To participate in discussion, read these thoughts below, including the instructions “DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT” below— and then click on “Post New Entry” above to begin your participation in this conversation.
[Note: this topic is mostly the same as “By the Banks, in the Pines,” but we are keeping the discussions separate in order to create smaller, more focused, discussions. In contrast to the “By the banks…” topic, the songs in this topic emphasize popular expressions of working-class culture and values.]
The songs “Casey Jones” and “John Henry” date back to an early stage in the development of American Popular Music. We can imagine the first singers of either of these songs being rural working-class musicians in the Deep South and Eastern U. S., during the late 19th century. At least two “diaspora” are important here: first, the movement of African Americans from slave or sharecropper plantations into the Appalachian mountains; second, the movement of new Irish and European immigrants to the agricultural areas of the Mississippi Delta, a region where black Americans had already lived and worked in large numbers since the end of the Civil War.
But new versions of these songs — produced throughout the late 20th century — give them a life of their own, beyond their specific origins. In the playlist, you’ll find four performances of “Casey Jones” (one of which is really a different song) and three of “John Henry;” another rendition of “John Henry” can be found in the “Country Blues” playlist, and several more can be found on this John Henry blog (though some of these require special plug-ins to be heard in your browser).
DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT (Due October 15 — or submit by October 10 at noon to get TA guidance toward an essay):
Choose one recording from the “Casey Jones and John Henry” playlist and analyze what you hear. Treat each of the elements of the song separately. How are the lyrics expressed — does the expression change in any way from one part of the song to another? What is the form of the song, and what words would you use to distinguish one part of the form from another? Do the lyrics of the song, or the sounds that the performers make, seem to express any concepts in the readings or our lecture-discussions? Try to answer at least two of those three questions.
Your initial post (submitted through the “Post New Entry” button above) should be about two paragraphs, about 200 words. Once you’ve posted, please read your classmates’ posts and begin commenting on them…your TAs will contribute to the conversation as well. Full participation requires you to comment on your classmates’ posts and try to keep the conversation going!
ESSAY ASSIGNMENT (Due October 15 — if you choose to write an essay in this unit):
After reading Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s chapter “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” about Lead Belly, Nirvana, and our thirst for “authenticity,” write your own thoughts on what might motivate the differences between the interpretations of two of the songs on the playlist. What Barker and Taylor say about “In the Pines” might be a good model for what you can say about another song whose history is just as complex.
Begin by picking two versions of your chosen song, and analyze the forms of both versions. Making accurate use of terms that have been introduced in class, discuss the differences between the versions, using your formal analysis, and/or the lyrics, to refer to specific points in time during the performances. Consider questions like these:
How do the musicians and singers interpret the songs differently? Does the singing reflect different emotional qualities, or a different sense of the lyrics’ meanings? Do any the performances seem to strive for an “authentic” connection to our musical past? Do they strive for that through what Barker and Taylor refer to as “savage simplicity” (23)? In other words, do they equate authenticity with a pretense of primitivism, and therefore try to make their own music sound more primitive in order to sound more “real”? Or — alternatively — do the musicians seem to have a different sense of what it means to be “authentic”?
Finally, what do you think the differences between two versions of a the song might reflect about the demands of a particular listening audience? How do the versions of these popular working-class songs present or re-imagine working-class values to different cultures or audiences, in changing times?
(You don’t need to answer all of these questions—and you may choose to focus on just one or two. But consider them carefully as you plan your comparison of the songs.)
To write your essay, carefully follow our instructions on the “How to do the essays” page.
Your finished essay (due before noon on Thursday, October 15) should be between 600-800 words long, about the length of four double-spaced pages. Please keep in mind your peers will want to respond to what you say, so make your thoughts intelligible, organized, and easy to read. When you are finished, post the essay to the Casey Jones and John Henry Essays page, under Unit 1 in the discussion section of the website.
When you are done, please take time read your peers’ posts and essays, compare and contrast your thoughts, and continue discussion.