Sep 17 2008

Steel Drivin’ Man: The Legend of John Henry

Published by at 9:14 pm under Audio,Folklore,Public Radio Features

Before I upload my pictures from my recent visit to West Virginia, I’ll tell you about one day in particular: our field trip to Talcott: “The home of the John Henry Legend.” I’d spent a lot of time tromping around there while producing Steel Drivin’ Man. You can read more about the documentary or visit the old Web site I did about it years ago, or read an article I wrote about producing the program, or download a PDF of the program transcript.

Not only that, you can listen to the half-hour documentary (which aired on Weekend All Things Considered, among other places) right smack here:

So anyway… Anna, Molly and Bates accompanied me on my pilgrimage to Talcott, about an hour from Dad’s farm. My real goal for the day was to see Mamma Ginna, now in a nursing home, but I also wanted to show my guests the Great Bend Tunnel and some of the other landmarks that are close to my little old heart. I hadn’t been in town for five seconds before I started running into people I’d interviewed over ten years ago. Here’s how Anna describes it:

We’d go a few blocks and there’d be someone you’d know and they’d greet you with open arms and it was so exciting. Like, you hadn’t even gotten your foot in the door of the corner store when that woman screamed Ginna! And then the next thing you knew we’d be in their homes and they’d be offering us soft drinks and candy. They were so happy to see you and so open with their stories.

That was fun. A lot of the people I interviewed are dead, but some of the ones who were instrumental to my work are still around: Donna and Kenni and Bill.

We stopped to see Mamma Ginna’s daughter-in-law, B, whom I’d met only once in person but have been talking to on the phone a lot since Mamma Ginna had her last big stroke. B was a total delight: smart and funny and full of character. She’s also quite exceptional in Talcott: a white woman long-married to a black man in this traditionally southern small town. Her hubby, Buck, had sudden gutter work to do when I asked to take his picture, but B obliged. Here she is with Lulu and me:

Then it was off to the nursing home where, we’d been warned, Mamma Ginna might not recognize me any more. But after a split second of confusion, she lit up and we had the most wonderful visit. She looks beautiful and her eyes still sparkle and you’d never guess she’s 94. Here’s Anna again:

Mamma Ginna was full of wonderful stories. She remembered you two. It took her a moment. And then she got all comfy and you held her hands and she went on and on with her childhood stories over and over which made her feel really good. When she spoke it seemed that maybe she didn’t have this long for this life and that you and Molly meant a lot to her.

She was still able to recite from memory parts of her 1930s poem about when the state knocked down her grandparents’ homeplace to make room for the highway. Here are the last two verses:

I go there every summer,
Just to fish and swim.
There’s no one there to greet me,
No home to enter in.

I often sit and wonder
Just why it had to be.
But the old home place we loved so well,
Was more than a heaven to me.

After an hour, as I reluctantly took my leave, she did something she’d never done before: cried. It was like the time I said goodbye to Dad when we both knew it was the last time. Here are some pictures of when we were still laughing:

Here’s part of the statue on the hill above the tunnel. You can see the railroad tracks in the background:

Here’s the tunnel, which has finally collapsed somewhere in the middle; you can no longer see a pinpoint of light at the other end:

Copyright 2008 Ginna Allison

And here’s me hugging my tunnel:

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Steel Drivin’ Man: The Legend of John Henry”

  1. Syd says:

    Ginna: Great post! Here’s a strange thing: I started to cry even before I read mama Ginna’s stanzas. I know about the beauty and poignancy of time spent with our elders, and I know what a special person she is. I remember her voice well, from the original broadcast of your John Henry show. (Which is brilliant, by the way!)

    I love the close-up of your entwined hands, and boy does the elder Ginna have beautiful hands and nails anyone (at least any non-guitar-playing female) would envy!

    Just got back from taking Parker to Santa Cruz to his new house (w/7 other guys!) and stopped off in SF to see Hil–then home at oh-dark- thirty. Good to be back home, away from the teeming hordes.

  2. Ginna says:


    Thanks for your kind and compassionate comment. I’ve been wondering why I even write on this stupid blog rather than on a scrap of paper that ends up under the sofa. Responses like yours must be why. It’s so rewarding when someone a) bothers to read my yammering and b) makes some sense out of it. How did I get such friends?


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