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

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9780195341195: Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend
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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.
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. 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.
Attractively illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.

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About the Author:


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.

Review:


"Readers looking for the roots of African American popular culture in the Jim Crow South, for the relationships between work like and popular culture, for the ways in which such popular culture is re-created and transformed over time, can do no better than Steel Drivin' Man.--James R. Barrett, Peace and Change


"A fine example of engaged writing, one that deserves to be read and used to understand the world of the hammer men."--Rosemary Feurer, Reviews in American History


"Written at the crossroads where American myth and reality intersect, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend is a tribute and requiem to the real steel drivin' men who built this country."--Bruce Springsteen


"Nelson manages to piece together a portrait of Henry -- a black convict laborer who died drilling railroad tunnels -- offering an illuminating course in Reconstruction history along the way. Part biography and part cultural history, this slender volume, nicely illustrated with maps and photographs, is at heart a detective story by a sleuth with a PhD and a healthy dose of skepticism."--Washington Post Book World


"A beautifully written, unique essay in social and cultural history that tells a multilayered story about labor, race, and railroads in the era of Reconstruction.... Elegant, accessible, and engaging [it] reveals the archaeological process of historical research and history writing, compelling readers to understand how all of us come to understand the past. Based upon astonishing research, Nelson tells an eloquent story about injustice, racism, and most important of all, why we study history and how those in the present become engaged with the past."--Merle Curti Prize Committee [Henry Yu, Professor of History, UCLA,; Mary Murphy, Montana State University; Mae M. Ngai, Columbia University; Hal Rothman, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Jeffrey Sklansky, Oregon State]


"It is thrilling to follow the exegesis of the 'John Henry' lyrics through to the discovery of John Henry's identity. Many disciplines are necessarily examined in the course of this detective tale: history of course, but also geology, forestry, engineering, anthropology, anatomy, sociology, law, music, literature, poetry, art and popular culture. Yet Mr. Nelson stirs the brew with the effortless touch of a master chef, deftly adding ingredients at just the right temperature (a dash here, a sprinkle there) to serve up a most enticing gumbo."--National Awards for Arts Writing Committee [Alan Cheuse, Professor of English, George Mason University; Rita Dove, Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Joyce Carol Oates, Professor of English, Princeton University]


"Steel Drivin' Man begins as a fine historical detective story. Through dogged work and serendipitous strokes Nelson, a labor historian, pieced together the story...a wonderful bit of sleuthing and a fascinating tour of life on the lower fringes of the post-bellum South."--Elliot West, Professor of History, University of Arkansas [review in History Book Club]


"It is a grim story...a black man who fought for the Union is convicted of a petty theft...Nelson's reconstruction of John Henry's identity from prison records, railroad archives, and census data is fascinating, a remarkable feat of historical sleuthing."--Henry Louis Gates, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University [in speech for the Anisfield-Wolf award]


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Book Description Oxford University Press Inc, United States, 2008. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 CO 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. Seller Inventory # AAS9780195341195

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