Monthly Archives: February 2016

6 Guns and the Wild West by Paige C Gross

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 12.49.34 PMI watched the western “6 Guns” about a woman who seeks revenge on the gang of cowboys that killed her husband and two sons with the aid of a bounty hunter. Set in 1930s, after their murders, the women, Selina falls into a downward spiral of drinking until she meets Frank who promises to teach her how to gunfight. After weeks of training, they track down the gang and kill them one-by-one, herself killing the man who killed her husband. In the final scene, she says goodbye to Frank, and she rides off into the sunset, now a bounty hunter herself.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.40.20 PMBefore I started watching, I consulted some sites to tell me what I should expect, what exactly, made a western movie, western? I found that they are usually set between the ending of the civil war and the early 1900s, the West’s aversion to modernism and change, a conflict usually surrounding the “good guy” and outlaws of some sort and surrounds some sort of stoic hero. Visually the movie was exactly what I would expect a western to be: dusty, old-fashioned and filled with some of the iconic images the class drew– deserts, horses and cowboys, saloons and guns. Another major point to westerns is to let the setting “play as another character” in the storytelling.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.40.43 PMThe language and acting was just as poor as I was expecting to be but fit many of the themes in an idea western- the main character, although a women, was isolated after her family was killed and sought to get revenge in their honor against the “outlaws.” Many of the more cinematic moments in the film, like when Selina meets Frank for the first time and the shootout scene fit the iconography of what westerns are made out to be. We discussed the idea of the cowboy as an icon of western culture, but I think western films could also be added to the list of American icons after researching the fandom and culture around it.

This film, and I’m sure all westerns, are American because of their link to the “Old West” an idea that is exclusively American. The idea of expanding west and the “manifest destiny” has become part of the American ideology and that is really exemplified through western films.

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Fighting Change: Butch and the Kid Defining the American West by Samantha Smyth

BCSDK1The Western has long captivated audiences in theatres. A quick search on Netflix will pull up 30-some-odd films, of which, half are made within the past 10 years. What does this mean? It means the Western and the West itself is still marketable and still intrigues people.

So, what is it about the West that continues to enthrall? As stories are passed down from generation to generation the myth of the west is perpetuated in national consciousness and has become the United States of America’s embodiment of the “Conquest and Transformation of the Unknown” familiar story (Stoeltje 240). To perpetuate these storylines, three distinct themes can be utilized and mixed for desired effect as folklorist Beverly Stoeltje points out: the Rational, Romantic, and Reactionary.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a cornerstone piece in the world of Westerns. Released in 1969, the film would go onto be ranked 49th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list (IMDB). Based on the real life exploits of two bandits, the story covers a wide range of themes, images, and icons. Let’s break a few down here:

BCSDK2The Frontier: Red hills, sparse vegetation, horses and cattle: the area inspires, it awes, and it overwhelms. The movie switches between gorgeous shots of vistas and gorges to small towns with dust fluffing around. American’s great outdoors is something well-known, especially as one of the largest countries in the world. Its range of environments is almost unparalleled due to its unique situation on the planet. The wide-open plains portrayed in the film evoke a sense of freedom and possibility, both typically associated with the United States of America to some. By producing this film in 1969, the film studios are employing the ‘Romantic’ modern myth theme: nostalgia for another time (Stoetlje 242).

The future: The first glimpse of the future is when a travelling salesman attempts to make a sale of the ‘way of the future’ bicycle. Butch decides to partake in this future, but ultimate decides to dispose of it before running to Bolivia. The ‘future’ also pops up in the form of the various trains used throughout the film. In this sense, Butch and the filmmakers are portraying the Reactionary approach to the film (Stoeltje 243). Butch is concerned with the status quo and remaining the same. When the boys meet Sheriff Bledsoe and he confirms this sentiment: “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your time is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” The way of the bandit and outlaw is coming to an end in the late 1890s, and Butch and Sundance are on the outs.

The ‘new’ Frontier: Just as Stoeltje asserts that American’s applied their Frontier Myth to the space-program, Butch and Sundance apply the Frontier Myth to Bolivia (240). They believe Bolivia to be the next big step, and once they’ve had their fill in South America, the film ends with the boys saying Australia could be next (though in reality, the boys died in Bolivia, the movie carefully omits that part). By believing in the future (even though that future may be similar to their present) Butch and Sundance are fulfilling the Rationalist approach to mythbuilding.

The ‘second’-citizens: Ah yes, in typical old American fashion, the film chooses to provide some stereotypical representations of the underrepresented. The use of a prodigious Indian tracker named Lord Baltimore, the blundering and seemingly slow Spanish-Bolivians, and the fawning female. Sure Etta joins the boys on their quest to Bolivia, but not before she agrees to sew their socks and cook their food!

BCSDK3The West will continue to inspire and intrigue people through cinema and television. So, what is the West really? The West is the embodiment of the American Myth of possibility: the idea of grasping more, of conquering the elements and the system. Through employing various modern myth themes, the filmmakers are able to transport the viewer into their idealized version of the West.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. “Make the Frontier Myth: Folklore Process in a Modern Nation”. Western Folklore 46.4 (October 1987) JSTOR



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Paul Newman is Hombre: A Classic Western Explained by Maxine Elizabeth Whitney

In many ways, Hombre is a classic Western film. It begins with a cowboy versus Indian interaction, when an Apache raised white man is confronted by a cowboy with the news that his father has died and he is now the owner of his property. The main character, Russell, embodies the all too familiar mysterious, cocky protagonist that you want to hate even though he is the good guy. At first, Russell is insistent on staying with and protecting his calm, voiceless Apache companions, however he eventually agrees to the cowboy’s wishes and faces his heritage by journeying into the white township. Upon arrival into this run down, almost ghostly town he is greeted by two aggressive, gun wielding, intoxicated cowboys who are just itching to pick a fight with him. This kind of character is present throughout the whole movie, as well as in most stories of the wild west. This becomes even more evident when Russell’s ride to a nearby town is hijacked by bandits, leaving him to bring all the passengers to safety. The antagonist, Russell’s male travel companions, and all the other male characters introduced, aside from the Indians, are the dirty, true grit cowboys the United States has come to iconize. The same goes for the setting. The very first altercation is in a saloon, the majority of the movie takes place in a barren cactus filled wasteland, and all transportation is either by horse or by buggy with only hints of railroads here and there.

These consistencies open up a larger conversation about what truly is the west. This movie describes what I am going to call the “U.S West”. This is what American’s think the west was like just based on the amount of stories, movies, and books that have created a narrative identical to this. Cowboys and Indians are enemies, no issue between two men can be solved without the involvement of a cowboy hat or a gun, and whatever journey was undertaken always involved either perilous roads or equally perilous bandits.

However, a reality of the west that is mentioned minimally in the movie but a lot in Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s work titled Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is that the wild west was truly as much of a part of Mexican history as is was the U.S. Most of the time, Mexicans are left completely out of this narrative in U.S depictions, focusing mainly on the cowboys and Indians. In Hombre, one of the main characters that accompanies Russell on his journey of revenge is Mexican, and talks openly about it through dialogue about race and through selling popular Mexican alcohol Mescal. In her book, Anzaldúa discusses the fact that Mexico owned a majority of what is considered the west up until the mid 1800s, and the people who lived there had equal contact to the native Indians as white people. In many ways, the Mexican people were treated very similarly to the Indians. After the battle of the Alamo, many who had settled in what was now U.S property were forced to flee their homes through fear of Anglo violence (Anzaldúa, 6-7). In my experience with both pop culture and educational depictions of the west, the violent past with Mexico and the “Wild West” were kept very seperate, except maybe when talking about the infamous Mexican bandits. That is why it was interesting and very unfamiliar to see a Mexican character living and traveling amoung white people as he does in this movie. While this movie does not incorporate most the important part of Mexican- American history into the story line, the inclusion of a Mexican character who breaks the U.S mold of the white male cowboy or white female love interest gives Hombre a new theme that is, in fact, very American.

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Print.

1st Hombre Poster is from The Movie Poster Shop website:

2nd Hombre image is a photo from a scene presented by a website called Go Giles Go



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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: From Traditional Western Values to Peace and Love by Keira C Wingert

Q_Butch_CassidyWhen one thinks of a Western film, a particular set of images may immediately come to mind:  gallant cowboys, bank robberies, horse chases, high-stakes gunfights, and so on. These elements are present in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but this movie is different from an ordinary Western in that it has a distinctly late-‘60s twist to it. Traditionally, Western movies have contributed to the American Frontier myth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the hero, a cowboy, embodies the conservative values of viewers in the United States of America. The qualities a traditional Western hero should have are, according to folklorist Beverly Stoeltje, courage, a connection to nature, and intelligence that lacks for none, as well as “dedication to the Protestant capitalist work ethic and to gentlemanly qualities” (Stoeltje, 249). This version of a cowboy stems from the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, who rebranded the cowboy to embody his reactionary political views during the period of change that came after the Civil War. Thanks to Roosevelt’s reinvention of this Frontier figure, the cowboy went from being, in the eyes of Americans, a “disreputable and rowdy worker” (248) to being an American symbol of heroism, adventure, and conquering previously uninhabited lands. This “new cowboy” was resourceful in the face of the unknown, and his story made western expansion in the U.S. an exciting prospect. Thus, the Frontier myth and the cowboy as a hero reinforced the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism already imbued in the collective white American psyche during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, most Americans are still familiar with Roosevelt’s image of the heroic cowboy, especially due to the wide popularity of Western films.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, however, turns the genre on its head and transforms a once purely heroic and gallant cowboy figure back into a more realistic, modern character. The film itself embodies the “peace and love” type of values held by much of America in the late 1960’s, rather than the values of America during the Frontier myth’s prime. Although the imagery in the film sticks to the traditional Western mold, several themes break from the more traditional and conservative American values commonly depicted in Westerns. For example, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are not even true heroes but rather train robbers going against the system who are forced to flee to Bolivia after being tracked all the way through the American West. They are not fearless (as we learn when the Sundance Kid bashfully admits that he cannot swim) and their wit cannot always get them out of a scrape (as we learn when the men pursuing the pair keep catching up with them). The two heroes are humorous characters, uncommon in a Western film, simply stumbling their way through robbing banks, running from the authorities, and adjusting to life in a new country. Even the film’s score eschews the traditional Western audial aesthetic like John Williams’ famous score in The Magnificent Seven for a mellower, more 1960s-reflective vibe.

One pertinent example of the film’s 1960s values is that the film does not write out sexuality as a part of its main love story, as other Westerns might have done previously. Rather, director George Roy Hill chose to introduce the romantic relationship between the Sundance Kid and the beautiful Etta (Katharine Ross) to viewers with a scene in which the Sundance Kid sneaks up on Etta in her home and directs her, at gunpoint, to remove her clothes and take down her hair. Viewers do not realize that the two even had a prior relationship until the end of this scene, when Etta tells the Sundance Kid she wishes he wouldn’t come in so late. This type of eroticism is not shown in the more traditional Western films of the early 20thcentury; in fact, such a scene would have likely been considered near pornographic during that time. At another point in the film, Etta and Butch discuss their romantic feelings for each other as well, acknowledging the complexities of sex and love in a more comprehensive way than do the one-dimensional, apparently sexless romances depicted in traditional Westerns.

One of the most interesting signs that this Western is not aligned with the values of those made in the genre’s prime but rather to those of the 1960s is the scene toward the end of the film in which Butch and the Kid, who have given up robbing banks in favor of a “straight” lifestyle, are tasked with the paid job of delivering money to their employer to feed the company’s payroll. While they are journeying back from the bank to their employer, they are accosted by a group of Bolivian bandits. The mood is hostile, and Butch and the Kid attempt to diffuse the situation without resorting to violence; however, due to a language barrier, they realize they may have to shoot the bandits, whether they want to or not. Butch, in a moment of hesitation, reveals to the Kid, “I never shot anybody before.” Unfortunately, one of the bandits draws his gun quickly after Butch’s admission, and the pair kills the whole opposing group. They look solemnly at the carnage before them, and the Kid says, “Well, we’ve gone straight. What do we try now?” The characters’ guilt after killing a group of people is an element one would not have seen in a traditional Western, in which the death of any “Other” type is hardly addressed and holds no significance to the heroes. However, the murders of the Bolivian men become a heavy burden on the consciences of Butch and the Kid, reflective of the ideals of peace popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Overall, this film has garnered critical acclaim for its new take on the Western genre. The film was even included on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time, ranking at number 73 (“AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition”). Its unique take on the Frontier myth adds depth and humanity to the heroic cowboy character initially created by Roosevelt to represent conservative, white American values in the late 1800s. By taking an older genre fueled by the values of white Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and reinventing it to fit the changed values of the late 1960s, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a sense redefines what it is to be American in a new era of peace and love.


Works Cited

“AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition.” American Film Institute. American Film Institute, 2007. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Dir. George Roy Hill. Perf. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1969. Film.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. “Making the Frontier Myth:  Folklore Process in a Modern Nation.” Western Folklore 46.4 (1987): 235-253. Web. 16 February 2016

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A Steel-Driving Man by Casey Watson

jhThere are two men sitting across from one another. One is a tall, powerfully built man with strength that approaches superhuman and determination to match. He is a hero. People write stories about him defeating a massive steam drill with his mighty hammer while building on the rail road. This man is a legend. A gleaming champion of the working man and the definition of a physically fit human. His eventual death will give way to books, movies, and songs commemorating his achievement. The other man is far more mysterious, his story a swirling cloud of conflicting accounts and poorly maintained records. He is a short young man from New Jersey. Or maybe he isn’t. He worked and died while driving steel in Virginia at Big Bend Tunnel. Or Lewis Tunnel. Or is it Coosa Mountain Tunnel? It’s difficult to say. Wherever he worked or whoever he was, people seem to know him; to have worked with him. They sing ballads about his death, one which will slip into oblivion with little to no mention in historical record. Both of these men are John Henry.

The massive gap in characterization between the two, coupled with a patchwork of various penitentiary, court, and rail records, as well as a sizable body of references within pop culture, leads me to a fundamental question: when it comes to an icon like John Henry, how much does the “truth” actually matter? Historical research into Henry, like that of Scott Nelson, and the popular tale both point to the man working on a Virginia railroad in the early 1870s. The folktale of the heroic John Henry has become an American classic and adapted by Disney, sung by artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, or transformed into DC Comic’s Steel. However, his historical significance, as Nelson interprets it, lives on almost exclusively in the work songs of Black rail road workers, trickling into the corpus of American work songs. This is not to say that the influence of these kinds of songs is insignificant, nor that his story is without value. But ultimately, the John Henry that Nelson digs up is arrested, works, and dies without much notice, historically speaking. With this in mind, I wonder if there is any point to uncovering the historical John Henry insofar as American collective memory or iconography is concerned. Where historians surely recognize the value in the collection and analysis of sources as a means to appreciate the cultures and experiences of the past, the majority of Americans not only seem fine with the the simplified folktale of John Henry, but actually appear to use him as a figure of inspiration.

JH5The John Henry portrayed in the 2000 Disney short is the people’s champion, envisioned as a Reconstruction-era Moses, leading the rail workers to the “promised land”, the land of Canaan. He follows his dream and dies having realized it. He is someone to be like. Steel, or John Henry Irons, of DC Comics is an intellectual and inventor, taking up the mantle of Superman after his death. Like the folktale, Irons fights back against the Machine of the modern weapons industry with the iconic hammer of John Henry. These are positive Black roles models who teach young Black children to work hard with determination and moral conviction. If they do, they can beat “the machine” and ascend to greatness.

JH6Don’t get me wrong. I’m not scoffing at these ideals or the power that icons like John Henry possess. It simply troubles me that, by reimagining this man, whoever he really was, we as a people lose sight of the horrible deaths suffered by the hundreds who built the railroads. We might forget the racial component that allowed convicts to work and die without notice. The existence and perpetuation of a positive Black icon is a worthy cause, but I think there is great danger in forgetting where these legends are born and, in this case, die.

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“Aint Nothin but a Man”by Geren W. Weaver

Jstamp1ohn Henry, the hulking railroad worker whom with only his trusty hammer in his hand, dying to defeat the power of the steam-powered drilling machine, proving that a man’s skill wins over machine. Sacrificing himself and becoming a martyr. Coincidentally, Henry’s death symbolizes the futility and inevitability of the eventual triumph of the machine as technology ever improves. This also parallels the story of the likely real John Henry, whose story was less romantic than what most know today. This is the John Henry that most are familiar with; the Henry taught to children in elementary schools. Folklore songs celebrate him as this, and an American Hero. Most think of an image similar to the stamp seen above when thinking of Henry; an iconic, strong, noble man with perfectly ripped features. So iconic, as to be enshrined on a US postal stamp. But is this idea of Henry correct? Until as recently as 2005, historians were not even sure if the man existed. An article written by Scott Nelson in 2005 compiles strong evidence of the real life and existence of John Henry.

Perhaps the most well-known avenue for familiarizing with Henry aJH2.jpgre one of the “over four hundred versions of [songs that] exist” about Henry (Nelson 54). Nelson starts with likely the most compelling reason for Henry’s iconic status: “the song “’John Henry”’… has resonated with gang laborers and folk singers, labor organizers and fiddle bands, dime novelists and blues musicians” (53-54). Before diving into why the song holds such deep roots with an array of different factions, it is necessary to first reveal the man Nelson found John Henry to really be.

“John Henry was a convict laborer leased to the C&O railroad by the Virginia penitentiary” (Nelson 55). According to Nelson, Henry was arrested in 1866; one year after the end of the American Civil War. I will not use the word, but I think most can figure out what a black man in the very recently Confederate south would have been regarded as. Ironically, slavery was outlawed for a few years at this point, but Henry was essentially property of the Virginia penitentiary system and the C&O railroad alike. He was one of many as seen in figure 2. Nelson revealed in his article that Henry, like so many others, was forced to work sun-up to sun-down. Many African-American workers died on the job-worked to death.

As for the infamous competition with the steam-drill, Nelson sheds a less heroic light on that as well. With extensive research, Nelson found “[that] records revealed how convicts and steam drills, [worked] side by side” (66). Nelson goes on further to reveal that the likely reason for the failure of the steam drills was more of a result of the primitive technology at the time. “The steam pipes…broke down frequently, and the diamond drill often broke [off]… [The drills] lacked the flexibility that one found in the skilled two-man hammer teams” (Nelson 68). Not only were the drills Henry notoriously defeated single-handedly unreliable, workers operated in two-man teams JH3to accomplish their feats of labor. A strikingly different vision of the mythical Henry is realized further when Nelson reveals through prison records the likely real John Henry was 5’1” and 19 years old at the time, as seen in  figure 3 (Nelson 65-66).

So why then, is the legend of John Henry so popular? Returning to the point mentioned earlier: the over four-hundred versions of folk songs and even hymns of sorts have embedded themselves so deeply into African-American laboring culture, blues, even rock and roll, that the myth and legend have transcended even that into the public domain.  The hymns and songs of American-south slave culture are well known. Slaves would sing these songs as a means to uplift their spirits, however meagerly, to focus their minds on something other than the forced labor at hand. Furthermore, songs were and are used to regulate a rhythm to the work, to set a pace the laborers can adhere to. Nelson discusses how these were used by railroad workers before and after Henry’s death, and how the main purpose was to regulate timed-rhythm needed to complete the work. Sound clips like the “Camp B” version allow us to hear for ourselves:

Other versions, like “Willie Turner’s:”, are less geared toward the use for laboring, but represent the JH4numerous versions that came after. Versions like this helped to cement the story of Henry that most are familiar with today. Willie Turner’s version is an example of a blues version, which still captures the soul and tone of pain and suffering
that originated from ones like the Camp B version.

Nelson said on 54: “historians tend to regard music as background rather than raw material,” The evidence here proves otherwise, at least for the public. The romantic story originally taught about Henry, emerging from the songs passed from generations and eventually working their way into popular culture, is what many iconic stories tend to be: romantic tales. Henry’s mythic and heroic status have turned into an almost martyr-like state as new versions of the story are continually tweaked and changed. Is it better to remember John Henry for who he most likely really was, or as figure 4 depicts him in a Christ-like pose? That is for the reader to decide.

Works Cited

Hayden, Palmer. N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man, National Archives. NY Times. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.

John Henry Army Corps. N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man. Comp. Library of Congress. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.

N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man. Comp. Library of Congress. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.

Nelson, S. “Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2.2 (2005): 53-80. Print.

“Research Center.” Research Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.

Turner, Willie. “Willie Turner – John Henry : Willie Turner : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.

  1. Rebuilding the Franchise. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <>.


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John Henry, Timeless Visual Icon by Benjamin Pitock

jhThis 1996 art deco illustration of John Henry, featured on postage stamps, illustrates the beginnings of integration and positive racial relations that were hallmarks of the 20th century. John Henry is pictured alongside a seemingly modernized rail, smiling contently toward the horizon with his iconic hammer. Although the illustration takes the style of an earlier era, it was printed in the 90’s, a much more integrated period than that of the style it attempts to emulate. That being said, even despite the significant social change between the early 20th century and the time of that art style and the 1990’s, the beginnings of said change were already evident by the 1920’s with employment opportunities slowly but surely opening up for black Americans.

In the traditional style of a John Henry depiction, as described by Scott Nelson’s, “Who Was John Henry?”, Henry is shown holding a hammer alongside an operating rail, seemingly implying his contribution toward its construction. As prescribed by John Henry’s eponymous folk tune, the hammer is shown prominently in the frame; Further allusions to the folksong can be found in the orientation of the train in the background, climbing a vague structure that could easily be interpreted as being “in these mountains”, as described by the song.

The image harkens back to 20th century industrial propaganda, a common occurrence in most western nations through the 1950’s. A colorful, confident, and nationalistic depiction of white men helping to build their countries was common in the United States, Europe, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all throughout that time. This illustration of Henry almost flips that archetypical painting on its head by depicting a black man as responsible for American prosperity– truly a sign of the times for the progressive 1990’s. Although this illustration makes few allusions to the potentially true stories of John Henry, it rings very true to his myth, and shows how the archetype of his character has remained relevant into the present day.

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John Henry: The White Guy?!?! by Deidre Rowe

jhThe legend of John Henry is the story of a black man who worked on the C&O railroad in Virginia. He was a convict who was arrested for housebreaking and larceny.  In 1870, he and other convicts were shipped to Lewis Tunnel; where legend states he dies.

Throughout the years, his legend has received attention for folklore scholars. One common theme of these findings were that the people who were telling any part of the back knowledge of John Henry were white.  Nelson brings up the beginnings of how scho
lars were trying to find out if this story was true or not. One individual that I thought was interesting was Louis Watson Chappell. He wrote an article that on how John Henry was a real person and that he has proof of it. What made this even more outrageous was that he used “his own connections, largely among whites near Talcott” (59) as his main source of information for his findings.Capture

This is a huge deal due to the fact that Chappell would speak on his trustworthiness of the white men. This story is of a black man from Virginia and it is being “whitafied”. Chappell claimed that the secondhand stories of white men were preferable than the firsthand stories of blacks who lived in West Virginia and Virginia. This raises my question of, is the story of John Henry even a little bit black? I make that statement because I find that one large account of what we have of his tale is told by many white men. But I don’t feel like that makes his story anywhere near a common black person’s live at the time? I feel that if this legend is only being told by mainly white men, that the story maybe shifted to what white people thought a black man’s life was like; not to what it really was.

Many of the songs that I have heard on John Henry were sung by white artists. Now this maybe that many American folk artists are white but this is no different than Chappell’s asking of white men about John Henry.


Ballad of John Henry by Doc Watson

Legend of John Henry’s Hammer by Johnny Cash


Nelson, S. 2005. Who was john henry? railroad construction, southern folklore, and the birth of rock and roll. Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2 (2): 53-80.

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The Bald Eagle, an American Icon by Taylor E Burckhalter

eagleWhen you think of the Liberty Bell you think of liberty (obviously), freedom, and of course Philadelphia. The history of the Liberty Bell can be trace back to colonial America. It comes from a long line of myths and truths. Gary Nash touches on these myths and truths about the “Old Bell”. One tale that Nash talks about is how the Liberty Bell was used to “announce the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and thus became the “Independence Bell” or the “Liberty Bell” built on a growing identification of the Old Bell as a symbol of liberty” (Nash, 40). Other stories talk about how abolitionists from New York and Boston used the Liberty Bell as a symbol of freedom. Yet, at the end of the day, no matter what story is told the Liberty Bell stands for liberty and freedom for all.

Not many American icons share that “federal” endorsement that the Liberty Bell has except for one American icon, the Bald Eagle. The Bald Eagle, like the Liberty Bell, can be trace back to colonial America. The story of the Bald Eagle isn’t so much like the Liberty Bell, but still has an impact of American history.Seal

The Bald Eagle was not the first choice to represent America and everything it stood for. Benjamin Franklin originally wanted our nation’s bird to be a turkey. He stated that “The bald eagle…is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America” ( The Bald Eagle won the war of the national bird in 1782 and was adopted as the national bird on the Great Seal of the United States. The Bald Eagle was not only more appalling to look at then the turkey, but its physical features was what won the vote. President John F. Kennedy wrote that “the Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation.  The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America”( Today, we see the Bald Eagle everywhere you turn. You’ll see this American icon printed on money, statues on federal buildings, and even a mascot of the famous Philadelphia football team. The Bald Eagle, like the Liberty Bell, will not only be a Philadelphia icon, but an American icon that stands for something greater then what it was.


Nash, Gary. The Liberty Bell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010

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Geronimo Reclaimed: The Iconography of the War Bonnet by Samantha Smyt

headdressWhen it comes to items that have been exalted to the status of American icon, the Liberty Bell has few equals.

So, what? Thinking about the idea of ‘iconic’, by my definition, the object needed to be something that evoked emotion, came with a legend, and represented a key part of America. Or as Jill Ogline says in regards to the Liberty Bell: “From its earliest days of notoriety, the value and importance of the Liberty Bell have derived less from documented historical usage than from the way in which the object has been mythologized and remembered.”

Allow me to present to you a piece of Native American iconography: Geronimo’s Headdress (or War bonnet).

Geronimo, the Apache chief, was born in 1829 in Arizona and served a spiritual leader for his tribe. In 1870, he and his fellow Chiricahua Apaches were forced from their ancestral homelands to a reservation. In a series of campaigns against the Anglo-Americans, who had caused the migration, Geronimo proved a worthy adversary, often embarrassing the colonizers by evading imprisonment. His reputation and mythic status became a hot topic in expanding America. Stories emerged of how he valiantly led his tribe against the settlers, leading to the creation of the saying ‘GERONIMO!’ as a call of courage and bravery. (Indian Country). He was finally captured by General Nelson in 1886. As an attendee at the “Last Pow Wow” for the remaining Native American chiefs, Geronimo wore his eagle-feather headdress. He would remain in captivity as a POW until his death in 1909; after which, his war bonnet fell into the private holding of the Deming family in Oklahoma (

It seemed the headdress was lost from public viewing at this point.

LO-RES-FEA-GERONIMO-Geronimo_IV-e1308165379777That was until 1999, when an anonymous tipster informed the FBI of the headdress’ emergence on EBay with a million dollar asking price as the FBI’s website confirms. The war bonnet’s story was confirmed by the Deming heir who now held the piece as his own. Both the owner and his broker confirmed that they were aware of federal punishment that came with the selling of eagle feathers. After contacting the USFWS, who positively identified the golden-eagle feathered bonnet, the FBI went forward with an undercover sale to acquire the bonnet and charge Deming with violating the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Protection Act, and the Lacey Acts ( The USFWS came into possession of the war bonnet following this and they, in turn, handed the war bonnet over to the Indian Country preservation society. It now remains with the Indian Country artifacts as a treasured piece of history and culture.

Like the Liberty Bell, the war bonnet represents a divisive America. As Gary Nash points out, the bell became an international icon through it usage by abolitionists in the poem “The Liberty Bell” (The Bell Becomes an Icon, 38). Geronimo’s war bonnet also represents an America that has its issues with divisions. However, like the Bell, the war bonnet sits a significant cultural resource that can be used to educate future generations about the darker parts of America’s past.

It also has some degree of reproducibility and the imagery of the war bonnet has been utilized by many companies such as: Indian motorcycle, Victoria’s Secret, and various other fashion houses.

Interestingly enough, both items share another similarity: Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell, of course, is housed in the Liberty Bell Center. But, Geronimo’s headdress’ fate was sealed at the federal courts in the City of Brotherly Love as well (

Nash, Gary. “Chapter 2: The Bell Becomes an Icon” The Liberty Bell.

Ogline, Jill. “’Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy”. The Public Historian, vol. 26, no. 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 49-58.


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