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

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Scott Reynolds Nelson

Starred Review.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, … see full wiki

Author: Scott Reynolds Nelson
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, Entertainment
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
1 review about Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold...

Natural man to man of steel

  • Apr 18, 2010
Nelson does the near impossible: He finds the real, documented man in the folk song, places him in his actual geographical setting (not where all the roadside markers are by the way) and tells us his history in life and death.

I was surprised to learn that John Henry did actually exist, and did actually compete against a steam drill in demonstrating the value of human labor over the mechanized variety in digging railroad tunnels through the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and its newly-named neighbor West Virginia in the decade after the Civil War., This part of the story reads like a cold-case mystery as Nelson tracks down old government archives, railroad engineering studies and project documentation, Civil War records, and archeological findings that helped him find the living John Henry--and the site of his death and burial after that famous contest.

Then Nelson brings John Henry the legend up to date, showing how the legend became song, spread across the country (and oceans during World War I), was co-opted into early "folk" entertainment and then politics, and finally even became part of the stream (through the graphic-arts work of the Depression-era WPA) that became comic-book superheros like the "Man of Steel" Superman.

Unlike some books in this genre, Nelson sticks to his sources, letting them tell the story without trying to make it seem mystical or hip. This gives this short history a true power and makes it worthy of five stars.

Another book in this genre that I found similarly worthy and maybe of interest to readers who liked Steel Drivin' Man: Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song

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