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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend » User review

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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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #38
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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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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