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

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

5.0 3
by Scott Reynolds Nelson
     
 

ISBN-10: 0195300106

ISBN-13: 9780195300109

Pub. Date: 09/28/2006

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA


The ballad "John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry--the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill--is a towering figure in our culture. But for over a century, no one knew who the original John Henry was--or even if there was a real John Henry.
In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott Reynolds…  See more details below

Overview


The ballad "John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry--the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill--is a towering figure in our culture. But for over a century, no one knew who the original John Henry was--or even if there was a real John Henry.
In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson recounts the true story of the man behind the iconic American hero, telling the poignant tale of a young Virginia convict who died working on one of the most dangerous enterprises of the time, the first rail route through the Appalachian Mountains. Using census data, penitentiary reports, and railroad company reports, Nelson reveals how John Henry, victimized by Virginia's notorious Black Codes, was shipped to the infamous Richmond Penitentiary to become prisoner number 497, and was forced to labor on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the C&O railroad. Nelson even confirms the legendary contest between John Henry and the steam drill (there was indeed a steam drill used to dig the Lewis Tunnel and the convicts in fact drilled faster).
Equally important, Nelson masterfully captures the life of the ballad of John Henry, tracing the song's evolution from the first printed score by blues legend W. C. Handy, to Carl Sandburg's use of the ballad to become the first "folk singer," to the upbeat version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. We see how the American Communist Party appropriated the image of John Henry as the idealized American worker, and even how John Henry became the precursor of such comic book super heroes as Superman or Captain America.
Attractively illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780195300109
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
09/28/2006
Series:
Cityscapes Series
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.00(d)

Table of Contents


The Search for John Henry     1
To the White House     21
Wiseman's Grocery     41
Ward-Well     59
Man Versus Mountain     73
The Southern Railway Octopus     93
Songs People Have Sung: 1900-1930     119
Communist Strongman     143
Coda     169
Notes     175
Acknowledgments     197
Index     201

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Steel Drivin' Man : John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
It has a sad ending but other than that its a good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Try it.
2nchance More than 1 year ago
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.