The History of the Song: John Henry

John Henry: History of the Song 

RECORDING INFO: Dock Boggs, "John Henry" (on Boggs2, BoggsCD1). Bill Cornett ,"John Henry" (on MMOKCD). Martin Young & Corbett Grigsby, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on MMOKCD); New Lost City Ramblers, "John Henry" (on NLCR05). Sid Hemphill, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1700); Glen Stoneman, George Stoneman & James Lindsay, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on LomaxCD1702); Ed Lewis, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1705); Virgil Perkins & Jack Sims, "John Henry" (on FMUSA, AmSkBa); Earl Johnson & his Dixie Entertainers, "John Henry Blues" (OKeh 45101, 1927; on TimesAint02). Fruit Jar Guzzlers, "Steel Driving Man" (Broadway 8199, 1928; on TimesAint03). (Joe) Evans & (Arthur) McClain, "John Henry Blues" (on BefBlues3). Pete Seeger, "John Henry" (on PeteSeeger05). John Henry (the Steel Driving Man); Axton, Hoyt. Greenback Dollar, Vee-Jay VJS-1126, LP (1964), cut#B.05; Baker, Etta. Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, Tradition TR 1007, LP (196?), cut# 16; Baker, Kenny; and Josh Graves. Bucktime!, Puritan 5005, LP (1974), cut# 11; Belafonte, Harry. Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, RCA (Victor) LPM-1022, LP (1954), cut#A.03; Bird, Elmer. Elmer's Greatest Licks, Bird, Cas (1980), cut# 2; Boggs, Dock. Dock Boggs, Vol 2, Folkways FA 2392, LP (1965), cut# 17; Bogtrotters (Bog Trotters). Original Bogtrotters, Biograph RC 6003, LP (196?), cut# 9; Broonzy, Big Bill. Sings Folk Songs, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40023, LP (1989), cut# 10; Brown, Fleming. Fleming Brown, Folk Legacy FSI-004, LP (1962), cut# 15; Campbell, Blind James; and his Nashville Street.... Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band, Arhoolie F 1015, LP (196?), cut#A.06; Cephas, John. Folk Music in America, Vol. 9, Songs of Death & Tragedy, Library of Congress LBC-09, LP (1978), cut#B.03; Cephas, John; and Phil Wiggins. Dog Days of August, Flying Fish FF 394, LP (1986), cut#B.02; Chicago String Band. Chicago String Band, Testament T-2229, LP (1966), cut#B.05; Clayton, Paul. Dulcimer Songs and Solos, Folkways FG 3571, LP (1962), cut# 10; Cockerham, Fred; and Kyle Creed. Clawhammer Banjo, County 701, LP (1965), cut# 13; Cockerham, Fred. Southern Clawhammer, Kicking Mule KM 213, Cas (1978), cut#B.06; Coleman Brothers. Folk Music Radio, Radiola MR 1133, LP (1982), cut#A.10; Cooney, Michael. Michael Cooney or: "The Cheese Stands Alone", Folk Legacy FSI-035, LP (1968), cut# 7; Cornett, Bill (Banjo Bill). Mountain Music of Kentucky, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40077, CD (1996), cut#1.03; Critton Hollow (String Band). Poor Boy, Yodel-Ay-Hee 108327, LP (1979), cut# 11; Davis, Bill and Jean. Close to Home, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40097, CD (1997), cut#21; Double Decker String Band. Sentimental Songs and Old Time Melodies, Fretless FR 160, LP (1981), cut# 3; Dyer-Bennet, Richard. Richard Dyer-Bennet No. 5. Requests, Dyer-Bennet 5000, LP (1958), cut#B.03; Dyer-Bennet, Richard. Folk Songs, Remington RLP-199-34, LP (1951), cut#A.08; Fahey, John. Blind Joe Death, Vol. 1, Takoma C-1002, LP (1967), cut# 5; Feldmann, Peter. Barnyard Dance, Hen Cackle HC 501, LP (1980), cut#B.01; Flatt & Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys. Foggy Mountain Banjo, Columbia LE 10043, LP (196?), cut# 8; Folksmiths. We've Got Some Singing to Do, Folkways FA 2407, LP (1958), cut#A.03; Furtado, Tony. Swamped, Rounder 0277, LP (1990), cut# 1; Gardner, Worley. Mountain Melodies. Tunes of the Appalachians, Oak Leaf OL 3-7-2, LP (197?), cut# 4; Gaskin, Phyllis. Mountain Dulcimer - Galax Style, Heritage (Galax) 094C, Cas (1991), cut# 6; George, Franklin/Frank. Folk Festival of the Smokies. Volume II, Traditional FFS-529, LP (198?), cut#B.07; Grigsby and Young. Mountain Music of Kentucky, Folkways FA 2317, LP (1960), cut# 14; Grigsby and Young. Mountain Music of Kentucky, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40077, CD (1996), cut#2.67; Grossman, Bob. Bob Grossman, Elektra EKL-215, LP (1961), cut#A.05; Guthrie, Woody. Woody Guthrie, Folkways FA 2483CS, Cas (1962), cut# 5; Hamilton, Frank. Frank Hamilton Sings Folk Songs, Folkways FA 2437, LP (1962), cut# 9; Harman, Bob; and the Blue Ridge Descendants. Music of the Blue Ridge, Galaxie, LP (198?), cut#B.02; Hazel And Alice. Won't You Come and Sing for Me, Folkways FTS 31034, LP (1973), cut# 10; Heartbeats. Living Black and White, Marimac 9048, Cas (1991), cut# 9; Hooven, Greg. Tribute to Fred Cockerham, Heritage (Galax) 079C, Cas (1993), cut#A.03; Iron Mountain String Band (Galax). Music from the Mountain, Heritage (Galax) 101C, Cas (1992), cut# 8; Ives, Burl. Return of the Wayfaring Stranger, Columbia CL 1459, LP (197?), cut#A.01; Jackson, John. Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia, Arhoolie F-1025, LP (1966), cut#A.08; Jarrell, Tommy. Come and Go With Me, County 748, LP (1974), cut# 1; Jarrell, Tommy. Joke on the Puppy, Heritage (Galax) 044, LP (1992), cut# 12; Jenkins, Snuffy. American Banjo, Folkways FA 2314, LP (1966), cut# 3; Josey, Albert. Library of Congress Banjo Collection, Rounder 0237, LP (1988), cut# 20; Kidwell, Fiddlin' Van. Midnight Ride, Vetco LP 506, LP (1975), cut#B.03; Kimble Family. Carroll County Pioneers, Marimac 9036, Cas (1992), cut# 3; Kimble Family. Pine Knots School Rowdies, Marimac 9037, Cas (1992), cut# 21; Ledford, Lilly Mae. Banjo Pickin' Girl, Greenhays GR 712, LP (1983), cut# 8; Lewis, Ed. Southern Journey. Vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads, Rounder 1705, CD (1997), cut# 4; Lilly Brothers. Lilly Brothers: Early Recordings, County 729, LP (197?), cut# 7; Limeliters. Limeliters, Elektra EKL 180, LP (1960), cut#B.04; Lunsford, Bascam Lamar. Appalachian Minstrel, Washington VM 736, LP (1956), cut#B.07; Mainer's Mountaineers (J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers). Good Ole Mountain Music, King 666, LP (196?), cut# 3; McCoy, Paul (B.). Allegheny Trails, Jewel LPS 504, LP (1975), cut#B.04; McCurdy, Ed. Everybody Sing, Vol 2., Riverside RLP-1419, LP (196?), cut# 4b; McCurdy, Ed. Ballad Record, Riverside RLP 12-601, LP, cut#B.07; McCutcheon, John. Howjadoo, Rounder 8009, Cas (1987), cut#A.04 ; Miles, Paul, Vernon and Wade (Miles Brothers). Folk Music in America, Vol. 3, Dance Music, Breakdowns & Waltzes, Library of Congress LBC-03, LP (1976), cut#B.05a; Molsky, Bruce; and Big Hoedown. Bruce Molsky and Big Hoedown, Rounder 0421, CD (1997), cut# 7; Moody, Clyde. White House Blues, Rebel REB-1672, LP (1989), cut# 11; Moore, Charlie. Charlie Moore Sings Good Bluegrass, Vetco LP 3011, LP (196?), A.03 (When John Henry was a Little Boy); Mountain Ramblers. Sounds of the South, Atlantic 7-82496-2, CD( (1993), cut#1.20; Naiman, Arnie; and Chris Coole. 5 Strings Attached with No Backing, Merriweather, CD (1997), cut#13; Neece, J. J.. Close to Home, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40097, CD (1997), cut# 8; Neskowin Valley School Singers. You Don't Knock, Neskowin Valley School NVS-1, LP (198?), cut# 4; New Lost City Ramblers. New Lost City Ramblers, Vol. 5, Folkways FA 2395, LP (1963), cut# 17; Odetta. Odetta at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard VSR-9076, LP (1961), cut#A.07; Odetta. Songs of the Working People, Flying Fish FF 483, LP (1988), A.06; Odetta and Larry. Odetta and Larry, Fantasy 3345, LP (196?), cut#A.01; Ohop Valley Boys. Up All Night At Chilliwack, Plateau, CD (2000), cut# 1; Okun, Milt. America's Best Loved Folk Songs, Baton BL 1293, LP (1957), B.05; Paley, Tom. Old Tom Moore and More, Global Village C 309, Cas (1991), cut# 17; Paley, Tom. Folk Banjo Styles, Elektra EKL-217, LP (195?), cut# 10; Parson, Phoeba. Old-Time Banjo Anthology, Vol. 2, Marimac AHS 5, Cas (1991), cut# 11; Pegram, George. George Pegram, Rounder 0001, LP (1970), cut# 4; Pegram, George. Galax Virginia; Old Fiddler's Convention, Folkways FA 2435, LP (1964), cut#A.07; Penn, Larry. Labor Concert 1986, Collector, LP (1986), cut#A.02c; Perkins, Virgil. American Skiffle Bands, Folkways FA 2610, LP (1957), cut# 7; Perkins, Virgil. Folk Music USA. Vol. 1, Folkways FE 4530, LP (1959), cut#A.01; Phillips, Cora. Music from the Hills of Caldwell County, Physical 12-001, LP (1975), cut# 12; Pierce, Billie and De De. New Orleans Jazz, Folk Lyric FL 110, LP (195?), B.06; Poston, Mutt; and the Farm Hands. Hoe Down! Vol. 7. Fiddlin' Mutt Poston and the Farm Hands, Rural Rhythm RRFT 157, LP (197?), cut#B.03; Rascoe, Moses. Blues, Flying Fish FF-454, LP (1987), cut# 5; Richardson, Larry; & Red Barker & the Blue Ridge B. Blue Ridge Bluegrass, County 702, LP, cut# 6; Riddle, Lesley. Close to Home, Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40097, CD (1997), cut#13; Roberts, James. Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, Smithsonian SF 40079, CD (1998), cut# 6; Rosenbaum, Art (Arthur). Five String Banjo, Kicking Mule KM 108, LP (1974), cut# 16; Round Peak Band. Round Peak Band, Marimac 9044, Cas (1992), cut#A.03; Russell Family. Old Time Dulcimer Sounds from the Mountains, County 734, LP (1972), cut# 6; Schilling, Jean. Old Traditions, Traditional JS-5117, LP (196?), cut#B.06; Seeger, Peggy And Mike. American Folk Songs for Children, Rounder 8001/8002/8003, LP (1977), cut# 72; Seeger, Peggy And Mike. American Folk Songs for Children, Rounder 8001/8002/8003, LP (1977), cut# 73 (Every Monday Morning; Seeger, Pete. How to Play the Five String Banjo, Folkways FTS 38303, LP (1974), cut# 2; Seeger, Pete. Story Songs, Columbia CL 1668, LP (196?), cut#B.03; Sexton, Lee "Boy". Whoa Mule, June Appal JA 0051, LP (1987), cut# 12; Sexton, Morgan. Shady Grove, June Appal JA 0066C, Cas (1992), cut# 6; Sexton, Morgan. Rock Dust, June Appal JA 0055, LP (1989), cut# 15; Skillet Lickers. Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Rounder 1005, LP, cut# 5; Smith, Raymond; & Bob Cowan. In the Hills of Home, Marimac 9010, Cas, cut# 17; Smith, Glen. Clawhammer Banjo, Vol. 3, County 757, LP (1978), cut# 12; Snow, Kilby. Mountain Music On the Autoharp, Folkways FA 2365, LP (1965), cut# 15; Stamper, I.D.. Red Wing, June Appal JA 0010, LP (1977), cut# 12; Stanley, Peter. Cabin on the Hill, Talkeetna 25004, CD (1999), cut#10; Stanley, Ralph. Man and his Music, Rebel SLP 1530, LP (1974), cut# 7; Stoneman, Glen. Southern Journey. Vol. 2: Ballads and Breakdowns, Rounder 1702, CD (1997), cut# 5; Stringbean (David Ackerman). Goin' to the Grand Ole Opry, OV 1726, LP (1976), cut# 6; Stringbean (David Ackerman). Stringbean and His Banjo. A Salute to Uncle Dave Macon, Starday SLP 215, LP (196?), cut# 3; Sutphin, Vernon. Stoneman Family Old Time Songs, Folkways FA 2315, Cas (1957), cut# 16; Swann, Wallace; and his Cherokee String Band. Anglo-American Shanties, Lyric Songs, Dance Tunes & Spirituals, Library of Congress AAFS L 2, LP (195?), cut# 21; Swendel, Johnny. Johnny Swendel's First Folk Almanac, Country International 727, LP (1974), cut#A.01; Swinney, Raymond. Library of Congress Banjo Collection, Rounder 0237, LP (1988), cut# 21; Thomas, Henry (Ragtime Texas Henry). Texas Worried Blues, Yazoo 1080/1, LP (1989), cut# 1; Thompson, Joe; and Odell Thompson. Oldtime Music from the North Carolina Piedmont, Global Village Global-C217, Cas (1989), cut# 6; Thompson, Joe; and Odell Thompson. Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, Smithsonian SF 40079, CD (1998), cut#12; Van Ronk, Dave. Gamblers Blues, Verve FV 9007, LP (196?), cut# 13; Van Ronk, Dave. Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and Spirituals, Folkways FS 3818, LP (1959), cut#B.06; Wijnkamp, Leo;, Jr.. Rags to Riches, Kicking Mule KM 117, LP (1975), cut#A.03f (Banjo Medley); Wiley, Paul. Comin' Round the Mountain, Voyager VLRP 302, LP (197?), cut# 7; Williamson Brothers and Curry. Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian/Folkways SFW 40090, CD( (1997), cut# 18 (Gonna Die With My Hammer in my Hand); Winston, Dave. Tribute to Tommy Jarrell, Heritage (Galax) 063, LP (1986), cut# 5; Winston, Winnie. Old-Time Banjo Project, Elektra EKL-7276, LP, cut# 19; Wood, Bill. Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square, Veritas, LP (1960), cut#B.02; John Henry Variations Fahey, John. Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes, Takoma C-1003, LP (1967), cut# 1

OTHER NAMES: My Little John Henry; John Henry Variations; If I Die a Railroad Man; Death of John Henry; Driving/Drivin' Steel; Ever Since Uncle John Henry Been Dead; John Henry and the Steam Drill;

RELATED TO: Darkie's/Darkey's Wail; Drivin' Nails in My Coffin; What Are We Waiting For/On?; Okalli Malli; KC Blues

SOURCES: Laws I1, "John Henry". Leach, pp. 756-759, "John Henry" (2 texts). Friedman, p. 383, "John Henry" (6 texts, but only three are true versions of "John Henry"; the rest appear to be variants of "Nine Pound Hammer"); PBB 109, "John Henry" (1 text). McNeil-SFB1, pp. 150-153, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune). Sandburg, pp. 24-25, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune). Combs/Wilgus 81, pp. 164-165, "John Henry (The Steel-Driving Man)" (1 text); Lomax-FSUSA 74, "John Henry" (2 texts, 2 tunes). Lomax-FSNA 298, "John Henry-I"; 299, "John Henry-II" (2 texts, 2 tunes, the first containing a large portion of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me/Been All Around This World" or a relative). Lomax-ABFS, pp. 3-10, "John Henry" (2 texts, 1 tune). Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 240-241, "[John Henry]" (1 text, 1 tune). Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 52 "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand (John Henry)" (1 text, 1 tune); Hodgart, p. 243, "John Henry" (1 text). Arnett, p. 111, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune). Botkin-SoFolklr, p. 748, "The Death of John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune -- a strange version, sung, and partly spoken, by Dave Macon. It starts with the death and funeral, then goes back to the familiar story). American Ballads and Folk Songs, MacMillan, Bk (1934), p. 5; American Folk Songs for Children, Doubleday/Zephyr Books, Bk (1948), p.154; American Folk Songs for Children, Doubleday/Zephyr Books, Bk (1948), p.156 (Every Monday Morning); Native American Balladry, Amer. Folklore Society, Bk (1964), p246; American Songbag, Harcourt Brace Jovan..., Sof (1955), p 24; Anthology of American Folk Music, Oak, Sof (1973), p 52 (Gonna Die With My Hammer in my Hand); Atkins, Chet. Chet Atkins "off the record", Mel Bay, fol (1976), p44; Bonner, Henry. Sweet Bunch of Daisies, Colonial Press, Bk (1991), p 13; Cephas, John. Southern Folk Ballads, Vol. 1. American Originals: A Heritage..., August House, Sof (1987), p.150; Pattman, Neal. Folk Visions & Voices. Traditional Music & Song in North Georgia, University of Georgia, Bk (1983), p188; Ritchie, Jean. Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Oak, Bk (1955), p.241; Seeger, Pete. How to Play the Five String Banjo, Seeger, sof (1962), p14; Seeger, Pete. How to Play the Five String Banjo, Seeger, sof (1962), p33; Stokes, Lee. Sweet Bunch of Daisies, Colonial Press, Bk (1991), p 12;

NOTES: One Part; Key G (Various Keys). One of the most popular of all American folksongs, the raging debate started in the 1920’s about the identity of the real John Henry goes on. Here’s a few books about the investigation: "John Henry: Tracking Down A Negro Legend" by Guy B Johnson (Chapel Hill, 1929) "John Henry: A Folklore Study" by Chappell (Jena, 1933). Brett Williams: "John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1983).

Norm Cohen in 'The Long Steel Rail', p. 574-6, 1981, discusses the various theories, and says he can't be confident of the answers. “I don't know of anything on the origins of the "John Henry" ballads beyond what I wrote in Long Steel Rail, but there is a more recent bibliography for those inclined to check it out on their own: Brett Williams: "John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1983). It's easy to attach all sorts of psycho-sociological theories to the ballad--including Marxist and Freudian interpretations; but as for hard facts about the origins of the story, we'll never get any closer than Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel did in the 1920s when they tried to interview anyone who claimed to remember anything about the building of the Big Bend (actually "Great Bend") tunnel to which the legend was most frequently attached. Which was not very close.”

While the identity of John Henry may never be conclusively proven, there are many interesting theories, based on fact, that are worth considering. Here are two theories:

WEST VIRGINIA ORIGIN: Lomax credits Chappell with the tracking of the major folk hero's roots. "He (Chappell) pinpointed the scene of the ballad to the Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O, R.R. in the West Virgina Mountains about 1870. 1 1/4 mile long, the Big Bend was the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date". Lomax believes that John Henry is a descendent of Old John the trickster slave and that the origins of the song springs from the old Hammer song and Lass Of Roch Royal.

From the William & Mary News, (1998) came this article- History Professor Locates Gravesite Of Folk Hero; Postcard yields clues about John Henry's final days. Whitewashed barracks, train tracks and sand pictured in this 1912 postcard of the Virginia State Penitentiary led Scott Nelson to identify folk hero John Henry as a convict laborer who died while working on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad line in the 1870s and was buried on the grounds of the penitentiary. After the Civil War, thousands of African-American men performed the back-breaking work of tunneling through mountains, connecting the American South to the West. Many workers lost their lives in tunnel cave-ins, dynamite explosions and drilling accidents. Others died from easily preventable diseases such as scurvy, consumption and dysentery. Folklorists long ago concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked as a "hammer man," digging his way through railway tunnels of the South. The lyrics in the ballad date his death to the early 1870s, while he worked on the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. This passage through the Allegheny Mountains was built between 1870 and 1873. The ballad describes a competition between John Henry and the modern steam drill, which was introduced to the South in 1870. The African-American folk hero won the contest but died in the process. Like many hammer men, John Henry was literally worked to death.

While most folklorists have believed that John Henry was a paid laborer, Nelson knew from his previous research into Southern railroad history that most railroad workers on the C&O line in the 1870s were convicts. "Most accounts of John Henry claim he was a high-priced railroad worker," Nelson said. "This seems unlikely, however, given that the Chesapeake & Ohio had a near-monopoly on Virginia's convicts in 1871 and 1872." For decades, the final stanza of "John Henry" has stumped historians: "They took John Henry to the white house and they buried him in the sand/Now every locomotive that come roarin' by says there lies a steel-driving man."

"Folklorists have not known what to make of this passage," Nelson said, "and have wondered how John Henry's body might have ended up at the Oval Office, where there is no railroad and no sand." Digging deeper, he learned that convict workers on the C&O were buried on the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary until 1877, when Richmond city officials ordered more suitable burials off-site.

"The Virginia State Penitentiary had a red house for administration and a white house as a barracks and workshop," Nelson said. "Sand borders the perimeter. Nearby were the tracks of the Richmond & Petersburg and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads."

While the prison was being torn down when the land was sold to the Ethyl Corp. in the early 1990s, construction workers, digging behind where the white house had been located, discovered scores of bodies, buried together in large boxes. Galvanized rubber jewelry found on the skeletons helped archaeologists to date the site to the second half of the 19th century. The remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they are being studied.

ALABAMA ORIGIN: John Garth: In my opinion, the data gathered by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell, and published in their books of 1929 and 1933, respectively, make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. These men made a massive effort, focused on Big Bend, and failed to find anything definitive, despite the fact that they were able to interview about a dozen men who had worked on the construction of that tunnel. Only one of these men claimed to have seen the race and his testimony was very weak. Others testified that it could not have happened at Big Bend - they would have known about it if it had.

Johnson received letters from C. C. Spencer, F. P. Barker, and Glendora Cannon Cummings, all of whom placed John Henry and his race with a steam drill in Alabama during the 1880s. Cummings stated that John Henry beat the steam drill and died at Oak Mountain in 1887, an event that her uncle witnessed. Barker said that John Henry was at "Cursey Mountain" while he, Barker, was driving steel on Red Mountain (which lies along the southeastern edge of Birmingham, Alabama).

Spencer's letter was especially rich in detail, but Johnson was frustrated by the failures of his attempts to verify some of Spencer's facts. Spencer mentioned "Cruzee" Mountain, similar to Barker's "Cursey," which Johnson could never find, in Alabama or anywhere else. Spencer also named the railroad under construction as the Alabama Great Southern, which exists but does not go over or through a mountain with a name similar to "Cruzee" or "Cursey." These failures caused Johnson to abandon Alabama, in favor of Big Bend, in his unsuccessful pursuit of John Henry.

Spencer said that he personally witnessed John Henry's death. He described how John Henry fell into a faint near the end of the all-day contest on September 20, regained consciousness, said that he was blind and dying, and asked that his wife be summoned. His wife came and cradled his head in her lap. He asked, "Have I beat that old steam drill?" Measurements gave John Henry 27 1/2 feet and the steam drill 21.

Further, he said that John Henry was an ex-slave from Holly Springs, Mississippi; that he took his former master's surname, Dabner; and that he was working for contractors Shea and Dabner when he died. Cummings gave the contractors' names as Shay and Dabney, and a "Jamaica" informant, C. S. Farquharson, gave them as Shea and Dabner.

In fact, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western Railway Company during the construction of their line between Goodwater, Alabama, and Birmingham in 1887-88. He was a Rensellear-educated civil engineer who made a career of railroad design and construction. Captain was his Confederate army rank. He was born in Virginia in 1834/35; raised in Raymond, Mississippi, from about age one; and settled his family in nearby Crystal Springs, Mississippi, after the Civil War.

Between Raymond and Crystal Springs lay Burleigh Plantation, which was owned by Captain Dabney's uncle, Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney. In 1860 T. S. G. Dabney owned 154 slaves, while Philip Augustine Lee Dabney, Captain Dabney's father, owned eight. (Note: Since the publication of the article I have learned that one of P. A. L. Dabney's slaves was Henry, born in 1844. If this is John Henry, he would have been 43 years old in 1887. I'm told that this is a reasonable age for a champion steel driver. - JG)

About 15 miles east of Birmingham the C & W line (later Central of Georgia and now Norfolk Southern) passes through Coosa and Oak Mountain Tunnels, which are two miles apart, portal to portal. Obviously, "Coosa" was intended by "Cruzee" and "Cursey" in Spencer's and Barker's letters. "Coosa" is locally pronounced "Koo'see" and is even spelled that way in some old documents.

The discoveries that Coosa and Oak Tunnels exist, that they have railroad tunnels through them, that these were built in 1887-88, that a Dabney was the engineer in charge of construction, that he was from Mississippi, and that his family owned slaves near Crystal Springs lend credence to the testimonies of Spencer, Barker, and Cummings. Evidently Spencer simply got his Mississippi "Springs" towns confused when he mentioned Holly Springs, which, being near Memphis, is not very close to Crystal Springs, south of Jackson.

In addition, there is a strong local tradition among Central of Georgia employees and around Leeds, Alabama, that John Henry raced a steam drill and died just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, between Oak and Coosa Mountain Tunnels. This tradition is as old and strong as that for Big Bend.

Finally, in about a dozen versions of "John Henry," there are lines that are more consistent with the Alabama location than with "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road." At least two pre-1930 versions of "John Henry" place him on "the Georgia line" or "the Central o' Georgia Rail Road."

Thus, the evidence favors a site near Oak and Coosa Mountains, Alabama, and 1887 as the place and time of John Henry's race with a steam drill.

FINAL NOTES: The similarities between the names John Henry and John Hardy have caused some confusion. Cox has versions with intermixed lyrics and John Hardy version 11 in this collection was mistakenly named “John Henry.”


Site Map | Printable View | © 2008 - 2017 Your Company | Powered by mojoPortal | XHTML 1.0 | CSS | Design by styleshout