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Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry

4.15  ·  Rating Details ·  285 Ratings  ·  81 Reviews
Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, iden ...more
Hardcover, 64 pages
Published December 26th 2007 by National Geographic Children's Books
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Heidi Marc-Aurele
Mar 02, 2011 Heidi Marc-Aurele rated it it was amazing
Very interesting, and a good look at how the historian works to find answers to their research questions.
Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Aug 03, 2008 Roxanne Hsu Feldman rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 4-6grade
I thought that the meandering way of Nelson's research process in discovering the truth (as he believes it) behind the John Henry song/legend is highly effective and affecting. Readers do get inspired and excited about the research process. It never claimed that what Nelson "uncovered" is the absolute truth except for the authors stating (on page 57) that he "finally had the full story" -- but even there, he wrote "the record of one man who most probably was the John Henry in the song." The natu ...more
Jan 31, 2013 Roberta rated it really liked it
I love folksongs, their stories, melodies, and history, and so I was intrigued by this juvenile book with photographs and maps about John Henry, the Steel-Drivin' Man. The author is a professor at the College of William and Mary, and he describes his search for information on this powerful black man who, you probably remember, had a contest with a new mechanized drill to break up rock so that railway tunnels could be carved out of the mountains. Nelson found out that John Henry had worked for C ...more
Lars Guthrie
Aug 10, 2008 Lars Guthrie rated it really liked it
Nearly every day I try to convey my love for reading and studying history to kids, and Scott Nelson successfully does this here, in his search for a real John Henry. The steel drivin' man does not elude him (completely, anyway) and his tale of how a historian works fascinates. The words are great and worth five stars. My only complaint is the graphics. Despite the very cool photograph of the possible John Henry, all the illustration is presented monochromatically in sepia. This might play into w ...more
Annie Oosterwyk
Sep 25, 2010 Annie Oosterwyk rated it it was amazing
I am so excited by this book. It is not a standard biography, but a model for doing historical research. The author walks the reader through the process of discovering who John Henry really was and how he got his information.
This book is a fabulous introduction for students on how researchers work.
Nov 23, 2008 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing
A great example of both history and the historian's journey. Follow Scott Nelson as he has an "ah ha!" moment tracking down the 'truth' behind a folk song. . . was there really a John Henry, how and why do the fit into history and what can the story of the trackliners tell us?
Christine Turner
Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend ...more
Richie Partington
Jul 15, 2013 Richie Partington rated it it was amazing
4 April 2008 AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN: MY QUEST TO FIND THE REAL JOHN HENRY by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson, National Geographic, January 2008, 64p. ISBN: 978-1-4263-0000-4

"One way for local whites to take the strut out of a black man's step was to put him in prison...Southerners who had just lost a war managed to convince courts to put hundreds of black men in prison, including black soldiers." -- from AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN

"But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and
Sep 26, 2016 Sam rated it really liked it
An interesting read that is also a great example of the research process and different search strategies. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the history or John Henry along with the author. I found it particularly interesting that the person who the author believes to be the true John Henry was not the large muscled strong man that tales lead us to believe. Very interesting and should help spark research interest in students.
Erin Boyington
Jun 23, 2013 Erin Boyington rated it really liked it
Shelves: y-a, history, middle-grade
A historian tells the fascinating story of how he uncovered the tragic truth behind the folk songs about the American hero John Henry.

In the days of the transcontinental railroad, 40,000 Southern trackliners (mainly African-Americans) were erased by history. No one recorded their experiences. All researchers have left are scattered records and the work songs these forgotten men sang.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend , recounts
Melissa Mcavoy
Age Range: 10-14.
Genre: Biography, Nonfiction, History.
Honors: Winner of the Aesop Prize, awarded by the American Folklore Society, Jane Addams Children’s Book Honoree, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Booklist and Publishers Weekly “starred” reviews.

Scott Reynolds spent years researching the legend of John Henry, trying to determine if he had really lived. Ain’t Nothing but a Man begins at the moment of epiphany: when Reynolds discovered the clue that uncovered the history of a man, a m
IndyPL Kids Book Blog
Mar 07, 2012 IndyPL Kids Book Blog rated it it was amazing
In the folksong “John Henry,” John is a railroad worker who makes a promise to beat a steam powered drill by digging with his own two hands and his hammer. He says, “A man ain’t nothing but a man, before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.” As the story goes, John indeed beats the steam powered drill in a competition just as he promised. He also drops dead with his hammer in his hand…just like he promised!

Men swinging hammers, and later steam drills, were used
Feb 08, 2014 528_Kristin rated it it was amazing
Summary: Ain’t Nothing but a Man is non-fiction text about the author’s search for the folk tale legend of John Henry. Nelson is a historian who has been honored in many circles for his contributions to understanding race and racism. This text is his story of finding the real John Henry and the other 40,000 African Americans who helped to build the southern US railroads. These men are rarely mentioned in history, but they played a critical role for the growth of our country. The real John Henry ...more
Mary Ann
May 15, 2012 Mary Ann rated it it was amazing
Nearly everyone has heard, at one time or another, the legend of John Henry, the “steel-drivin’ man” who “died with a hammer in his hand.” But very few know the history behind this legendary railroad worker, or even know whether John Henry was a man or a myth. To find the answer to this elusive question, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson collected and listened to hundreds of versions of the John Henry song – nearly driving his family crazy in the process. Collecting tiny clues from the songs, as w ...more
Sep 25, 2012 Felix713 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 7th-grade-shelf
I found this book very intriguing for many reasons. Firstly, I felt the clear lesson in this book was motivation. The author's quest to find the real John Henry was so strong, he just could never stop trying to find more information. For example, he says he had gone to the Virginia Library for 4 years at least once a year and had always asked to see the sacred documents that weren't open to the public and always got denied. You would think that after several times you would give up, but he didn ...more
David Gallin-Parisi
Feb 06, 2012 David Gallin-Parisi rated it it was amazing
This is a book about the identity of folk hero John Henry. There's also railroads, civil war, racism, and rocknroll. Nelson writes about his research process as a historian, making this book an educational and enlightening read. He also highlights how a librarian helped him get access to key documents when he was scouring primary sources for more info about John Henry's identity.

I would certainly recommend this book to tween readers who interested in history and folklore. More importantly, I'd
Dec 30, 2009 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: childrens-books
Even though Ain't Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry is a children's book I had a real problem putting it down. That is certainly not to say the content will fly over the head of children. Rather, the content is so stellar it will keeps kids and adults alike riveted to the pages as the author recounts his quest to find the real John Henry.

We've all heard of John Henry, most probably in a chapter sidebar in a US History textbook during our elementary years. Although John Hen
Jennifer Heise
Apr 11, 2016 Jennifer Heise rated it it was amazing
This upper-grades book allows Nelson to present his research process in uncovering the possible source of the song John Henry (Steel Drivin' Man). Nelson carefully explains how he came to be interested in the song, and how that was an offshoot of something else he was working on. Nelson describes both the hard, repetitive research and the sudden coincidences and revelations that led him through his research, along with the false starts and failed clues. Nor is he talking down to his readers, so ...more
Oct 30, 2011 Annie rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: gr. 4 & up
I thought this book was really interesting, but I'm not sure who the audience is. It's too short to "count" for older students' book reports (something I'm working on...) but the content does not seem to me to be appealing for a younger student. The book does tell the history of John Henry, which is very intriguing, but it does so through the lens of the process of historical research. The author describes his thought process and how he went about searching for information. I think this is reall ...more
Feb 29, 2008 Gabriel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oh this one tore up the household. I have no recollection if the writing was good or bad as we were far too involved in the storyline. Mr. Nelson writes of his research process for understanding the lives of the thousands of trackliners who kept the railroads straight and safe and in the process uncovers the story of the man they were singing about in keeping their hammers timed (who was pounding steel for blastholes, not lining track, but they were still very connected). Does a brilliant job of ...more
Karyn The Pirate
Mar 11, 2010 Karyn The Pirate rated it it was amazing
Author Scott Reynolds Nelson seeks to find the truth behind the folksong “John Henry”, the story of a contest between John Henry, a strong steel drivin' man, and a steam drill. Was there really a man named John Henry? Did he challenge and beat a steam drill? Nelson takes us step by step through the process that he used to answer these questions and more to find the real John Henry.
I put this book on my "must read" list. John Henry is a icon in American folklore - the symbol of man vs. the machin
Cassandra Spencer
Dec 30, 2014 Cassandra Spencer rated it it was amazing
This was an amazing book. When I first booked it up from the library, I was a little confused by the fact that it was located in the Juvenile section. However, despite where the book was filed in the library it was such a fabulous read.

As a child, I was fascinated by the Tall Tales of Americana. Combine that youthful interest with my adult interest in historical research and unexplored black history, this book was nothing less than a fascinating one hour read. So many holes were quickly filled i
Susan Menk
Tags: John Henry, research, National Geographic, Aesop Prize, folk songs, African American, historian, primary sources, songs, railroads, quest, first person narration, scavenger hunt

Scott Reynolds Nelson goes on a journey to find out if John Henry, the subject of American folklore and folk songs, was a real person. He finds primary sources to back up his findings. In the process he gives a simple, easy to follow guide in how to do research and some of the roadblocks that can be found along the
May 01, 2011 Leah rated it it was amazing
This book is phenomenal! A non-fiction account of a historian's search for the real man behind the tall tale, it's written in a suspenseful first-person account. The author collects bits of evidence for competing claims about who was the real John Henry, and pairs them with photos, drawings and lyrics from version of the song. At the end, he compiles a list of interesting resources for further inquiry as well as directions for how to be a historian. This book is compelling both in its own right ...more
Dec 06, 2009 Julie rated it it was amazing
This is a lively, well-paced adaptation of historian’s Scott Reynolds Nelson’s acclaimed "Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend." As much about the process of historical research as it is a history mystery, the first-person narrative begins as Nelson attempts to study the lives of the 40,000 men—most of them African-Americans and most of them illiterate—who laid railroad tracks in the southern United States in the nineteenth-century. Faced with a lack of official ...more
Jun 22, 2008 Lynn rated it really liked it
"I suddenly saw it, the clue that changed everything." Scott Nelson's journey to discover if John Henry was a real person makes for exciting reading in this beautifully designed book. He takes the reader step by step through the research process, from dead ends and roadblocks to the hard work and inspiration that helped him to solve the problem. Young readers get a taste of what it is really like to do historical research and along the way they will learn a lot about the time, the events and for ...more
Jun 18, 2008 Jean rated it it was amazing
In the current climate of "we want it now" and students not learning how to do research, it is wonderful to have a book like this one for both students and teachers. Nelson not only talks about the research he did, but also those wonderful mental leaps that help tie things together. The story of John Henry is not as well known as the song. Was he a real man? Nelson believed he was and through his searching, we learn a lot about building railroads and about how African-Americans were treated afte ...more
Brooke Shirts
Jun 02, 2008 Brooke Shirts rated it it was amazing
It isn't often that children's nonfiction sends chills down my spine, but this one done dood it.

The story in this book is two-fold: first, of the story behind the real John Henry -- yes, he was apparently a real person-- and second, of historian Scott Reynolds Nelson's journey to find that story. It's a real scavenger hunt: there's location scouting, dead ends, clues found in the backgrounds of old postcards, the perils of persnickety archivists, the discovery of hidden trails on a mountainside
Jan 31, 2008 Nick rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: folk music fans, history buffs
This short book, while nominally written for older children and teens, works well for adults wanting an overview on the history behind one of the most famous American folk songs. Historical research, detective work and perseverence led the author to at least a possible, believable real identity for the man in the old song, complete with specific locations for his death and burial.
The sad truth behind the song is even more powerful than the song itself...a man convicted of a crime under suspiciou
“For years I had been following a trail, and it was stone cold. I wanted to know if there was a real John Henry, the man in the song who was so strong he beat a steam drill in a contest, but then laid down his hammer and died.”

This is a short book intended for children who are interested in history. I found it at my son and daughter-in-law’s house and thought I would just glance at the story line. I got hooked and read the whole book. Nelson does a great job of drawing his readers into his searc
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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
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