John Henry (#2)


edited excerpt fromEvidence for John Henry in Alabama,” by John Garst (click here for pdf of entire article):

Doesn’t the fact that John Henry is legendary imply that he is fictional? No. Many real people have gained legendary status. Here are four legendary Americans.

(1) Casey Jones. He was a locomotive engineer who died in 1900 in a wreck at Vaughan, Mississippi.

(2) Lee Shelton. In 1895 he killed Billy Lyons in a St. Louis bar during some horseplay over a hat. His nickname was “Stack,” so he was “Stack” Lee. He became known in legend as “Stagolee.”

(3) Frankie Baker. In 1899 St. Louis, she killed her man, Allen Britt. She is the “Frankie” of “Frankie and Johnny.” In tradition, “Allen Britt” became “Al Britt” and then “Albert.” Later, in a tin-pan alley rewrite, “Albert” became “Johnny.”

(4) Delia Green. She was a 14-year-old Savannah girl who was shot and killed by her boyfriend at a Christmas-eve gathering in 1900. She is remembered in the ballad “Delia,” which is known in the Bahamas, in the popular American folksong craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, and to Johnny Cash fans as “Delia’s Gone.”
Don’t most folk ballads tell fictional stories? No. In 1964 folklorist G. Malcolm Law listed 256 native American ballads that were active in tradition. Laws groups “John Henry” with nineteen others that he considers to be “Ballads of the Negro.” Of these nineteen, eleven are based on historic events and the other eight could be.  Real events are common triggers for ballad composition. The majority of Laws’ 256 native American ballads have historic roots. On this basis alone, it is more probable than not that John Henry’s contest with a steam drill was real.

My conclusion is that it is beyond reasonable doubt that John Henry was an ex- slave from Mississippi who died at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887 or 1888, probably on September 20, 1887.   I choose the wording, “beyond reasonable doubt,” carefully. This is the standard of evidence for conviction in a criminal case. Direct evidence is not required – circumstantial evidence is sufficient. The evidence for John Henry at Dunnavant is circumstantial. “Beyond reasonable doubt” does not mean that there can be no doubt at all – it means that doubt is not reasonable.


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