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.
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.)
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Oxford University Press, Incorporated
August 03, 2008
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