Tuesday, January 23, 2007

John Henry: The Legend

Coosa Tunnel, Columbus & Western Railroad - 15 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama
(Stovall & Havens, 1895)

So, was John Henry a freed slave from Norfolk, Virginia who took a job as a steel driver with the C&O Railroad? Or was he hand drilling a tunnel for the C&W Railroad in Alabama? There is also the possibility that a "real" John Henry never existed. The answer may have been lost to time.

While the debate continues over the identity of John Henry the legend has been interpreted in different ways as well. The story of the man who challenged the mechanization of his job is one that many workers today can emphasize with. But even here the story has a strange twist. The hero of the story wins the race with the steam drill, yet loses his life as a direct result. I’ve always found this part of the story a bit odd.

There seems to be almost as much controversy about the legend as there is about the man. Whatever the man or meaning, the song has remained a favorite for over a century.

Furry Lewis - John Henry.mp3

John Hurt - John Henry.mp3

Lesley Riddle - John Henry.mp3

Big Bill Broonzy - John Henry.mp3

Completely unrelated:
I hope that riders on the Bus in the U.S. watched our fine senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, give the response to the State of the Union address. Here in Virginia we have a long history of proud statesmen starting with Thomas Jefferson, and we are right proud of our new senator, Jim Webb.


Anonymous Carl Oesterle said...

From Webb's response: "Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq¹s cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

Well which is it Senator? "Not a precipitous withdrawal" or a "formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

Thomas Jefferson he ain't.

And oh by the way, what's his plan for victory? Oh yeah, the Democrats don't have one. They think America is the cause of all evil in the world. Sad.

Enjoy the blog though!

January 23, 2007 11:06 PM  
Blogger Chris Mansel said...

That's the bus...open to all points of view. Webb is a fine Senator for a fine state. Yes it is a fine blog, I enjoy each visit.

January 23, 2007 11:56 PM  
Anonymous rockin'andRollin' said...

great review, Ed!

John Hurt is also named Mississippi John Hurt?

January 24, 2007 3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I, of course, believe that the evidence for Alabama is persuasive.


January 24, 2007 4:29 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Wow, busy day at work. I didn't get a chance to check the comments on the Bus all day. I'll reply en mass.

Carl Oesterle –
Hi Carl, I’m glad you enjoy the Bus.
It seems we disagree on politics, and that is a freedom to celebrate.
I don’t believe anyone has a plan to get us out of this mess. That other fella that spoke last night hasn’t explained his plan in any more detail either. But that is why our great country has three branches of government. I’m sure that after much debate a sensible solution will be agreed upon.

And the moon is made of green cheese.

Knowing we are in the capable hands of our elected leaders, I believe we should pour another drink, sit back and enjoy some more camaraderie in music.

Chris Mansel –
Thanks for your kind words for Senator Webb and the Bus.

Rockin’androllin’ –
Yes, John Hurt had the “Mississippi” added to his name by an agent who thought it would make him more “authentic” and sell more tickets.

I hope to listen to to files you sent, this weekend.

John –
I am honored that you have stopped by the Bus to weigh in on this subject. Several years ago I followed the thread at Mudcat (the original and Art Thieme’s revival). Re-reading the thread and the copy of your article were my inspiration and main resource for this series of posts. Your exhaustive research and evidence are very convincing. Thank you for your dedication and hard work over the years, you have enriched the musical and historical communities greatly.

All riders on the Bus -
I linked to the article by Prof. John Garst early in this series of posts. The story of the search for John Henry is fascinating. I encourage all to read John Garst’s article “Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi”, reprinted HERE.

Once John has piqued your interest you’ll want to read the threads at The Mudcat Cafe. The story of the search for John Henry may even be more interesting than the legend.

January 24, 2007 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the Stagolee thread seems closed to comments, I'll leave mine here.

The primary source for information on "Stack" Lee Shelton (not "Sheldon") is the dissertation by John Russell "Rusty" David, "Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales from St. Louis" (1976). Another fine article is

Eberhart, George M. "Stack Lee: The Man, the Music, and the Myth." 20.1 (1996): 1-70

which is not mentioned by Brown.

I'm not sure whether or not Brown did original research (I think he probably did look into some St. Louis archives) but in any event most, if not all, of the historical information he presents is found in the two sources listed above.


January 25, 2007 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ed, for your kind remarks.

That's a great mechanical drilling photo, the one that seems to be from 1928. Where did you find it?



January 25, 2007 2:24 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

John, Thanks for the info on Stack Lee. The pneumatic drill photo is from the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

January 25, 2007 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Carl said...


Thanks for your comment. Freedom is certainly worth celebrating, and it is the main reason our country finds itself in this conflict. There are people out there who want to ban the very music you and I so enjoy. And then, they want to blow up ancient statues. After that, they want to saw the heads off unbelievers, homosexuals and women who don't behave.

Who else but America has the ability or the will to stand up to them?

I think it is somewhat ironic that this conversation is taking place in the comments section of a post that deals with the legend of John Henry, an American folk hero who's steadfastness in the face of immense difficulty was once something to be admired.

And I've just got to ask: You sound like a rational, intelligent man. Can you not even find the objectivity to type out the President's name? I just don't understand that level of self-censorship.

May the bus continue to roll on.

January 25, 2007 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking forward to Bush's helicopter moment.

February 02, 2007 9:25 AM  
Anonymous carl said...


I assume by your comment that you refer to the image of American defeat symbolized by what took place in Vietnam in April, 1975. If true, then I'll conclude that you hate George Bush more than you love your country. Which is selfish, pathetic and sad.

I hope that sniping anonymously from the sidelines while others face danger on your behalf helps you sleep soundly at night. The men and women who you want to see defeated are all that stand between you and a foe that thinks you are a subhuman infidel. America's volunteers think you are worth it. Too bad you're too cowardly to reciprocate.

And you might realize that if you get your wish, it won't be "Bush's helicopter moment", it will be America's helicopter moment. But then, it's all about you isn't it.

February 02, 2007 7:47 PM  

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