Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Attention, "John Henry" fans (a bleg)

A painting by Palmer Hayden of John Henry's death. Note the positioning of his body. Image found here.

First of all, welcome to my new students. It was a pleasure meeting you and talking with you about the next eight weeks.

Second, the bleg: for this summer's class I'm working on pulling together a little unit built around the American folk song "John Henry": (some of) its many different versions; the historical case for John Henry's existence and the two places that lay claim to being the site of the confrontation between John Henry and the steam-driven machine; some speculation as to why this legend and the songs about it hold the place it does in American folk culture; some images; etc. The goal is to use these materials as a kind of laboratory for different acts of interpretation. It could be fun or disastrous--but hey! It's the summer!

Here's where the bleg comes in: I'm looking for leads on either old recordings (or recordings of old versions of) "John Henry," along with a couple of more contemporary re-writings/updatings. In addition to the four versions I listed in this old post (though the Mississippi John Hurt piece is something of a ringer since it's more like a response to the legend rather than a version of the folk song), I also have a version by country blues performers John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. I'm toying with including Johnny Cash's version on his At Folsom Prison album. Here is a list of other performances, along with some contemporary updatings. I'm looking for around six versions of the song in all.

The goal is not to overwhelm but to suggest something of the variety of these songs, a variety nevertheless contained within a fairly firm narrative framework. I have a few weeks for this; I've scheduled it for July 1. Any advice/questions any of you might have would be most welcome.

I'm in the midst of writing up a post on Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666; that should appear here either later on today or tomorrow.

(UPDATE: The truly John Henry-obsessed can thank me later for being pointed in the direction of this and this. A tip of the hat to River's Invitation for leading me to both those places.)


AshleyC said...

Good to see you back :)

I took (literally) a minute to follow one of your links to see if it would jog my memory. It didn't. I learned about Paul Bunyan, but never John Henry. I once had a pastor named John Henry (he's still here in Wichita) and I don't recall anyone making any references about that. Is this broadly known folklore!?!? Should I feel cheated that no one ever taught me this?

When I have a minute more I'll look into the songs, but currently I'm unwilling to turn down the toddler tunes :)

John B. said...

Ashley, Ashley. If I had known about this yawning void in your education when you were my student, I would have put this unit together long ago. As it happens, most of my students yesterday seemed not to have heard of John Henry, either--so, you're (unfortunately) not alone.

I'm only half-joking when I say this. If you visited my earlier post on John Henry, I have some things to say about how its context--a time when a) relatively speaking, very few in this country were free from having to perform any sort of physical labor; but b) already, the issue of workers displaced by mechanization was a growing concern among working-class people--is one that already seems like the Dark Ages but (speaking for myself) it would be a mistake to forget or trivialize. So, yeah: I have a subtext here that's not exactly pedagogical. I won't try to force it, but I hope that we can have some consideration of our collective notion of work: what kinds of work are valued/devalued; the judgments we pass on the people who do that work; etc. John Henry, I think (read: hope), potentially provides an excellent entree into a discussion of those subjects.

Nick said...

THAT takes me back...

per the music...Bellafonte's 1954 version was popular when I was a kid. And the Smother's Brothers had a (comic?) take at the height of Vietnam.

per the subject matter your description of an earlier post is dead on: everyone did physical labor of some sort 50s/60s (and certainly before). automation (really, the precursor to robotization) was advancing everywhere but - if memory serves - the song was sung more in the spirit of worker vs management, if that follows. while the unions were strong, expecially the afl-cio, attempts at breaking/weakening them never ceased...

which might be why another song was also popular then: pay me my money down.

i don't remember any tinge of negative racial overtones to John Henry. unlike ol' Dan Tucker, which was just as prevalent, but in the form of childrens' rhymes....

R. Sherman said...

I was all set to scream out "Johnny Cash," then you mentioned him, so I'm at a loss.

BTW, I always enjoyed teaching summer courses, because generally I thought the students were better and I could try out new ideas without worrying about "The Man" pouncing on me for straying from the prescribed curriculum.

Best of luck.


John B. said...

Thanks for the words of support, Nick and Randall. To both of you: the Old Weird America page I linked to in my post has around 80 different recordings of "John Henry" (it would be 100, except one of the .zip files isn't available any more) ranging from throughout the 20th century. The Belafonte and Smothers Brothers versions are included in the now-deleted file, alas. But, Randall, should you be at a loss for other versions of this song, that's definitely a place to start.

Nick, it's pretty clear that, if "John Henry" didn't start out as a worker-vs.-management song, some versions of it certainly have that dynamic in it. But in American culture from about the mid-19th century on, there had already been present a deep ambivalence about mechanization (Leo Marx's book The Machine in the Garden is the classic discussion of that theme); I am probably not right about this, but I tend to think of "John Henry" as having its ultimate origins in earlier songs reflecting that ambivalence. Hard to know, since we know "John Henry" existed in oral form for at least a few decades before the earliest print and recorded versions--which were appearing right around the time (the first decade of the 20th century) of the first attempts to organize labor.

Randall, it occurred to me when I was talking to my class yesterday that, this being the summer and its required nature aside, they really did choose to be there. So, I asked them to think of it as an elective class. And once I reached that point, I thought, well, that frees me up as well in terms of trying something a little different. So, we'll see what happens.