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

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Oxford University Press, Sep 28, 2006 - Biography & Autobiography - 224 pages
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. Attractively illustrated with numerous images, Steel Drivin' Man offers a marvelous portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - GregMiller - LibraryThing

Nelson explores the connections between mythology and history, and spinkes in a bit of historical methodology as well--and makes the whole thing fun to read. He demonstrates what a lot of persistence ... Read full review

Steel drivin' man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

The legend and folk ballad of John Henry and his titanic competition against a steam-powered drill in blasting a railroad tunnel is well known. Nelson (history, Coll. of William and Mary;Iron ... Read full review


1 The Search for John Henry
2 To the White House
3 Wisemans Grocery
4 WardWell
5 Man Versus Mountain
6 The Southern Railway Octopus
8 Communist Strongman

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About the author (2006)

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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