Steel Drivin Man: John Henry the untold Story of an American Legend

Paperback | August 15, 2008

byScott Reynolds Nelson

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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 CandOrailroad. 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. "Written at the crossroads where American myth and reality intersect, Steel Drivin' Man is a tribute and requiem to the real steel drivin' men who built this country." --Bruce Springsteen "A fascinating guide to the world of Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction." --William Grimes, The New York Times "Nelson is a magnificent writer, and he tells a story as great and terrible as any... Steel Drivin' Man is a rarity among history books in that it is a concise one. It's like John Henry: It's short, and it does its job well." --Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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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...

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.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 5.31 × 7.91 × 0.51 inPublished:August 15, 2008Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195341198

ISBN - 13:9780195341195

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"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 FletcherUniversity Professor, Harvard University [in speech for the Anisfield-Wolf award]