Columbus and John Henry Were Both Sweet Guys -- Please Don't Ruin My Childhood

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John Henry Folk Song

John Henry by Johnny Cash!  This is good, you should listen!



"Herbert apologized for his grandfather, explaining that just a few years ago he used to tell him John Henry stories all the time, but now he has trouble remembering anything at all.  If only Guy had made it up here years before.  Even a year might have made the difference."

Unlike the junketers, Guy Johnson cares about what he writes.  He isn't visiting Talcott, West Virginia for free food and booze, he is doing it to memorialize a piece of history that he knows is disappearing --perhaps one that has already disappeared.  Guy was never on a List, and more than likely, by the time he makes it home the trip won't be an all expenses paid tour of the country side.  He isn't enamored with John Henry's strength and brute force, he wants to keep a part of folk lore alive by not only publishing the most accurate version of the John Henry song, but by finding proof that John Henry was either a real man or simply folk lore. 

 He compares John Henry's story to John Hardy because unlike Henry, Hardy's story is easy to trace.  John Henry was a newly freed slave with no proof that he even existed (if he did).  There are no birth certificates, town hall records, or even a grave site.  If he was a real man, he lived a poor man's life, constantly struggling to maintain his dignity as a free black man in a very prejudice society.  Hardy is a white man's folk song and Henry was a black man's song.  Years later, Guy feels like the white man is still on top because he can't even prove or keep alive a part of his heritage because of racial inequalities in the past.  This leads to another question --were John Henry days started for guilty white people, or are they to honor Henry's memory?   

Guy's story reminds me of Dr. Kissler's dissertation onHenry V.  She set out to find historical proof that Henry V was not the perfect king that Shakespeare made him out to be.  He alludes to his wild youth spent in bars with inappropriate friends, but after he becomes king, not a single bad word was written about him anywhere.  She searched every book she could find, but in the end, she needed to change her thesis statement and wrote about how Henry V is indeed recorded in history as a perfect king.

Perhaps Guy will come to a different conclusion that what he set out to discover.  Maybe John Henry doesn't need to be a real person, perhaps his message and his legend is all that needs to be known.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss -- sometimes we want to believe that Columbus was a nice guy who deserves a holiday and John Henry is a sweet, hard working man who believed in freedom and beating the machine to prove his worth.  Let me keep my childhood stories, won't you?  Isn't it all in what you make it?   

Karyssa Blair said, To me, John Henry was a martyr for the cause of human perseverance 
over technology.  This interpretation is not about race whatsoever, but about humanity in general."  

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