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

3.6 of 5 stars 3.60  ·  rating details  ·  120 ratings  ·  25 reviews
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 t...more
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Published September 28th 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published January 1st 2006)
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Margaret Sankey
This is one of my favorite historical research genres--taking a well known popular culture pieces (in this case, John Henry of folksong) and reconstructs the real story--the south during Reconstruction, the easy way a corrupt government agent could make sure many able-bodied men went to jail for minor (or fabricated) offenses, and the bribes to be had from renting out prisoners to 1870s railroad projects. Nelson tracks down the real person on whom the story is based, a Virginia prisoner working...more
Victor
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Yasmin
The untold story is also one that is not familiar to me. As a child I was familiar with Casey Jones, the song I've Been Workin' On the Railroad and a few others, but oddly John Henry the Steel Drivin' Man wasn't one of them. This was a very interesting book about the real life and legends of John Henry and how the songs about him inspired and created new things in peoples lives and cultures around them. It was said that John Henry was 5 foot and 1/4 inch in height, over the years he grew to epic...more
Pen
I really loved this book when I started it, because it sets out to be both about the historical John Henry and about the way historians "do" history in a way that captured the puzzle-solving feel of it and the click when things fit together quite well.

But the second half of the book was sort of a different book, one about the legacy of John Henry, or the story of his legend, perhaps, written with a much broader brush. I know, they're related, and they sound like they should go together, but the...more
Laura
A fascinating work of real-life detection, showing an expert historian at work. Nelson makes a strong and persuasive case for having discovered the identity of the real John Henry. He sets this tale of personal tragedy against the backdrop of the Reconstruction-era South - and then traces the evolution of the song (in its many permutations) through the 20th century as it came to hold different meanings in radically different communities. Full of interesting tidbits, such as the influence of old...more
Shara
This book could use some editing, but that doesn't mean it's not full of interesting facts and mind bending views of the American Folk legend. Picture a room full of smiling school children singing, "911 Is a Joke" and you'll get an idea of just how much you don't understand about the legend of John Henry.
Dave
This book starts with a story the author's academic hunt for The Real John Henry: the truth behind the man, and the circumstances that brought him to the famous steam drill battle and death. The reader gets a slice of life look at trackliners, how they used song in their work, and the initial dirgelike, cautionary tone of 'John Henry' -- a tale of a man working too hard, and the impending danger of machines.

Next, the author traces the groups and individuals along with their motivations (social,...more
Chris
Nelson does a pretty good job of convincing the reader that he is gotten to the root of the John Henry question - who was he really.

This is a rather enjoyable and very quick read that examines not only what Nelson believes to be story behind the legend but also a study of how the story was used in America.

Nelson's writing is engaging, and he talks not only about John Henry but about American ballads and folklife. Admittly, Nelson seems to go into too much detail about trains, but it is John Hen...more
Graham
Jul 01, 2008 Graham rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Americans, History buffs, mythical legends
Reynolds using the John Henry American Myth to unite American industrial, social and ethical consciousness in one brilliant study. This book is about more than trying to unearth a man behind a legend -- although Reynolds asserts to literally do just that -- it explains how the nexus of reconstruction, railroad construction, and southern resurrection affected American culture and stratified the nation in several ways: ultimately giving birth to the industrial revolution, the civil rights conflict...more
Nick
This is a great examination of the source of a host of folk songs and stories. The idea that there was a single human being whose life and death was the source material for the John Henry songs and stories is unusual and provocative. While it would be nice to know for certain that the one known photo is of the "real" John Henry, the factual information about both the circumstances that led to the original story and the reasons and ways the song and story spread were fascinating.
I recommend this...more
JP
A serviceable history of the John Henry mythos. The first half, the better half, is about the author's search to find the truth about John Henry. It reads wonderfully because it's about a journey of discovery. My favorite section is Nelson's description of the freewheeling Reconstructionist Virginia. I would pay to see that movie.
The second half of the book recontextualizes this new reality of John Henry against the socio-political mythology that has grown around his life and it reads like an ac...more
Leah
He does an excellent job reconstructing the life of John Henry (really, the lives of black convict laborers and their exploitation in the New South); he loses me with his last two chapters, especially the one tracing the visual image of John Henry into comic books. However, his description of how John Henry became an important iconic image in print and song for the Left during the 1930s was new to me. Surprised he didn't talk about John Henry in children's books and films (isn't there a Disney c...more
Jennifer
The author attempts to track dwon the "real" John Henry, and presents some intriguing evidence of what the song "really" means. Along the way, you read about everything from the the technology of blasting railroad tunnels, Appalachian African American culture, and iconic image of John Henry used by Communists, comic book artists and folksingers. This book gives a good look into the lives of the working class who really made steam and railroads the catalysts for dramatic economic and social chang...more
Steven E
An inside baseball look into how history is done, with Nelson eventually making the speculative conclusion that the real life John Henry was a short, 19 year old from New Jersey unfairly convicted by Virginia's post-Civil War racist legal system. This is all exceedingly interesting, at least until Nelson meanders for nearly half the book about the evolution of the John Henry legend in the 20th Century, which amounts to nothing more than a boring survey of history.
Iejones
I am schizo - jumping from time period to time period - paperback to hard cover - this slim volume caught my attention because of the fact that many historical stories have not been allowed to breath in the newness of historical rigor. The whole idea of a steel driving man whose strength outlasted a machine is something of folklore. Nelson explored songs, myths and historical documents to locate the actual person behind the legend - more to follow...
Rich
This is an amazing book. The author tells the story of the actual historic John Henry on whom the song and legends are based. The first half reads like a detective novel as he unravels the mystery. The second half is a fascinating study of the evolution of the John Henry figure in popular culture. A fascinating take on American popular music, race relations, prisons, and labor history.
Sarah
A fun and fast read. I've assigned this for the second half of the American history course and I think my students will love it. The real strength of the book, I thought, was how he brings alive the experience of working on the railroads immediately after the Civil War.
Michael
This is a good book about an American folk hero and folk music legend. Gives a good history of post civil war West Virginia and the development of the railroads, and the role of african american labor in building that railroad.
Ma'lis Wendt
Historian Scott Nelson describes his successful search for the historic John Henry and then explores how the song has changed over the decades to reflect contemporary society. Fascinating.
Erica - Bonner Springs Library
Oct 11, 2010 Erica - Bonner Springs Library rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Erica - by: Children's Non-Fiction syllabus
A really fascinating book. The information is quite dense but once I got going it was really good. It's about the search for the real John Henry and the mythology surrounding John Henry.
Erica
Dec 01, 2008 Erica rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Erica by: Children's Non-Fiction syllabus
A really fascinating book. The information is quite dense but once I got going it was really good. It's about the search for the real John Henry and the mythology surrounding John Henry.
Marvin
This book is an example of why I don't read much nonfiction. It was OK, but just didn't really make me want to keep reading it.
Betsy Phillips
This is an amazing book. I'm not sure I buy his conclusion, but it's worth reading to argue over.
Lauren Donoho
Genuinely one of the most enlightening microhistories I've read.
Phyllis Jennings
Wonderfully written history for children.
Enrico
Enrico marked it as to-read
Aug 21, 2014
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Jul 26, 2014
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Anne is currently reading it
Jul 19, 2014
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SCOTT REYNOLDS NELSON is the author of Steel Drivin' Man, which won the National Award for Arts Writing, the Anisfield-Wolf Literary Prize, the Merle Curti Prize for best book in U.S. history, and the Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction. His young adult book, Ain't Nothing But a Man (written with Marc Aronson) won seven national awards, including the Jane Addams Prize for best book on social ju...more
More about Scott Reynolds Nelson...
Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877 Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War

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