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Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend

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  • Posted October 11, 2010

    Great exploration of race in America!

    Wonderful, readable story that not only explains the song, but gathers a wealth of detail about a likely "John Henry" caught in a web of post-civil war Southern law that was a virtual death sentence; especially because he would not slow down!

    Author Nelson mixes in his interest and background as historian and archivist with his discovery of the details of the likely John Henry. These detail explain some of the Song's imagery (The White House turns out to be a building at the state prison)and how convicts became "contract labor" for the Southern railroads. Then Nelson talks about how the debt to build those railroads was shifted back to the public, helping to impoverish Southern states thereafter. After all the historical detail, Nelson then goes on to explore how the song about John Henry was used by the communists, labor unions, civil rights workers and folk artists. A wonderful weaving of historical facts about race in America with the development of a mythical expression of anger and heroism.

    Highly recommended.

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