Steel Drivin' Man by Scott Reynolds Nelson
John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend

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Synopsis

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.
 

About Scott Reynolds Nelson

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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.
 
Published September 28, 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA. 224 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences, Arts & Photography, Travel, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Steel Drivin' Man

The New York Times

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Scott Reynolds Nelson argues that the John Henry story was no tall tale, and Henry himself no myth.

Oct 18 2006 | Read Full Review of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry...

Publishers Weekly

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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.

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BC Books

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There were plays about John Henry, children's books about John Henry (I remember one of those), and comic book heroes like Superman who evolved (in Nelson's analysis) from the John Henry strongman character as depicted by artists of the early twentieth century.

Dec 03 2006 | Read Full Review of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry...

BC Books

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Funny thing, though — turns out there really was a steel-drivin' man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West.

Dec 03 2006 | Read Full Review of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry...

Entertainment Weekly

Over the last century, the legend of macho steelworker John Henry with his ''two twenty pound hammers'' has been appropriated by chain gangs, Communist radicals, and Johnny Cash.

Sep 22 2006 | Read Full Review of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry...

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