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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

5.0 3
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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Lawrence Downes
It seems odd to worry that a review will give away the ending of a history book, but Scott Reynolds Nelson's account of his search for the real John Henry, the steel-drivin' man of so much song and story, poses just that problem. Ain't Nothing but a Man is the tale of a detective chasing the ultimate cold case—a missing person who may or may not be fictional—and it's so engaging, so full of the thrill of the hunt, that it feels mean to dampen the book's pleasures even a little by telling you right away what, or rather who, Nelson found…Nelson's enthusiasm for historical sleuthing would whet any reader's appetite to do the same. It pulls the neat trick of giving you a heaping serving of a story you thought you already knew, and leaving you wanting more.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Nelson (Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend) offers a highly accessible version of his research into whether or not the John Henry of folksong fame was a real person. Piecing together a panoply of facts and personal anecdotes that go back to his boyhood, the author models the study of history as an active and passionate pursuit: "For years I had been following a trail, and it was stone cold.... And then... I suddenly saw it, the clue that changed everything." This cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter draws readers into Nelson's journey through the song lyrics, old prison documents, maps, photographs and other primary and secondary sources. From "trackliners" (workers, often African-American, who aligned rails) to steam drills to Civil War history, the first-person narrative follows Nelson as he plays detective. Seemingly diverse information presented in each of nine chapters becomes knit together by the conclusion, and visually unified by an aesthetically pleasingly layout that features a reddish brick palette with tinted photos and prints. One graphic-and telling-photo reveals the remains of two African-African men discovered on the grounds of a Virginia prison: John Henry, posits the author, was part of a huge prisoner work force hired out to tunnel through mountains for the railroad companies. Convincing and dramatic, this volume makes a good case that history is a living science. Ages 10-14. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature - Sara Lorimer
After a bit of throat-clearing, this book gets into the interesting story: the truth behind the songs about John Henry, the steel-driving man. Nelson had long been curious about whether or not there was a real John Henry who raced a steam drill and won, only to die there on the spot. Analyzing different versions of the song, reading old newspapers and prison ledgers, and going out in person to see the possible spots led him to an interesting idea: that Henry might have been a prisoner in the Virginia Penitentiary during the Reconstruction, hired out to the C & O Railroad, and killed by exposure to coal dust. This book would make a great introduction into historical research for high school students, letting them see the value of persistence (it took several years for the author to get access to some of the records he needed), inspiration, and luck. Includes photographs, an index, suggestions for further reading, and advice for students on "how to be a historian." Reviewer: Sara Lorimer
School Library Journal

Gr 4-8
This book is as much about a historian's quest for the truth as it is a biography of the well-known strong man. Nelson chronicles how he began to learn about African-American workers on the railroad in the South. He talks about his research process and delineates primary and secondary sources. Noting how dead ends occur during research, the author explains how he overcame roadblocks and took his search in other directions. The layout is attractive, with a sepia and beige background for the text and sepia-toned photographs to set the atmosphere for this history taking place during the Civil War years. The appendixes explain the many versions of the folk song and include a section about "How to Be a Historian" by Marc Aronson. This is an excellent example of how much detective work is needed for original research. It will fill a need in many collections.
—Blair ChristolonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
With assistance from Aronson, a veteran author/editor and nabob of nonfiction, Nelson recasts his adult title Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend (2006) into a briefer account that not only suspensefully retraces his search for the man behind the ballad, but also serves as a useful introduction to historical-research methods. Supported by a generous array of late-19th- and early-20th-century photos-mostly of chain-gang "trackliners" and other rail workers-the narrative pieces together clues from song lyrics, an old postcard, scattered business records and other sources, arriving finally at both a photo that just might be the man himself, and strong evidence of the drilling contest's actual location. The author then goes on to make speculative but intriguing links between the trackliners' work and the origins of the blues and rock-'n'-roll, and Aronson himself closes with an analytical appendix. It's an eye-opening case study in how history and folklore can intertwine. (maps, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-13)

Product Details

National Geographic Society
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.52(w) x 11.19(h) x 0.40(d)
1030L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Meet 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 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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