Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry

by Scott Reynolds Nelson, Marc Aronson

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Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.

Nelson’s narrative is multilayered, interweaving the story of the building of the railroads, the period of Reconstruction, folk tales, American mythology, and an exploration of the tradition of work songs and their evolution into blues and rock and roll. This is also the story of the author’s search for the flesh-and-blood man who became an American folk hero; Nelson gives a first-person account of how the historian works, showing history as a process of discovery. Readers rediscover an African-American folk hero. We meet John Henry, the man who worked for the railroad, driving steel spikes. When the railroad threatens to replace workers with a steam-powered hammer, John Henry bets that he can drive the beams into the ground faster than the machine. He wins the contest, but dies in the effort.

Nelson’s vibrant text, combined with archival images, brings a new perspective and focus to the life and times of this American legend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426300004
Publisher: National Geographic Society
Publication date: 12/26/2007
Pages: 64
Sales rank: 767,141
Product dimensions: 9.50(w) x 11.13(h) x 0.39(d)
Lexile: 1030L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Author and historian Scott Reynolds Nelson is the Legum Professor of History at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. His previous book on John Henry, Steel Drivin’ Man, was awarded the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
farfromkansas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Scott Reynolds Nelson¿s Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry is a fascinating account of Nelson¿s investigation into the origins of the John Henry myth. The book is adapted from his ¿adult¿ academic work, Steel Drivin¿ Man: John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend, and targeted for a much younger audience (presumably late elementary or early middle school). Because it¿s been adapted from a more scholarly work, the story has been quite simplified; likewise, the language seems kind of stilted and awkward at times. However, all of these flaws are overshadowed by the amazing story told within: Nelson¿s discovery of the ¿real¿ John Henry. Over the course of the book, Nelson explains the process of a historian¿s journey, and presents the text in the format of an ¿iSearch¿ ¿ he simultaneously provides a narrative of his research as he describes his findings. Ultimately, Nelson discovers that the real John Henry was an inmate at a Virginia Penitentiary who was ¿rented¿ out to the C&O railroad for physical labor and who most likely was a Civil War veteran. He also hypothesizes that John Henry was diminutive in stature: evidence points to his height as five-foot, one-inch tall. Nelson¿s discovery is absolutely thrilling: almost like the folklorist¿s version of discovering that Santa Claus is real.Citation:Nelson, Scott Reynolds., and Marc Aronson. Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008. Print.
McKennaMiller on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a perfect example of an amazing children's information book. It is from an interesting perspective and organized very well. The old, rare photographs and drawings from newspapers also add to the book's charm. What I found really interesting is how unique the book is. The story was not just about who John Henry was, but the process and work a historian had to go through to uncover the truth. It shows a great example on how uncovering rare history is like solving a mystery - it takes many years and extensive work to uncover very little. There's always something that cracks the case and leads to so much information. A picture that he had had lying around for years ended up being the clue to discovering the truth about JOhn Henry. What I really enjoyed about the book was that the author does not state facts like a typical historian - he forms questions and allows the reader to make conclusions.
cflorap on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson was initially determined to find out more about the 40,000 railroad workers who seem to have been lost to history. He listened to many old trackliners¿ songs in the course of his research, sparking an interest in the folk legend, John Henry. Many historians have attempted to identify the truth behind this folk hero, but Nelson was not quite satisfied with what others had decided. This book traces his research process, including the frustration of reaching an apparent dead-end and the use of various types of resources, from songs to censuses and from physical places to postcards. History comes alive as readers follow along while Nelson¿s research begins to reveal new clues and possibilities.The primary sources that Nelson based his research on are portrayed along with text explaining how he came across these resources, what questions he brought to them, what questions they raised, and what information he distilled from them. This allows readers to consider the sources, understand the process, and reach their own interpretations, rather than simply being fed the author¿s conclusions. It is highly readable and well-organized, making it ideal for both academic and recreational reading. Unlike traditional history books in which answers are on every page, this book contains mostly questions. For this reason, there are few conclusions drawn until the very end, but an index will help readers identify where to find out about specific topics. Several appendices, including a bibliography of suggested resources and a step-by-step description of ¿How to Be a Historian¿ by Mark Aronson, add further value to this book for teachers and young learners.Ain¿t Nothing but a Man succeeds as a historical and biographical work, as well as an introduction to the research process. It is highly recommended for all libraries serving upper elementary and middle school students. This is also a great choice for use in classroom units about historical research, legends, American history, and various other social studies topics.
rachelsticka on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Children will enjoy this book a lot. In classrooms with many African-American children, this is a great book to have. They can learn about a man who played a hero in African-American folktales. As a teacher, a connection between the folk tale and the facts can be discussed, using Nelson's book as a reference. This is a great educational book.
mzonderm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author made an interesting choice to make the story of his own research the focus of this book. I think it worked really well in this case, given that there's so little known about the actual John Henry. Nelson is very up-front about the fact that much of his results are based on theory or conjecture, but overall the transparency of his research process gives a lot of weight to his conclusions. This is an interesting book both for what it tells us about the research process, but also for what we learn about John Henry's world.
abbylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nelson explores the legend of John Henry and researches to find out more about the real man. Although he meets many dead ends, he keeps going and writes about the entire process of researching. Tons of photographs illustrate the text and make the time period come to life. Reading about Nelson's process in researching was really interesting because he had to be really creative to keep going after he met dead ends. Perfect for history buffs and those interested in American legends or African-American history.
Sassy_Seshat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kind of boring and anticlimactic. A great example of well researched work, perfect for showing young students the process of discovery.
Bad13 More than 1 year ago
Very enticing, extremely smart book! Although this is a picture book, I was very captivated and engrossed with this book! This book outlines, step by interesting step, the journey of a historian on a quest to answer his question of who John Henry is. The book is chock full of images of historical pictures and documents concerning the search. Along with information about John Henry himself, the reader also learns a great deal about American History, including train history and post Civil war history. This is such a rich book; if you like knowledge for the sake of the beauty of knowledge, then you will fall in love with this book! Nelson is a superb story teller, tracing his quest of proactivity: having a question and actually taking the time and energy to figure out the answer for himself! This book is very inspirational for anyone with a dream, even a seemingly unreachable dream, and how to make your dreams your life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
elfboy11 More than 1 year ago