses and performed dangerous work for poor wages


Note 10.  Additional information on use of the term "drive down" in prison songs
A verse from another prison song which contains lyrics using the term "drive down" is in the song "Please Have Mercy on a Longtime Man."  This song appears in Bruce Jackson's book Wake Up Dead Man, and the verse is below.

Well I went to the Captain, with my hat in my hand,
Said, "A Lordy, have mercy, on a longtime man."
Well he looked at me, and he spit on the ground,
Says, "I'll have mercy, when I drive you down."



Sources:  For sources, scroll up to the top of the page and click on the "Sources" link in the left hand column.


Copyright © 2013-2015  by James P. Hauser except where otherwise noted.  All rights reserved.