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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, 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10:  0195341198
ISBN-13:  978-0195341195
Author:  Scott Reynolds Nelson
Genre:  Biographies & Memoirs, Entertainment
Publisher:  Oxford University Press, USA
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review by . April 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 …
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