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Southern Cultures 10.2 (2004) 73-86



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John Henry

"Take this hammer, it won't kill you"

One January day in 1968, a bunch of us lit out from Westminster, Maryland, and headed down through the Allegheny Mountains to the southwest corner of West Virginia. We weren't exactly Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the Magic Bus, but we still made something of a 1960s caravan as we hauled books to start a library in an old two-room school in Mohawk, a small coal-mining town near the Kentucky line.


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Figure 1
"The story of a black railroad laborer who went for broke, challenging the machine, did mean something. In the high-tech age that has evolved since, the steel-driving John Henry seems like even more of a hero to me. He's certainly as famous now as he ever was." The legend of John Henry began in Big Bend Tunnel, which CSX Railroad still uses today. Photograph courtesy of John Dillon and the Summers County Visitors Bureau.

Our excursion was organized by Walt Michael, who'd spent the previous summer as a volunteer in that hard-scrabble area near Welch. This was before West Virginia earned its "Almost Heaven" nickname, before the Mountain State was discovered by Washington and Baltimore tourists. Walt had returned to campus [End Page 73] that fall with his social consciousness fired up. He soon enlisted assorted friends, including Cary Wolfson and me, to help with the library dream.


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Figure 2
"One January day in 1968, a bunch of us lit out from Westminster, Maryland, and headed down through the Allegheny Mountains to the southwest corner of West Virginia. We weren't exactly Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the Magic Bus, but we still made something of a 1960s caravan as we hauled books to start a library in an old two-room school in Mohawk, a small coal-mining town near the Kentucky line." Walt Michael, foreground, with friends in 1960s West Virginia. Photograph courtesy of Walt Michael.

Today, Cary is better known as the "Red Rooster," blues radio personality and, for many years, editor-publisher of Blues Access magazine. As for Walt, he's a hammered-dulcimer virtuoso who has performed all over the world. He runs the Common Ground Music and Arts Festival, which brings black, white, and world traditions together each July at McDaniel College, formerly Western Maryland College, our old alma mater. Back in 1968 Walt was just starting to tinker with a banjo. I can picture him at the end of a night of revelry, cross-legged on his bed, trying to learn his first fingerings on a banjo fret.

Walt was inspired to pick up the instrument by one Christian Bailey, an old mountaineer he'd met during the summer of 1967. In fact, visiting Bailey and taping his repertoire was the second goal of our trip that January. Maybe it was even the top goal. I certainly remember the recording session more clearly than setting up the library, no matter how good that deed was. Walt had somehow managed to coax a few tapes out of the Library of Congress, so one drizzly afternoon, a small group of us took off for Bailey's cabin. I felt like a real folk-song hunter, like Alan Lomax on a field recording mission through Depression America.

We parked our car and walked a footpath up a straggly hill to Bailey's place. A [End Page 74] row of handmade wooden coffins leaned against the wall outside the front door. It was good that only a few of us went because the cabin was pretty small. The main room was mostly filled by a bed. There weren't many chairs, so I dropped down on the edge of the mattress and caused a near panic. Seems I sat on a leg that turned out to be attached to Bailey's mother. I hadn't noticed the ancient lady stretched pancake-flat under a homemade...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 73-86
Launched on MUSE
2004-06-08
Open Access
No

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