Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend
Scott Reynolds Nelson, . . Oxford Univ., $25 (214pp) ISBN 978-0-19-530010-9
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.
Reviewed on: 08/14/2006