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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
What Mr. Nelson proves is the undying power of the John Henry myth, which reduces almost to a pinpoint the historical figure he resurrects from the archives. Whether or not John William Henry is the man seems almost irrelevant. He is a fascinating guide to the world of the Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction. But the real story, and the real John Henry, come to life after his death.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
According to the ballad that made him famous, John Henry did battle with a steam-powered drill, beat the machine and died. Folklorists have long thought John Henry to be mythical, but while researching railroad work songs, historian Nelson, of the College of William and Mary, discovered that Henry was a real person-a short black 19-year-old from New Jersey who was convicted of theft in a Virginia court in 1866. Under discriminatory Black Codes, Henry was sentenced to 10 years in the Virginia Penitentiary and put to work building the C&O Railroad. There, at the Lewis Tunnel, Henry and other prisoners worked alongside steam-powered drills, and at least 300 of them died. This slender book is many-layered. It's Nelson's story of piecing together the biography of the real John Henry, and rarely is the tale of hours logged in archives so interesting. It's the story of fatal racism in the postbellum South. And it's the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest. This is a remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story. 25 b&w illus. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The legend and folk ballad of John Henry and his titanic competition against a steam-powered drill in blasting a railroad tunnel is well known. Nelson (history, Coll. of William and Mary; Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction), who has consulted on a forthcoming PBS documentary about John Henry, A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man, places the legend in historical and cultural context. He begins with a first-person account of his search for a real John Henry and the likely site of the railroad tunnel in western Virginia. He indeed finds records of a John Henry, who worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad as a convict laborer following the Civil War. Nelson never conclusively proves this John Henry to be the man of the legend, but he uses the fruits of his research to illustrate the role of blacks in the South during Reconstruction and how the railroads became wealthy at the expense of the railroad workers and state governments. He also tells how the John Henry story became part of American folklore as song, art, and political action. This well-written historical study is appropriate for history and folklore collections in both academic and public libraries. Lawrence R. Maxted, Gannon Univ., Erie, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195300109
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Series: Cityscapes Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Reynolds Nelson is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. The author of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, he has served as a consultant on the forthcoming PBS documentary on John Henry.

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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
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2013

    It's good

    Try it.

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