Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rhymes and reasons: Some general observations on "John Henry"

Statue of John Henry, near Talcott, West Virginia. Image found here.

(Wikipedia entry; an earlier post of mine is here.)

A few weeks ago, I posted that I'd be putting together a lesson on John Henry--a selection of historical materials, images, songs and their lyrics--that would give us some practice at analyzing and synthesizing information from various sources to see what sorts of conclusions we might arrive at. Yesterday, I listened to at least part of over 80 songs either titled "John Henry" or in some way connected to the legend. Since as a result of this I have had a weird blur of different versions of the song running through my head for, oh, the past 12 hours or so, I've decided to share some of my misery with youyou might be interested in some of the general trends I noticed.

(What follows--and indeed, what my students will be hearing and seeing--would not be possible without this compendium of recordings at Old Weird America.)

First, one overarching observation: The one common thread in almost all these versions is the melodic line's general structure: a ranging down the scale; the third line of the verses slightly longer metrically; and a repeated fourth line. "Gadaya," a Frenchman from Brittany who is the writer of Old Weird America, has this to say about the song's musical template (spellings are his own):

I think the popularity of “John Henry” is not only due to the story it tells but most important how it tells it, which melody carries the tale of this heroic man. This tune is the quintessential american melody, full of pulse and rhythm, going back and forth between the high and low notes, from a scream to a whisper… Among the many different instruments used for singing “John Henry”, the guitar used with a bottleneck to slide on the strings is the most appropriate (and one of the most widespread among blues guitarist) to render the “blue” notes and the whailing quality of the melody. The root of its pentatonic scale and syncopated rhythm is obviously an african one and was carried here by the vocal and instrumental genius of the african-american slaves that built the land. An important part of the “vitality” of american vernacular music is in fact due to known and unknown african-american musicians, who influenced white folk musicians, most strongly in the South, and left their mark on all popular music ever since.

Melodically, only two versions of the "John Henry" songs that I listened to differed substantially from the rest. John Cephas and Phil Wiggins' recording (on Richmond Blues) has a gorgeous melancholic melody, more folk-y than (traditional) bluesy in its style--this despite the fact that they are African-American. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash's "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" (on Blood, Sweat and Tears; At Folsom Prison has a shorter version of the same song) preserves the common melody but substitutes an irregularly-recurring "refrain" in place of some of the verses' third and fourth lines. I also have to say that the arrangement (spoken bits; cries from the crowd watching John Henry) feels more like something from a musical than something from American folk tradition. Far be it from me to argue with a man who pretty much embodies American popular music and married into the Carter family, but his version just doesn't work for me. On the other hand, though, lyrically Cash's version is among the more complete (not to mention chronologically coherent) versions that I listened to. Also, a few versions intended to be danced to include only the repeated fourth lines of the lyrics, which strikes me as unusual.

Such a broad consensus on the melody, independent of the region the performers come from (throughout the South, from Louisiana to the Virginias) and during an age just on the cusp of technological advancements which have made contemporary popular culture possible, attest, as Gadaya notes, to the "John Henry" melody as quintessentially American, as distinctive and thus memorable.

However, everything else about these songs, from tempos to lyrics, differs: Tempos vary from slow, worksong-appropriate rhythms to some of the fastest bluegrass you're likely to hear; no two versions (that I noticed) share exactly the same lyrics; for that matter, many of the versions don't have the verses in chronological order (one version, Memento-like, actually begins at John Henry's death and from there relates his story in reverse chronological order); though not all versions mention that John Henry was black, both black and white performers would include this detail in their versions--however, the versions of black performers would regularly include certain verses that white performers did not; though John Henry's wife, when mentioned, is called by various names in these versions, "Polly Ann" is the most common one--more about her, and other tendencies in the lyrics, below the fold.

In more or less chronological order:

Birthplace and childhood: A couple of the songs have as part of a verse "Some say he was born in Texas/Some say he was born in Maine" before asserting that he was born in North Carolina. One version substitutes "England" and "Spain" for "Texas" and "Maine." Given the stories' settings in the South and John Henry's unquestioned African-American heritage, Maine (not to mention England and Spain) feel odd here; they, like a couple of other odd lyrical features, may be formulaic borrowings from other, older folk ballads. One spoken-word intro says he was born in Newport News. Most of the versions make reference to either of two childhood episodes (and sometimes both): a) As a boy, John Henry picks up "a hammer and a little piece of steel/Said 'I'm gonna be a steel-drivin' man'"; b) While "sittin' on his mama's knee," he has the premonition that "That hammer's gonna be the death of me." Cash's version has John Henry's father advising his son to learn how to hammer, but none of the other versions has this story.

"Labor relations": Here is where we find the most variation in the John Henry songs. They range all the way from fairly detailed exchanges between John Henry and the "captain"--a couple of which include arguments over wage differences between rival railroad companies, and which range from testy to cordial yet (on John Henry's part) boastful--to no mention at all of the steam-drilling machine, much less the legendary contest. Interestingly, the versions with the more elaborate discussions tend to be performed by the African-American performers. Another interesting lyrical difference within a fairly common verse: The first three lines are: "John Henry went up on the mountain/He looked down on the other side/The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small"; the variation occurs in the fourth line, in which some read "He laid down his hammer and he cried" and others have "died" in place of "cried." This isn't the place to account for all the differences; suffice it to say, though, that the verses that describe John Henry's work, as you'd expect, form the core of all the songs.

"Polly Ann": John Henry's wife (though in some versions they are sweethearts but not married) is occasionally known by other names (Sarah Ann, Black Sally Ann, Cora Belle, Julie Ann, Nevelleen (sp?). Something I had not really thought about before listening to all these versions is how prominent a figure Polly Ann is in these songs. Only one version that I listened to does not mention her or any other female companion. I didn't count, but the following verse (with slight variations in wording) may appear in more of the versions than any other: "John Henry had a little woman/Her name was Polly Ann/When John took sick and had to go to bed/Polly drove steel like a man." Other versions, chiefly by African-American performers, delve more deeply into their relationship: in some, Polly Ann has a rival for John Henry's affection; in a couple of versions, two verses come in tandem with each other, the first one consisting of John Henry's asking Polly Ann who will provide for her when he dies and "who'll be your lovin' man?", and the second being Polly's response that her father and brothers can provide for her material needs but that she "don't need no man." In one version, "Black Sally Ann" tells the captain, "You murdered my steel-drivin' man." Many of the versions performed by African-Americans contain a frankly sexual dimension--not just the romantic triangle, but the fact that in some (though not many) of the versions, women come to watch John Henry drive steel. In Muddy Waters' boogie-woogie version, on the occasion of John Henry's funeral the women--no men mentioned--"come from the east/And they come from the west."

Anyway, as I have thought about these songs and about Polly Ann in particular, I have found myself wondering, What if these songs had had another century or so to evolve before the arrival of recording technology? Polly Ann is such a dynamic figure--a proto-Rosie the Riveter?--that it seems possible that songs about her specifically would have emerged. Of course, there's no way to know this now. Still and all, Polly Ann, to my mind, is clearly not mere window-dressing in these songs. Pay attention to her, too, when you listen to these songs.

Death and funeral: As you'd expect, the vast majority of the songs attribute John Henry's death to exhaustion from the contest with the steam-drill. In one version, mentioned above, that doesn't mention the machine, John Henry dies when he climbs to the summit of the mountain and realizes "The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small." It's worth mentioning here, by the way, that though the songs all mention his extraordinary strength, John Henry is no superhuman being. All the versions, except for one version by Doc Watson, are clear as to his mortality. Indeed, a popular line in the songs is his telling the captain, "A man ain't nothin' but a man." (Doc Watson opens his version on Songs for Little Pickers (a children's record) by describing John Henry waking up in his boxcar coffin, going to get Polly Ann, and going to the next town to do some more steel-driving.) As for the funeral itself, two versions by black performers tell that John Henry's body is first taken to the White House. All those that describe the burial agree that he is buried by the railroad track "six feet under the sand" and that when the trains go by everyone says, "Yonder lies a steel-drivin' man."

One last thing I found myself musing on this morning. In that older post of mine on John Henry that I linked to above, I quoted Dick Spottwood as saying, "Tracking John Henry is analogous to documenting the historical Jesus." Yes: and, to continue the analogy, looking at all these different versions of the song felt a little like looking at variant readings readings for manuscripts of the synoptic gospels: they all tell pretty much the same story, though not necessarily with events in the same order or described in the same way; and different versions call attention to different aspects of John Henry the person. Several of the performers also insist on the authenticity of their respective versions, or of their performance of that version. I found myself thankful that we have all these different recorded versions of the song; they collectively serve as a reminder that that thing we call the oral tradition was alive and well up to and including the early decades of the last century, and that that tradition wasn't static or equally privileging of every version of a song or story. On the other hand, though, precisely because these versions are preserved, it's very likely that there won't be further evolving of the particulars of the song(s): another instance in which technology leads to John Henry's death. There's more to say about this, but that's for another post.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the update/additional thoughts.

I'm not well-versed on working your side of the street, given your professional interests, but since your first post on the topic, I've been toying with some thoughts on race and the reason this song resonates so much with all of us. Working thesis: the song is the "most American" song there is.


John B. said...

Thanks, Randall. I think your thesis is pretty much on the money.

Something I didn't get into in the post but gesture in the direction of is that one reason the versions by black performers tend to focus on "labor relations" is that black workers were more vulnerable than white workers: more likely to be displaced by machinery (or other white workers); almost certainly paid less than white workers. That said, though, no one's version focuses on race or on race relations. (Cash's version, which doesn't mention his race, has the captain address him as "Boy"--off the top of my head, I don't recall another version that has such an exchange between John Henry and the boss man.) The focus is on John Henry: his work ethic, his strength, his dignity. He's a manual laborer's manual laborer.

Aside: Something else I didn't mention is that "John Henry" was an extremely popular work song among prison chain gangs--perhaps they saw evoking the story as a way to mitigate the fact that their labor was punishment and/but also identifying with lines like "Gonna die with that hammer in my hand." Another argument, perhaps, in favor of John Henry's transcendent American-ness.

It's easy to forget John Henry's race because it doesn't get mentioned in every version, and neither black nor white performers are any more likely than the other to perform a version that mentions his race. In the course of an intro. to a newly-discovered slave narrative, Henry Louis Gates (yes, he of the famous Beer Summit) makes the argument that in narratives, the writer tends, as a kind of default setting, not to identify the race of people who correspond to his/her race. The fact that "John Henry" doesn't follow this pattern would seem to suggest that John Henry's race, though not irrelevant in all instances, ultimately is not what the songs hinge on. This may be the most color-blind narrative we have.

R. Sherman said...

More (disjointed)thoughts in search of a post.

Perhaps race isn't the key focus, because all of us, regardless of race had to deal with the social transition from an agrarian based society and ethos to one based upon urban industrialization. John Henry is at the pointy end of that spear and transcends it. His spirit tells us that we can transcend the dehumanization of these changes.

Or, one could look at the classic American meta-narrative of individual versus the world/frontier/Indians, etc. and see John Henry as an archetype for the typically American hero.

Gotta get back to work.


Anonymous said...

Came across this post in looking for commentary on the arrangement of the 8+ minute Cash version of JH. I find that arrangement, for all the reasons it does not "work for" you, to be enormously appealing on several levels to me; hence wanted to know something more of it. Elements of the appeal include the baleful Cash voice - which has taken me more than 50 years to begin to appreciate -, the boss' obvious anger, annoyance cum jealous hatred of JH, the Hammer Swinger's efforts to engage the steel drill in conversation, the awed, reverent men going by the place where JH is "resting his back" his grave "You sure were a hammer swinger"; the overlay of the Carter girls (I guess) all work for me.

Best wishes.

John B. said...

Anon., I don't know if you'll see this, but thanks for dropping by and for the thoughtful comment. I'm certain Cash's version works for many; it obviously did for him, or it wouldn't be on the record. Another clear advantage, which both you and I mention in our own ways, is that it does delve more deeply into the world of the song--and, now that I think about it, it may be the only version I've heard sung by a white performer that explicitly refers to those tensions between John Henry and the boss (that tension, as I mentioned before, is a fairly regular feature of the versions performed by blacks). Ultimately, though, these things are a matter of taste. There's something about the starkness of many of the older versions I've listened to, perhaps even something about their fragmentary quality--their mystery, if you will--and all their competing claims to the the "true" version of "John Henry" that draws me into all of them collectively. Cash's version just doesn't do that for me.

I do hope you'll also give a listen to some of those older versions: Cash (and June Carter) obviously knew many, many of them, or else they could not have written the version that they did.