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Folklore RecycledOld Traditions in New Contexts$

Frank de Caro

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781617037641

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617037641.001.0001

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“Authentic Local Culture”

“Authentic Local Culture”

The Open Textuality of a Folk Tradition

(p.31) Chapter 1 “Authentic Local Culture”
Folklore Recycled

Frank de Caro

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how folklores get resituated in new contexts. Folklore is open by nature, and it is in a state of constant flux in a literal sense. When passed by “word of mouth,” the narrative inevitably gets changed; and the folklore is developing new forms constantly. When folklore is reinterpreted, its very language and form will be changed as well.

Keywords:   folklore, word of mouth, language, form, reinterpreted, state of constant flux

Anyone noticing the title of Colson Whitehead’s novel, John Henry Days, referencing as it does John Henry, one of the most celebrated figures in American folklore, might assume that it would attract the attention of folklorists.1 Closer examination of this novel reveals that it is certainly an interesting, indeed an absorbing novel that “uses” folklore. It is, however, much more than that. It is a work of fiction that provides a discourse on how folklore in America is viewed, exploited, recycled, transmitted, transformed, and made symbolic. In its very use of folk materials the novel examines how folk materials are used in a number of contexts, giving the reader a fictional look at what folklorists, communities, the media, the government, commercial interests, and others “do” with folklore. It treats both the history of a folk tradition and the history of folklore scholarship and is very much a consideration of larger issues relating to folklore as reinterpreted in the modern world, a provocative look at the modern re-situation of folklore into other modes of communication and at some of the consequences and implications of such folkloric recycling. It is a prime example of folklore’s being recycled but also examines—through the slightly refracted prism of fiction—how and why folklore gets recycled in some of the ways with which Folklore Recycles as a book is concerned. That is, it calls our attention to a number of the reasons why and manners in which folklore gets re-situated in new contexts.

As the novel begins, a number of people with interests in John Henry converge on two rural West Virginia towns, Talcott and Hinton, on opposite sides of the Big Bend Tunnel where John Henry—the American “folk hero” who is at the center of a large body of traditional song—is said to have lost his life in a fabled contest against the power of a steam drill. They are (p.32) coming for the first annual John Henry Days, a civic festival set to mark John Henry’s connection to the area: representatives of the U.S. Postal Service, using the occasion to launch the American Folk Heroes series of stamps;2 public relations operatives promoting the festival as a means of stimulating tourism; a band of media flacks lured to the festival by the p.r. people; Pamela Street, the daughter of an obsessive collector of John Henry materials, whom the town hopes to persuade to sell her late father’s collection to fill a planned museum; and a stamp collector named Alphonse Miggs, who specializes in railroad stamps. The residents themselves are pushing John Henry and their alleged connection to him: the ambitious mayor who originally approached the p.r. firm; the motel owners who accommodate the out-of-town visitors and who hope for a wave of tourism; the locals who come for the steel-driving contest, or to sell food or John Henry figurines, or have a day of solidarity and fun; a local boy who entertains the visiting dignitaries at a welcoming dinner by actually singing a version of the ballad, an act that ties the song to the modern context of tourism, public relations, and newly minted festival. That is, from the outset of the novel and as the novel develops, the reader is made aware of a number of ways in which a traditional folksong and the “legend” surrounding it take on new meanings and uses beyond their traditional, historical contexts.

Various flashbacks take us to other times and places, when John Henry enters into the lives of various people. We see Guy Johnson, one of the two actual folklorists to have published books on John Henry in the 1920s and 1930s, as he visits Hinton to undertake fieldwork. A 1930s saloon blues singer who includes the song in his repertoire encounters a white blues collector and record producer. Paul Robeson makes an appearance as he unhappily plays in the Broadway show based on Roark Bradford’s John Henry novel. In the 1940s a young girl in Harlem shocks and outrages her obsessively genteel mother by buying sheet music for the John Henry ballad at a seedy establishment. A Brooklyn street hustler tries to get money out of J. Sutter, one of the journalists who shows up in Hinton for free food and drink, by singing the song for him. And in several chapters John Henry himself figures as he works on the tunnel and looks ahead to the planned contest with the machine, a contest that holds both his victory and his doom.

Whitehead is not simply interested in the many permutations of the folklore of John Henry, and his novel develops a number of interrelated stories and pursues a variety of thematic threads, including the personal growth of the journalist J. Sutter and of Pamela Street and the theme of dehumanization by machines.

(p.33) Pamela is weighted down by her father’s John Henry obsession, for which he neglected her and her mother and ultimately himself. The physical existence of his collection, locked away in a New York storage vault, is a continuing reminder of this unhappy past. J leads the empty life of a nomadic puff-piece journalist who is weighted down by his having decided to break a mythical record for continuous attendance at publicity-generated events at which he receives free lodging, food, and drink. Already wearied by the pace of this, he seems wearied, too, by the essential meaninglessness of the actual events he covers and by the pointlessness of his quixotic quest, which is perhaps only possible because he seems to have no emotionally significant connections to other people, a situation made clear by the fruitless sexual relationship he carries on back in New York with a woman called only Monica the Publicist. By the end of the novel both Pamela and J are in different places in their lives as a result of their encounters with each other, the John Henry tradition, and the evolving festival occasion.

And rising out of a meaning that has long been associated with the John Henry story itself, Whitehead pursues another theme, that of human beings engaged in combat with a machine and fighting to beat that machine, though the world has moved on from the crude industrialism of the steam drill to the postindustrialism of the electronic age. Pamela once worked for a software company, an experience which was not only itself dehumanizing, employees cut off from each other while glued to computer screens, but additionally those employees were in a sort of race with the imminent arrival of a program called the Tool, which supposedly would revolutionize the company’s endeavor and, like the steam drill, put numerous skilled workers out of work. The journalists covering John Henry Days are fixated on something called the List, which they believe to be a computer file that determines their continuing to receive invitations to cover the events they do. Clearly Whitehead is concerned with questions of dehumanizations of life, especially those that are economic in origin, and with the tension between human beings and their machines, however far society may have progressed from the age of the steam drill. The theme inherent in the ballad of a man contesting with a steam engine has long lent itself to thoughts of how machines may dehumanize us, and Whitehead’s novel is the latest and the most brilliant recycling of the story to emphasize such a theme.

Indeed, the local landscape of the Big Bend Tunnel region is still haunted by the economic dehumanization of earlier times. A ghost literally haunts one of the rooms of the local motel—in fact that occupied by Alphonse Miggs, who winds up being a bringer of death—but the whole landscape is (p.34) haunted by death and suffering, that of the black workers like John Henry who built the Big Bend Tunnel. The novel wants us to remember these men, actually many of them ex-slaves, some buried nearby in forgotten, nevermarked graves. But except for John Henry (who of course may not even have been a real person and whose name simply combines the most common first-names recorded for ex-slaves), they and their heroic labors in the face of dangerous and very difficult circumstances are largely forgotten, like so many of the African Americans who built the American nation for little pay and less regard. Ironically, they built the tunnel for a company owned by white elites. Ironically, their tunnel did not even survive and caved in to be replaced by a different, still-used tunnel. Ironically, it is the mostly white inhabitants of Talcott and Hinton who may benefit now from the heroic deed of black John Henry and the sacrifices of his African American fellow workers.

The folklore of John Henry, then, serves the author in a variety of ways, as folklore has served other writers for centuries. In creating his own art out of the John Henry story, Whitehead examines how that story resonates for many people, how it has come to have a variety of meanings and uses, how it has evolved in many contexts and through various modes of presentation in public and private domains within and beyond the oral tradition. At a press conference J. Sutter once attended, an academic-turned-rock-musician sang a song about the concept of the open text:

  • Roland Barthes got hit by a truck
  • That’s a signifier you can’t duck
  • Life’s an open text
  • From cradle to death.
  • [337, emphasis original, punctuation added]

The concept of open text stems originally from Umberto Eco’s opera aperta, that is open works, and from his broader conception of openness in artistic texts. For Eco openness has several meanings. There are certain modern works that are especially open in that they have been created “in a deliberately non-definitive state” so that the reader (or viewer or listener) becomes a collaborator toward a personal completion of the work.3 More broadly all texts are open: they are subject to a variety of readings. As Roland Barthes was to put it later in “From Work to Text,” “the text ‘asks the reader for active collaboration.’”4

(p.35) Eco and Barthes focus on stable literary texts, which may change conceptually through response and interpretation but which physically remain fixed. Folklore is by its nature open, in that it is in constant flux in a more literal sense than the constantly reinterpreted literary work. Passed on “by word of mouth,” it inevitably changes constantly, develops new forms constantly. When folklore is reinterpreted, its very language and form change. If the John Henry tradition can be called a text, it is a highly “open” one, and the novel demonstrates how collectively we have “interpreted” it into a number of permutations, from local, folk origins to understandings that permeate American society far removed from the contexts in which folksongs and related oral accounts have circulated.

Whitehead accepts the idea that the origin of the John Henry story is in actual events that took place in 1872, accepts it at least in that he has sections that reveal to us the historical John Henry himself as the steel-driving contest approaches, so the starting point for the story and songs is not at issue here. This assumption follows the conclusions reached by the two folklorists who investigated the John Henry tradition in the twenties and thirties, Johnson and Louis Chappell, though Johnson is much more tentative in this conclusion, preferring, he says, to believe in the historicity of the legendary steel driver and the contest despite conflicting evidence, but in fact ending his book by noting: “Maybe there was no John Henry. One can easily doubt it.”5 And their conclusions have been largely accepted by researchers and commentators since, as has been their connecting John Henry with the Big Bend Tunnel (officially the Great Bend Tunnel and named after a nearby bend in the course of the Greenbrier River), because though the folklore of John Henry and the oral testimony Johnson and Chappell themselves recorded locate his contest at various places, the Big Bend was mentioned with overwhelming frequency (and a few informants claimed eyewitness knowledge of John Henry’s presence at Big Bend).6

But if the ultimate origin of the John Henry tradition is in events, the oral tradition had to be created out of them as the songs took shape (and the tradition is largely a song tradition, comparatively little in the way of prose narrative ever having made an appearance in the folk context itself7). Whitehead imagines for us the evolution of the tradition in various episodes through the novel. At one point Pamela, infused with knowledge of the tradition through her father, tells J that originally John Henry appeared in work songs. These were the “hammer songs” used by railroad workers and others who pounded spikes or hand drills and which had verses like:

  • (p.36) This old hammer
  • Killed John Henry
  • But it won’t kill me,
  • boys, It won’t kill me.8

Perhaps they date back to the actual Big Bend workplace; perhaps they predate the ballad that tells the story of John Henry. But the ballad had to come into existence for the story to spread so widely, and Whitehead gives us a look at its composition.

In a short chapter a man who is apparently a tramp entertainer (“He’s been following the rails” and “holds out his hat in taverns after he sings” [102]) sits on a stump and “writes” the song (it must be the ballad, for as he makes it up in his head, he thinks: “Verse, verse, verse, taking the story of the man farther” [102; emphasis added]). He might be black or white (despite the centrality of John Henry in African American tradition, the ballad has had wide popularity in white tradition and, given the relative rarity of ballads generally as an African American form, mountain whites may have played a key role in the composition of “John Henry”9). Evidently he has not created the song, for he thinks of “the man who taught him the song,” but is nonetheless a creative recomposer making up a version of his own. Whitehead has a clearly developed sense of the folk process of composition (“The last word of the next line came first … . That’s half a verse right there …. He can only go so far before he has to go back to the beginning. Memorize it, chase after that lost word in the verse he just thought up, get it, sing it again and again” [101–2]). Whitehead uses this sense of process not merely to get the beginnings of the song into his narrative but also to suggest the joys of the creative process itself, as the tramp composer sits and puts his song together, “charged, attracting this day and life to him” in an endeavor “like the reverse of dynamite: noise and fire, white light, these elements flying not apart but together into a compact thing” (101). But the folk process also includes a communal aspect, as the composer realizes not only that he is infusing some of his own life experience into the song but that others also have or will have “their own John Henry” (103) and that the song will change as it circulates. Thus Whitehead acknowledges at the beginnings of the tradition the possibilities for the many meanings for John Henry that will appear as the novel progresses and that have infused American culture.

The ballad slowly began to come to the attention of people beyond folk communities through the efforts of folklore collectors who published variant texts in journals and books. The ballad was first noticed in print in the (p.37) Journal of American Folklore in 1909, though the first full text did not appear until 1913, in the same journal.10 A little later such noted collectors as John Lomax and John Harrington Cox published texts and began to comment on the song. The first sound recording of it was made in 1924, sung by Fiddling John Carson, though a black singer, Stovepipe No. 1 (Sam Jones), also recorded it that year (this latter recording never being issued, however, by Columbia, for whom it was made). The books of Johnson and Chappell were a kind of early culmination of interest in “John Henry” and they stimulated further interest.11

Whitehead’s novel has several collector characters, including the historical Guy Johnson (Whitehead—whether for artistic reasons or because he was mistaken about the racial identity of the historical Johnson, who was white—has him as a black character); Pamela’s father, who collected John Henry artifacts but also made field trips to record the song and information about it; and Alphonse Miggs. Miggs is a stamp collector, not a folklore collector, but his centrality in the novel—as a character who initially seems peripheral but who brings the first John Henry Days to a violent conclusion by pulling a gun at the stamp inauguration ceremony—puts collecting into a much broader context and thus calls attention to the significance of collecting as a widespread human activity. Whitehead is suggesting collecting as an important medium of communication in itself and one influential in laying out the meanings of John Henry.12

The novel imagines Guy Johnson’s difficulties as a fieldworker and its attendant anxieties; his position as a black man trying to interview West Virginia whites; the problems of informants’ evasions and quirky memory; the intensity of his competition with Louis Chappell (who would later criticize Johnson and even accuse him of plagiarism, charges that the real Johnson never completely refuted); the complexities of interpreting the material he has with its contradictions and inherent possibilities for error. Yet his collecting and other field research is an obsession; Whitehead has obvious insight into the psychology of fieldwork, though that it is Johnson’s obsession is also indicative of the importance Johnson wants to accord the John Henry story, even if the obsessive nature of his quest is not something Johnson as character directly acknowledges.

Despite his problems and anxieties, despite the fact that he feels unable to pull together the John Henry materials as he would like, Whitehead’s Guy Johnson assembles meanings for John Henry. (And of course the historical Guy Johnson, it might be argued, did put together our first understandings of John Henry as folk hero, so that Whitehead is in a sense merely (p.38) acknowledging him as a key actor in the development of our cultural understandings.) Weighted under a “mountain of contradictory evidence” he gains insight, he thinks, “into John Henry’s dilemma,” that the further he goes into the tunnel, the darker it becomes. Increasing darkness does seem to surround his scholarly endeavor, for John Henry’s significance is still hard to comprehend. His ballad has “picked up freight from every work camp, wharf and saloon” (155) providing not merely the usual folkloric variation but a range of half-expressed meanings. Thus Johnson acknowledges the story’s multivalent nature, though he realizes that it has become in particular “a reality, a living functioning thing in the folk life of the Negro” (161). Indeed, Johnson’s desire to prove the historical reality of the steel driver is because he wants to solidify the very reality of John Henry, something which would make him a more powerful figure in the larger American context. He carries in his billfold the words “we make our own machines and devise our own contests in which to engage them” (163; emphasis in original), sentiments that not only call attention to John Henry’s symbolic place in the conflict between man and machine but also extend the meaning of his particular conflict to other situations.

The historical Johnson wondered that the John Henry story had not been picked up by “the ‘new’ Negroes with an artistic bent”13 to create an epic or a symphony, and perhaps he hoped that his book would bring it to their attention. (Indeed, Brett Williams regards Johnson’s study, of the two early books, as the more readable and “more useful to the artist.”14) That what he envisioned would be written by a white man, the New Orleans journalist Roark Bradford, who not only greatly altered the story as it had been known but also cast it in a manner that today strikes us as racist, might have disquieted Johnson, both the fictitious and the real (the real one did in fact review Bradford’s novel for the Nation and expressed dismay as well as some praise15). Yet Bradford’s John Henry, published in 1931, proved to be popular and a link moving John Henry from folklore to popular culture.16 Williams recognizes Bradford’s novel as “by far the most influential in shaping John Henry’s popular career.”17

Bradford earlier had enjoyed great success with a book, Old Man Adam and His Chillun,18 which had rendered biblical stories into the dialect in which whites stereotypically put black speech in writing (which has been called “stage,” “Amos ‘n Andy,” and most recently “Remus” dialect19), a dia-lect which enjoyed literary popularity for decades and still charmed whites in the 1930s. He uses the dialect also in his John Henry and because Old Man Adam had been turned into a Broadway smash hit, sought to make (p.39) a musical play out of John Henry. It is the play, the production of which turned out to be “disastrous,”20 that Whitehead focuses on in John Henry Days.

The play starred the celebrated black actor Paul Robeson, whose accepting the part is certainly puzzling given the racist overtones of the novel and musical and his own outspoken views in defense of African American rights and dignity. Whatever the actor’s motives may have been, Whitehead assigns him motives and makes his playing John Henry an obvious focus for criticism of this manifestation of the John Henry story through contrasting Robeson’s ideas and great achievements with Bradford’s regrettable work. To do so he adopts the breezy style of entertainment journalism (the patent unsuitability of which for the telling of Robeson’s heroic and tragic life story adds to the satirical force of the section) to sketch out both Bradford’s work and Robeson’s career. He quotes from the dust jacket of the novel John Henry to satirize Bradford’s racist presumptions:

“Roark Bradford is amply qualified to write about the Negro,” it read. “He had a Negro for a nurse and Negroes for playmates when he was growing up. He has seen them at work in the fields, in the levee camps, and on the river. He knows them in their homes, in church, at their picnics and their funerals.” Very impressive credentials indeed. Especially that bit about the picnics. He might as well have a Ph.D. in Negroes. His mastery of the Negro idiom is quite startling. (226)

As Robeson waits to go on for the final performance of the play, his life is flashed before us, his struggles and difficult triumphs, his growing political awareness. Yet though his life stands in vivid contrast to Roark Bradford’s John Henry, we come to an understanding of why (the fictional) Robeson took the part, and in his having done so we see new meanings for John Henry. For Robeson, John Henry is the embodiment of the common man, the laboring masses, people who are closely attached to the land: “Out of this folktale, even if diverted down ruined streams, flows the truth of men and women” (229). This fits with Robeson’s views of the significance of folksongs; he is quoted as having said:

Folk music is as much a creation of a mass of people as a language. One person throws in a phrase. Then another—and when, as a singer, I walk from among the people, onto the platform, to sing back to the people the songs they have created, I can feel a great unity. (229)21

(p.40) This perspective fits with an idée fixe Robeson held in his later years that the “ubiquity and universality of the pentatonic scale in folk music around the globe proved the brotherhood of man” and opened up our ability to “peer into human truths” (230). So John Henry becomes a universal figure of the worker with his struggles and his power, the potent man of the people, representative of the dignity of labor, the songs expression of a universal human bond. It is a meaning that would appeal to others, particularly to those who shared Robeson’s politics.

But if Robeson’s meaning for John Henry comes out of his vision of the steel driver as a figure from folklore, by the 1930s John Henry was becoming firmly fixed in popular culture. Richard M. Dorson saw commercial recordings as producing “the greatest impact of John Henry on American culture”22 in making the story widely known, though he fixes on the 1960s, a period of folksong revival, and certainly there were commercial versions of the ballad—both recorded and produced as sheet music—before that.

In Whitehead’s novel, commercial song publishing makes an appearance as a Jewish Tin Pan Alley songsmith wannabe some time in the early twentieth century23 tries to get the words and tune for “John Henry” on to paper. This character, Jake Rose, is a song plugger for a music publisher trying to make his way up the ladder to “contract man,” a composer or lyricist who gets a “decent salary plus royalties” (203). He remembers how he learned the business of song plugging—making nightly rounds of the New York saloons and dance halls, bribing the musicians to play his firm’s latest songs, passing out printed “chorus slips” to the customers so they can sing along, belting out the chorus himself to get them started. And he remembers where and when he heard “John Henry”—just after being mugged and robbed coming home in a snowstorm, his face battered and pushed into horse manure, his pockets with their few dollars cut right out of his trousers. As he lay on the ground a man passed by him, not stopping to help, but “singing that John Henry song.”

Jake knows it’s an old ballad, has “looked it up,” found no version of the song ever published, and now tries to get it down on paper, sitting in his Lower East Side flat amid all the distracting din of the tenement building. He sees it as a song that could be a breakthrough for him (“This John Henry isn’t going to be a million-seller, but … a fellow’s got to start somewhere. This is the twentieth century and you got to make your own luck” (205). It could help him to move his family further along in the American success quest (they have managed to make it from rooms on the air shaft to rooms at the front of the building [“They got air now but it costs money.”]). (p.41) Ironically, he works in a world where novelty is king and a constant stream of new songs is its reason for existence. By publishing and plugging this old, traditional song Jake would in effect make it the latest thing, turning tradition into novelty (“he’s trying to do something unexpected” [199]). He realizes its drawbacks as a pop song—no syncopation, no orphan girls escaping a life of sin—but also sees that “it has a power” (205).

He never articulates the meaning of that power but does associate it with his pain, the pain of being mugged, knocked to the pavement, and robbed, the pain of being poor and victimized, as the Big Bend Tunnel workers were poor and exploited. So the song may express for him—and presumably to those others he seeks to market it to—some of the pain of the struggles of Americans as they labor to get by and get on in life. Certainly Jake Rose works hard to get “John Henry” down on paper and sees the song as a possible ticket to success. As he himself rejects the old world of his own background (he has changed his name, has moved from singing in the synagogue to plugging songs in saloons, reminds his conservative parents that “this is the twentieth century” [202]), he reaches back to a nineteenth-century ballad. In doing so he is transforming it, turning it from folklore into popular culture, performing an important step in the ongoing cultural journey of the John Henry “legend.”

We later learn that Jake Rose succeeded at getting his “John Henry” on to paper and out there, because—though we never again see him as a character—sheet music for his song is discovered later by another character, young Jennifer Sutter (whose possible relationship to J is not spelled out), living in Harlem, evidently in the 1940s. She lives in the area called Strivers Row, her father a medical doctor, her mother an active member of the Sepia Ladies Club, facts all indicative of the family’s well-to-do, bourgeois status. Mrs. Sutter is highly focused on social position and respectability, and indeed Jennifer suffers her piano lessons largely because of her mother’s concern with being “cultured.” Jennifer gets a dime to buy candy but when her favorite sweets are out of stock finds her way to a seedy music store with “shiftless-looking clientele” (274) where all she can buy for ten cents is a moldy copy of the sheet music for Jake Rose’s “The Ballad of John Henry.”

Her mother out of the house, Jennifer plays the song and it is a revelation, music in which she does not hear “any of the usual voices” of the more “cultured” pieces she usually plays. This new kind of music “doesn’t go to church and cusses, wears what it wants.” She finds that “what she feels most is pushed. This music pushes her” and on repeating it, “this time she decides she’ll sing the words. She’s in a heat right now…. She sings it again and is so (p.42) pushed that she doesn’t hear her mother come in the front door” (278). Her mother is outraged that Jennifer should be playing “gutter music” (278), music “of such low social standing” (279). For Mrs. Sutter the music represents a condition of African American life that she and her husband have rejected and are trying to distance themselves from. The music is associated with “good-for-nothing niggers … who don’t want to take their place in America” (279–80). Ironically the adult Sutters share an ethic of striving with Jake Rose, though he “created” the music and saw it as a means of advancement and Americanization, and they abhor it and see it as something which has held them back in their own “Americanization.” Mrs. Sutter’s rejection of the song mirrors what Brett Williams sees in John Henry’s having become “more an embarrassment than a hero to urban blacks,”24 indicative of a putting behind of a painful history that kept blacks as manual laborers and back from success in America. Jennifer decides that the song “wasn’t candy, but it sure was sweet,” acknowledging not only the power and liberating, forbidden appeal of the song but also a new generation’s willingness to look at and find a new appreciation for forgotten or rejected roots.

Brett Williams notes how certain qualities of “John Henry” have “inspired a number of blues singers to include it in their repertoires,”25 and no doubt Mrs. Sutter’s negative reaction to the song is in part a reaction to its association with the “disreputable” blues (though we are given little sense of how Jennifer sings it). One blues performer who sings “John Henry” pops up in the novel, and his thoughts on the song add other dimensions to its meaning. He is James Moses, itinerant musician but performing in a Chicago bar seemingly in the early 1930s26 where a white music scout named Goodman “discovers” him. Moses muses on his life and the women he beds and also upon “John Henry,” which Goodman asks him to record. For Moses the song is part of a blues repertoire that helps the blacks who have come to Chicago in the great migration north to “remember the country,” that helps to “draw these folks back home” (250) to the rural South. Sometimes he also manipulates the song in his performance strategy and places it in a set to get the audience “thinking about the grave” (260) only to follow it up with something “which really gets them stomping.” And when he sings it on his second night in the Chicago bar it’s because “he wanted to beat the machine” (259), not the steam drill but Goodman’s recording apparatus, beat it in the sense of recording something that will please the record company and maybe bring him a measure of fame.

Moses and Jake Rose and Jennifer Sutter are all indicative of stages in the progress of John Henry into American culture at large, of the progress (p.43) of John Henry into non-folk contexts and non-folk meanings, and indeed by the 1960s the “legend” of the man was widely known. The folklore collectors found song texts and oral commentary; Johnson and Chappell created a focus and sketched in a historical reality. Roark Bradford moved the story into literary and theatrical contexts, and the world of commercial music gave it a place in popular culture. Of course, there were other influences as well. In the wake of Bradford’s work, others wrote plays about John Henry.27 As early as 1942 books for adolescents were featuring John Henry, and there was what Williams calls a “spurt” of books for young readers between 1965 and 1971;28 in 1975 the noted African American author John Oliver Killens published his John Henry novel for teenagers, A Man Ain’t Nothin’ but a Man, the title taken from a line of the ballad.29 Beginning in the 1930s John Henry appeared in a number of popular folklore anthologies, mostly of the sort Richard Dorson would deride as purveying fakelore, and he made his way into school curricula, beginning in 1940 with a Florida program and including radio programs for schoolchildren and school readers. Archie Green, who published a number of articles on the “graphics” of country and traditional music, discusses illustrations of John Henry,30 and several sculptural renderings appear in Whitehead’s novel, including the 1972 statue made by Charles O. Cooper and placed near the mouth of the Big Bend Tunnel and a commemorative bottle made to hold Jim Beam whiskey.31 There is a John Henry Festival, held in different Appalachian locations to honor the African American contribution to the culture of the mountains, and John Henry Days is a real event held annually in Talcott every July.

Thus it is hardly surprising that several characters in John Henry Days who have only indifferent interest in the West Virginia festivities nonethe-less recollect some vague, generalized knowledge of John Henry. J. Sutter remembers a cartoon version of the story he was shown in school, as well as the street hustler who sang him the song one night. Lucien, the p.r. chief, recalls having known the story after his assistant brings him a children’s book that recounts it. Tiny, one of the flacks covering the festival and stamp ceremony, recalls reading the story in kindergarten where it was used to replace less politically correct stories about black people. Clearly the John Henry story is an open text that has been “interpreted” into and through numerous American communicative media, being infused with a variety of meanings in the process (including now those meanings Colson Whitehead works upon it for his novel). It is the story of humans contending with the machines that might replace them, the story of black people both beating and being destroyed by white, capitalist machinations. It is for Jake Rose a (p.44) memory of suffering and his means for finding an American dream of material success; for Jennifer Sutter’s mother an expression of being retarded in her progress toward a similar dream and a symbol of black people’s failures and social inferiority; for Jennifer herself some kind of sweet liberation and a hint of roots to be rediscovered. For James Moses something to remind blacks in the North of their homes in the South; for Goodman the talent scout a commercial property that may sell to blacks but also appeal to whites who might also be willing to buy “race records.” For Paul Robeson, John Henry is a type of struggling, working humanity and expressive of some human universality. For Guy Johnson the story is an intellectual puzzle central to the role of black people in America. For the writers attending the first John Henry Days the story is something to wonder about, be cynical about, to further manipulate; two of them make up a parody of the ballad about being defeated by a washer’s rinse cycles and one thinks that the steel-driving contest part of the festival might appeal to GQ magazine as a “mano-à-mano” piece. The folklore, whatever its meanings and functions to the folk, has gotten recycled into a whole range of new meanings and uses—commercial, intellectual, artistic, personal, and social.

For the novel the newly created festival is one great culmination of the open text’s possibilities with its layers of accreted usage and meaning. The other great culmination is Pamela’s father, the grandest John Henry collector of them all, and he and the town that has produced the festival promise to be inextricably connected in days to come.

Pamela’s father stumbles on to John Henry collecting in an antique store during a family trip in Delaware when he discovers a statue of the steel driver. As the years go by he amasses a vast assortment of objects, not only numerous recordings but railroad equipment, a jar of soil from West Virginia, drill bits alleged to have been used by John Henry himself, “mawkish pictures” of the man, sheet music, piano rolls (though he has no piano to even be certain what these rolls actually play), playbills from the Bradford/Robeson musical, first editions, hammers, a whole room of statuary. All of which, plus Mr. Street’s consuming obsession itself, drives Pamela and her mother from their Harlem apartment. Her father sells his business and maintains the apartment as a John Henry museum where he awaits the great crowds who never come. For Pamela the collection is a painful legacy, John Henry someone who became virtually a rival sibling—that first Delaware purchase rode home wrapped in her own blanket—someone who made her father into a person physically resembling a homeless man, his (p.45) family displaced by his obsession. For the novel the great variety of objects in the collection is a further statement of the manifestations the John Henry story could assume; the power the story holds over Mr. Street a statement of its power to appeal to many as its meanings are shaped and reshaped. Pamela’s father himself conceives meanings for John Henry and those are perhaps the ultimate ones, for he comes to see John Henry as almost a messianic, redemption-bringing figure.

We only know Mr. Street from Pamela’s memories, as she recalls his apartment/museum, with its small, easily unnoticed sign, where every day he played versions of the song in a sort of chronological order, matching the history of the music with that of the devices used to record and play it. Although the very existence of the museum suggests something of the meaning of John Henry to him, where the meaning really becomes expressed is in a speech that “slept in his mouth” (382), which he thinks about giving and which Pamela imagines him giving at the stamp dedication ceremony, a speech in reality never delivered. For Mr. Street, John Henry represents “elemental forces flowing through the aperture of this room” (382), as people come “ready to receive John Henry … alone or leading friends by the hand to share revelation” (383). Those who come to share include

children with round faces and wide eyes who were hearing of the legendary steeldriver for the first time and learning possibility, teenagers slouching and cracking jokes to hide what they see in the man but cannot admit, adults, men and women pushed here for so many reasons, getting reacquainted with the story they first heard as children and now connecting to it every one of their hard mornings, these strivers, and the old ones, old as him, who had seen the same things he had … understanding the legend as he did now, as a lesson that had finally been learned at great cost, moving from room to room in recognition and resignation, all of them a family he had lost at last returned to him. (383)

These religious overtones of John Henry as salvation-bringer, perhaps even as martyred Christ-figure, begin to seem delusional (and indeed the father Pamela remembers in his later years does seem madly obsessive at best, an eccentric local character holed up with his hoarded artifacts and recordings). Yet Mr. Street’s strange vision is one more proof of John Henry’s shape-shifting appeal, of the fact that he can take on even religious and mystical meanings as one further modern reincarnation. (p.46) Ironically, the collection that accompanied (and in part must have induced) Mr. Street’s journey to this John Henry of the spirit may wind up in a more prosaic reincarnation. That is, it seems destined for the projected local museum. And though that museum may have intellectual and educational dimensions in the detailing of local history and the presentation of an important American icon who came out of the folk tradition, the museum founders are much more interested in it as a locus for tourists, who need “sites” to visit; it is to be a generator of cold cash for a small town’s economy. Apart from this mundane purpose, there are also our suspicions that museums, whatever their aesthetic and educational value, entomb culture in a kind of stasis, put cultural realities into the dead space of glass cases, so that a museum marks a confining institutionalization of traditions otherwise more vital. Though Pamela’s reluctance to part with her father’s collection stems in part from deep personal emotions, she may also hesitate to “museumize” these things that were her father’s breathing reality and that came through the real lives of many others. However, Mr. Street himself resorted to the context of a (private) museum for communicating his message, seeing museums’ transcendent possibilities, not their limitations.

The community that is planning the museum has also created the festival, and the festival seems a complex thing, as real festivals are wont to be. On one level the event in the novel exhibits the familiar characteristics of any local fair. What is described is a virtual catalog of what is ordinary at many rural fairs in America and it seems unselfconsciously assembled by local folk. On another level, however, the celebration also has been a matter of careful marketing, calculated by a local elite and the public relations people who have been hired to do the job, and they observe the event rather differently. Lucien the p.r. chief thinks of himself as “doing a town” (something he has never undertaken before) and as “establish[ing] the brand superiority of Talcott” (195). He has consulted “the Quality boys,” taught the locals what to put in a press release, organized the junketeers of the press, and wants to see the event as a consciously constructed “slice of Americana” (294). The attendees are, he thinks, “a herd to be shepherded by those of his elite” (292). “Truth be told, Lucien had no idea who John Henry was when [the mayor] contacted him” (296) but by now he has, he thinks, put it all together and “throw in the museum and this is almost an artsy-type gig. He always felt good after an artsy-type gig” (298). The festival, then, is also in part contrived by outsiders for reasons that are political and economic.

This is to say that John Henry Days is both a prosaic celebration, even tinged by the tacky (if also charming and of communal importance), and (p.47) one that has been manipulated into existence by persons who are not even of the community and who traffic in artificial creations.32 Yet the festival nonetheless has power. Clearly it brings the town together as a community, droves of people attending the event with obvious gusto. And although the event is called with some irony “authentic local culture” (249), and we are asked with some of the same irony “what kind of cold heart despises the sincerity of a county fair on a summer day,” we are meant to understand that there is authenticity here and something that genuinely warms the heart.

Certainly Pamela Street feels this; as she makes a circuit of the event with J she exclaims: “‘My father would have loved this…. Not all this junk they’re selling, but the idea behind it.’ She finally looks at J. ‘He would have loved it’” (315). She reiterates how much she hated listening to her father’s John Henry stories. “But being here now,” she implies, evokes a very different reaction. The event has brought together a mass of people, just like in the dream expressed in her father’s hypothetical speech, people who if not assembled for the spiritual meanings he envisioned are nonetheless pulled into a kind of one-ness “by interconnected gears set in motion by the idea of John Henry” (295). The celebration, with all its bad food, tacky souvenirs, and cheap carnival atmosphere, takes on powerful meanings and even manages to succeed as a more elemental ritual of transformation and reconciliation.

It is even a ritual that has actual reenactments of the original mythic act it commemorates. There is an official steel-driving contest pitting (presumably white) contestants from Hinton and Talcott, and J is himself drawn into a hammering contest against a machine when a carnival barker challenges him to try out a strength-testing contraption; the barker’s spiel and the machine’s scoring are keyed to the John Henry story. And as several characters wander through the festival event they notice a storyteller who recounts the story of John Henry to children, so that there is a literal recitation of the “myth” that the ritual reenacts as the ritual public event itself proceeds.

And the community may indeed be transformed socially and perhaps economically by the ritual. Benny, the motel owner, muses on what he has seen at the festival, seeing it almost as if it has called the community into being, or reassembled it:

People he hadn’t seen in years had rallied themselves from whatever side road cranny they called home and said hello, ten years older but still wearing the same clothes. Children clutched the legs of men and (p.48) women he recognized from here and there and suddenly these people had whole histories, families, descendants. Some of them had booths, so he could see, finally, what they were all about …. It was a success all around … and they’ll do it again next year for sure, and the year after that. (362–63)

More darkly, his wife, Josie, who is aware of a ghost that dwells in the motel, has a different reaction: “It is a new beginning but by her sights, it hasn’t been paid for yet. There’s some blood to be paid. John Henry spilled his, for the railroad, for his fellow workers, for Talcott and Hinton” (363). She wonders: “Where will this weekend’s come from?” She senses the ghost in the room occupied by Alphonse Miggs—who for reasons of his own pulls a gun at the stamp dedication ceremony and starts shooting, a policeman does the same, and unnamed journalists are killed. Miggs’s final violent act is the culmination of the ritual, a culmination of an ancient kind: blood that must be shed to bring about or pay for the important transformations that are taking place, transformations that include the manipulation of folk tradition, the reshaping of it into its roles in a postmodern context.

Miggs’s action and its aftermath may lay a communal ghost, but certainly Pamela lays her own ghost by burying her father’s ashes at the holy shrine of John Henry, placing those ashes in the burial place where John Henry may have been laid to rest, deciding finally to part with his burdensome collection. J, whose actual name is evidently unknown to any other characters, tells her what J stands for. (Is it for John, as in John Henry? Readers never find out, nor do we know whether J saves himself by leaving with Pamela and abandoning his mad pursuit of the record, escaping a literal death when Alphonse Miggs pulls his gun. We hope and suspect that he has.) His giving of his name suggests a personal realization of identity, and we understand that personal transformations have taken place for Pamela and for J, John Henry’s meaning for them assuming new forms. As it will assume new forms for the town for whom John Henry becomes a more prosperous future with a heightened sense of community identity (unless the shooting incident itself comes to haunt the place, frightening away the very tourists the place hopes to attract, an ironic outcome for the carefully planned, widely publicized first John Henry Days).

John Henry Days, then, envisions many interests, over a long period of time, converging upon a folk tradition, making and remaking it. Indeed the John Henry tradition—and by implication folklore generally—is to be seen as (p.49) something constructed by many for a variety of reasons both within folkloric contexts and outside them, though perhaps the dividing lines between contexts are not to be sharply drawn, both contributing somehow to the creation and recreation of the “tradition” in a wider sense. This tradition and its permutations are constructed in several senses, with conscious thought and considerable manipulation and artifice by public relations practitioners, post office bureaucrats, and small-town politicians. Yet the tradition is also constructed in another way, through the cultural processes that come into play as folklore moves from person to person, from group to group, constantly being recomposed, reinterpreted, revalued, reassigned form and meaning, an open text being collaborated upon: recycled. Such is the folklore process, but what is created and originally transmitted by folkloric means expands and the process becomes a larger one, the folklore being appropriated by non-folk forms, modes of communicating, and environments. John Henry is work song and ballad; novel and play; drawn image and statue; festival and ritual; U.S. stamp and commemorative whiskey bottle; collected artifact and collected vinyl. He embodies the black experience; the unity of humanity; the heroism of the oppressed worker; humans in the modern world who contend with dehumanizing machines; the striving to get ahead in America; the forces that retard such striving; memories of a faraway home; interesting, liberating roots; a force for community solidarity. People tell stories about him, reenact his famous deed, work him into jokes, sales pitches, and dreams of prosperity. At the dawn of the twenty-first century he is eminently marketable tourist icon and, indeed, central to this novel that embraces folklore for its author’s own purposes but which in doing so embraces the whole process of appropriation and transformation that has gone before.

Jake Rose knows that his commercial-song version of “John Henry” is not likely to become a “million seller.” Apparently his expectations are warranted. Though we never learn of the success of his sheet music, we presume that it was limited. Yet John Henry really has become that “million seller,” the folk figure having become widely known in American culture, whether through oral tradition or folksong revival or field recording, cartoon or Broadway musical, “fakelore” collection, or some more amorphous process by which a combination of media create for us what might be called a folk idea of John Henry. Whitehead’s novel fictionalizes the historical and cultural processes of John Henry’s total creation and creates fictional manifestations of John Henry. Not only does the novel work with the tradition itself for Whitehead’s own artistic purposes; it also illuminates the possibilities of (p.50) an open text and the relationships between the media that “complete” the text, taking it from folk form to other forms that resonate in modern and postmodern worlds, illustrating imaginatively the recycling process that appropriates and reuses the power of folk materials for new purposes in new contexts.


(1) . Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (New York: Doubleday, 2001). In the rest of this chapter page references are cited in the text.

(2) . This actual set of stamps included Paul Bunyan, Mighty Casey, and Pecos Bill in addition to John Henry. They were issued at Anaheim, California, July 11, 1996.

(3) . Michael Caesar, Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999), 18.

(4) . Barthes is quoted by David Seed, “The Open Work in Theory and Practice,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, ed. Rocco Capozzi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 74.

(5) . Guy Johnson, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), 151.

(6) . There are other claimants. Recently John Garst, “Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress,” Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5 (2002): 92–129, has argued for a location in Alabama, marshaling an array of evidence. Earlier MacEdward Leach, “John Henry,” in Folklore and Society: Essays in Honor of Benj. A. Botkin, ed. Bruce Jackson, 93–106 (Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1966), discussed possible Jamaican origins and a Jamaican venue for events precipitating the tradition.

Most recently, in a well-received and often fascinating book, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), argues that John Henry’s “contest” took place not at the (p.201) Big Bend Tunnel but at the nearby Lewis Tunnel; he determines that no steam drills were ever used at Big Bend. Furthermore he locates the John Henry saga in the context of the widespread use of convict labor in building the railroads in question and finds the record of an actual John Henry leased from the Virginia State Penitentiary and put to work on the West Virginia tunnels; such convicts were in effect forced to do the work in question, having no option to strike or leave; the work was of course very dangerous, so that a term in the penitentiary could be a virtual death sentence, and many of the African American convicts died, sometimes of silicosis from dust stirred up by steam drills. Even dead convicts had to be returned to the penitentiary, however, to prove they had not escaped, a fact giving rise to the well-known line that says John Henry was taken to the white house (at the Virginia prison) and buried in the sand (a number of convict bodies having been recently excavated by archaeologists there).

Although he is not interested in considering the John Henry story an “open text” as such, Nelson is, like Whitehead, intrigued by the development of the tradition in a variety of directions. “Nailing down the song to a single interpretation is impossible,” Nelson says, “making his story almost infinitely mutable” (172). He discusses several aspects of the expansion of the tradition in terms of versions of the song collected and in terms of how such figures as Carl Sandburg, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and left-wing commentators worked with the song and story. Probably most interesting and significant, however, are his insights into early functions and meanings of the songs (though folklorists may find his ideas about the development of American folk musical traditions in the relevant time period to be quite speculative and overly dependent on imaginative reconstructions and his not always clearly distinguishing between ballad and hammer songs possibly confusing). He argues that the song was not initially the story of a heroic man of great prowess who could defeat a machine but a cautionary tale and stresses the function of the hammer songs in helping to preserve workers from injury and death as well as noting different uses of the songs by different groups of workers and hence using different permutations of the song.

(7) . Zora Neale Hurston adamantly asserts that there is no John Henry tradition outside the songs, but see Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 561–67.

(8) . Johnson, 69.

(9) . See Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 70–72.

(10) . Louise Rand Bascom, “Ballads and Songs of Western North Carolina,” Journal of American Folklore 22 (1909): 249–50; E. C. Perrow, “Songs and Rhymes from the South,” Journal of American Folklore 26 (1913): 163–65; Perrow’s John Henry ballad was collected in 1912, but the article includes hammer songs collected as early as 1905.

(11) . Johnson; Louis Chappell, John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study (Jena: Frommannsche Verlag, 1933).

(12) . Cohen notes that “much of the national awareness of John Henry stems from a revival of interest in the late 1920s, following the research of Guy B. Johnson, rather than from direct survival from the nineteenth century” (64).

(13) . Johnson, 150.

(p.202) (14) . Brett Williams, John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983), 61. Chappell’s study she sees as “most helpful to those seeking substantive information on the Big Bend Tunnel community.” I am indebted to Williams’s excellent survey of the materials relating to John Henry in my own consideration of the development of the “legend.”

(15) . Guy Johnson, “A Mighty Legend,” Nation, October 7, 1931, 367.

(16) . Roark Bradford, John Henry (New York: Harper, 1931).

(17) . Williams, 79.

(18) . Roark Bradford, Old Man Adam and His Chillun (New York: Harper, 1928).

(19) . See Jeffrey Hadler, “Remus Orthography: The History of the Representation of the African-American Voice,” Journal of Folklore Research 35 (1998): 99–126.

(20) . Williams, 79.

(21) . Whitehead takes these words from an actual interview with Robeson by Julia Dorn that appeared in 1939 in CAC (a publication of the Theatre Arts Committee); it is reprinted in Philip S. Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–1974 (New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers), 131. See pages 81–82, 136–37, 211–17, and 300 for other comments made by Robeson about folk music. He discusses the pentatonic scale in “The Related Sounds of Music,” which originally appeared in the Daily World, April 7, 1973, and is reprinted in Foner, 443–48. See also Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 288ff, 303, 321, 400–401.

(22) . Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore: Essays toward a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), 288; Dorson’s discussion of John Henry originally appeared as “The Career of John Henry,” Western Folklore 24 (1965): 155–63. Williams, pp. 141–61, provides a discography of John Henry recordings. Cohen also provides extensive discographical information.

(23) . The earliest sheet music Williams lists was published in the 1930s although Nelson, p. 116, notes that W. C. Handy copyrighted sheet music for the song in 1922; however, Nelson seems to have in mind “John Henry Blues,” which appears in the volume of his work Handy later edited, Blues: An Anthology, intro. Abbe Niles, illus. Miguel Covarrubias (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1926), 135–39; in the notes to Blues: An Anthology Abbe Niles affirms that this song is “founded on a very famous ballad-worksong” (45); it is not, however, the traditional “John Henry.” Whitehead seems to have an earlier date than the 1930s in mind for the character Jake Rose.

(24) . Williams, 119.

(25) . Williams, 119.

(26) . References in the text indicate that this episode is taking place a few years after the death of Lemon Jefferson (which took place in 1929) and while Paramount was a premier blues label (Paramount ceased operations in 1933).

(27) . Williams notes several (85) and also a weekly CBS radio series on which Juan Hernandez played John Henry and sang songs based on folk materials, and Dennis G. Jerz has noted other plays produced for the Federal Theatre Project; see the abstract of his conference paper, “Protesting and Patronizing: John Henry Stories in Two Little-known Federal Theatre Project Plays,” at http://uwec.edu/jerzdg/research/johnhenr.htm.

(p.203) (28) . Williams, 86ff.

(29) . John Oliver Killens, A Man Ain’t Nothin’ But a Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975).

(30) . Archie Green, “John Henry Depicted,” JEMF Quarterly 14 (1978): 30–37.

(31) . In the novel Pamela Street explains to J that the statue at the tunnel is referred to as the one built by Jim Beam and that the local sponsors got the whiskey company to pay for it in exchange for being allowed to use the same design for their bottle. This story adds an interesting dimension by creating an overlap between local and larger economic forces, but in fact the actual whiskey bottle’s design is quite different from that of the Hinton statue. Nelson (6, 172) states that the Jim Beam Distillery and country singer Johnny Cash did both contribute funds toward building the statue, which he places in Talcott.

(32) . And indeed Whitehead’s outsiders come from very outside the local context; Lucien considers this job “a weird gig” (293) and marvels that the attendees “can wear a T-shirt and a baseball cap and not consider it an ironic gesture” (292), that they are “normal folks, what they call families” (293).