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Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend
Scott Reynolds Nelson
Oxford University Press
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Date Listed:
2011-06-20 23:04:03
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Untitled Document

Steel Drivin' Man

John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend

By Scott Reynolds Nelson.

Softcover 6x9, 224 pages, 35 halftones. 2004.

  • Winner of the National Award for Arts Writing, The Arts Club of Washington
  • u Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize
  • Finalist, Library of Virginia Literary Awards
  • Winner of the Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians
  • "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. Illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.

    "Author Scott Nelson made the discovery that the fabled John Henry was a real young man and has lectured extensively about the discovery, serving as an on-air consultant for two forthcoming documentaries on John Henry.


"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