Folk Songs from the Southern Highlands - online songbook

Southern Appalachians songs with lyrics, commentary & some sheet music.

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Ballads and Songs
This, with the name of the author, W. T. Blankenship, is estimated to have been printed about 1900. However, "The work song type of John Henry probably antedated the ballad type".1 Professor Johnson surmises that the hammer song could have sprung up almost immediately after John Henry's death, between 1870 and 1872, at Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad about nine miles east of Hinton, West Virginia, "Whereas the ballad type required more time in the making."2 His whole story is fascinat­ing. He outlines the evolution of John Henry as follows:
"The first songs about John Henry are simple, spontaneous hammer songs which did not go into the details of the John Henry story. Perhaps here and there someone made up a brief song of the ballad type. A short time later some person who was familiar with the tradition composed a ballad and had it printed on single sheets for distribution at a low price, say five or ten cents. This was circulated in West Virginia and a few other states and was taken by the Negro laborers to various parts of the country."3
For various versions of John Henry songs, see Professor Guy B. Johnson's "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend;" Cox, pp. 175—188 (includes John Hardy songs); White, pp. 189—191; W. C. Handy's "Blues," p. 135; Scarborough, pp. 219—221; Shearin and Combs, p. 19; Campbell and Sharp, pp. 257—258; Odum and Johnson's "Negro Workaday Songs," pp. 221—240; Talley's "Negro Folk-Rhymes," p. 105; Brown, p. 12; Journal, XXII, 247; XXVI, 163, 180; XXVIII, 14; XXXII, 505; XXVII, 249; XXIX, 400; Berea Quarterly, October, 1910, p. 26; October, 1915, p. 20; Roark Bradford's "John Henry," Harper and Bros., 1931 (an alto­gether different kind of John Henry); "John Henry, Mighty Man of the Roustabouts," a review of Roark Bradford's Book in New York Tim's Book Review, September 6, 1931; "A Mighty Legend," another review of Roark Bradford's John Henry in The Nation, October 7, 1931, p. 367, by Professor Guy B. Johnson.
A and B of the present group arc work songs while C andZJ) are the ballad form. E appears to be merely a contracted form of the "ballad type." Evi­dently the singer had learned only two or three points in the John Henry story. A, B, C, and D were obtained from Robert Kirby. E was obtained from Joe Dixon, colored porter at Hotel Alba, Montreat, N. C.
1 John Henry, p. 69.
2 John Henry, p. 69.
3 John Henry, p. 8 5.

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III