Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend
"John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American music. But who was John Henry? If Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, is to be believed, he was born in New Jersey in 1847, went to Virginia after the Civil War, was imprisoned for larceny, and ended up on one of the chain gangs that hand-drilled railroad tunnels through the Appalachians. Nelson contends that this John Henry did indeed race a steam drill in a tunnel between Virginia and West Virginia, and died of silicosis, a disease in which silica dust ravages the lungs. At the outset, all this sounds far-fetched, but Nelson's extensive analysis of work songs, anecdotal evidence, prison records, railroad records, and census data is nothing short of astounding.
Nelson writes rhapsodically and not a little bitterly about how John Henry the man became the legend. The song originated as a work song in the throats of black railway workers. It was both a time-keeping measure--beats in the song matched hammer strikes--and a vocalized hope not to perish in the same way. As with most folk songs, there are many versions but there is no right one; they all wended their way through the years, some more common than others. From the many extant versions--those written down or recorded--Nelson finds clues to what he sees as the real identity of John Henry.
In one version, after his death, John Henry was taken to a white house and buried in the sand. There is a white house at the Virginia penitentiary. In the prison's records, Nelson discovers the existence of a black prisoner named John William Henry, arrested for larceny and put on the chain gang to do hand-drilling in the Appalachians in the late 1860s. This marks a turning point in Nelson's research: In finding a real man, he can link the obscure--the man in the song--with the well-documented circumstances around the man and the long history of the song.
Steel Drivin' Man has unnecessary parts. For example, in the first chapter, it's superfluous for Nelson to include his journey by Ford Escort to the Big Bend Tunnel. And it's up to readers to decide whether Nelson's theory is a stretch. Still, in sum, trying to pin down a legend of this magnitude produces some cracking good stories and the book gallops along. This book is about the real John Henry, yet it is also about the rapacity of capitalism, the sins the North and South committed against black Americans, the twisted and crooked history of the railroad industry, the labor movement in the first half of the 20th century, and how songs take life. Pretty impressive for 214 pages.