moments before the wind.

April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #8 – John Henry

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:41 am

Saturday was one of those days that was full of echoes, like a 15-hour-long song cycle, rhyming continuously throughout the hours. I often have the feeling that my entire life is a series of these song cycles (maybe 100 or so) all happening at the same time, but let’s just talk about Saturday’s John Henry.

In the morning, Rachel Richardson, a Wallace Stegner Fellow and from the UNC-Chapel Hill Folklore department, gave us a narrative comparison between “John Henry” and “John Hardy.” It was a fairly standard lyrical analysis, and became captivating once she turned to the realm of female characters in blues ballads. She drew some conclusions about the stereotypical roles of women in these songs (wives, daughters) and, noticing that their voices are never represented, decided to write her own version of “John Henry” from his wife Polly Ann’s point of view.

It struck me as a very Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) method, and despite the obvious imitation, I have to credit Richardson with originality here, because in the context of 19th century folk song, this is truly novel. Even the songs that are sung from a women’s perspective put the women in their place, so to speak. For instance, “I Never Will Marry” (A single woman laments, “the shells in the ocean shall be my deathbed/ the fish in the water swim over my head”), or “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” (“They’ll tell to you some loving story and make you think they love you well/ and away they’ll go and court some other, leave you there in grief to dwell”). Or how about the ones where even the women who have the true love of a man get murdered, like “Banks of the Ohio,” where the male singer stabs and drowns his love because she said no to a marriage proposal, or “Polly Von,” where he accidently shoots her while out hunting?

And then Richardson did something truly original, and commissioned her re-written lyrics to a musician friend, Jocelyn Arem, who (beautifully) performed the song up at the lectern as part of the presentation.

“He let me go out of his hands
For that hammer and a crooked fight
Damn hammer and a crooked fight.”   -Richardson 

Why was this the first music performance I’ve ever seen in three years at the Pop Conference? Kicking myself for not having thought of it first, I enjoyed the spirit that it brought to the whole presentation. The idea that folk music is just a thing that happens in rooms, in life, in regular places – it just crossed a boundary that made a lot of sense, and all of a sudden made many other presentations lacking in that sense.

But back to John Henry.

In a different panel later in the day, Scott Nelson walked us through the process by which he tracked down the sequence of events in the real John Henry’s life to city records and signed contracts to buried bones in the Virginia clay. Literally de-mythologizing the hero of the song, Nelson brilliantly unveiled a mystery, revealing a narrative that is just as much a part of American history as the legend.

It turns out, John Henry was a prisioner at the Virginia Penitentiary. Along with hundreds of other convicts, he was leased out to the railroad companies to build the tunnels, work that men would not volunteer for due to the incredibly high risk of death (Nelson says that in 1866 the highest export from the state of California was Chinese bones, the dead men who came to America to work in the tunnels). Anyways, Nelson found records of a steam-engine drill at Lewis Tunnel, across the WV border but near the Big Bend Tunnel of the “John Henry” ballad. He found contracts that fined the railroads $100 for every man not returned to the Penitentiary, which explains the hundred of skeletons found buried in mass graves, Henry’s presumably among them.

The bones are now at the Smithsonian being analyzed, and Nelson mentioned an upcoming article in the September issue of National Geographic. What a great story. Also, he mentioned that Henry’s prison record marked him as 5’1.25″ tall – that’s my height, on a good day. How could a man my size have acquired this superhuman strength? Fascinating.

Oh, and Nelson also credits the legend of John Henry as the inspiration for superman – “Steel-drivin’ man” : “Man of Steel.”

I had to leave to conference in a big rush due to a show I had to play that evening in Tacoma. But on the drive down there, I’m explaining this whole day of John Henry to my pal in the car. The coincidence of these presentations provided a lot to discuss. And then, the other performer opened his set with “John Henry”! It was a lot of coincidence for one day. When things like this happen, I am reassured that I am doing something right, you know?



  1. Interesting. I’ll have to make a note to find that issue. I grew up in the region where John Henry was supposed to have died, drilling the tunnel near Talcott, WV.

    As regards the voice of the ladies in American Folk, interesting. I am going to be cataloging some old lyrics my grandmother sang to my mother and her siblings while growing up. They reflect a rather Victorian culture at times, but as has been suggested to me, may reflect a German influence. Nevertheless, they do, on occasion, have a lady’s voice therein. Consider similarly, some renditions of “Pretty Polly”, particularly the ones from the British Isles. From what I recall from a College Professor’s work at Concord College (now University) in Athens, WV, many of the lyrics that were recently alive in the mountains of WV reflect rather ancient strains of these old folk songs. It’s a great loss that they are disappearing.


    Comment by javajeb — April 23, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  2. This is late, but I think it’s worth noting that there have been other live-music presentations during EMP talks. Sarah Dougher’s last year, for example, and Jon Langford did a lunchtime presentation that was mostly him performing songs. But yeah, it’s a pretty rare thing during the Pop Conference.

    Comment by Matos W.K. — May 4, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  3. It’s never late! Thanks for posting that, I had been wondering…

    As an addendum – I’m fairly sure it was Ms. Richardson who quoted some lyrics from “John Hardy” or “John Henry” – a floating verse that when I heard it I had to smile because it’s a verse I sing in my version of “Shady Grove” – and just last night I was in the Sky Church singing “Shady Grove” and looking up to the left at the Demo Lab where the lecure had been just two weeks ago…a nerdy but compelling moment, at least inside my head.

    Comment by alimarcus — May 4, 2007 @ 11:58 am

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