Since his death in 1873 at age 26, the musical idea of the indomitable steelworker John Henry has inspired our imaginations. Labor unions, miners and railroad workers, especially, have taken him as their Everyman. As such, the man who “whupped” a steam drill has become synonymous with triumphant human spirit.
The results of our fascination with this legendary figure may be seen in the hypermuscular, larger-than-life Depression-era frescoes that portray him. Musically, there are at least 200 recordings of the ballad of the man who “died with a hammer in his hand.” There isn’t a folk performer who hasn’t sung the song or a southeastern state that hasn’t claimed him.
But who was John Henry? Before publication of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, speculation was that John Henry was an amalgam of archetypes, or maybe a real man who had died in Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi -- even the Caribbean.
Scott Nelson’s painstaking research and unimpeachable primary sources now give us a more definitive view. The facts are these: John Henry was 19 when sentenced to 10 years in Virginia Penitentiary. Along with other convicts, his labor was leased to the C&O Railroad at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, where he became a driller. One day, a boss brought in a steam drill to run alongside the convicts’ manual labor. All but John Henry balked. He swore no machine could beat a man as he raced the machine. Before the contest was over, he had drilled 13 feet, the steam drill just nine. Moments later, he collapsed and died. His last request was for a cool glass of water.
In telling this complex tale of a doomed convict, Nelson also draws a disturbing portrait of an agrarian America driving relentlessly toward industrialization. To Americans, progress meant higher living standards; to the railroad barons, it meant pushing their empires relentlessly westward.
In that headlong push, basic humanity suffered. Cruelty to convicts was considerable. Nelson records that nearly all of the convicts working on the tunnels died from exhaustion, lung disease and other illnesses related to inhalation, overwork, and malnutrition.
The real John Henry was not a hulking specimen, according to prison logs. He was a 5' 1'' teenager from Elizabeth, New Jersey when he migrated to Prince George County, Virginia, in the months following the end of the Civil War.
By sifting assiduously through prison records, railroad progress reports, census data, newspapers and other original documents, Nelson paints a portrait of a poor young black man imprisoned – most likely, wrongly – for petty theft under the harsh “Black Codes” that imposed severe penalties on blacks as a way of curtaining their freedoms after the Civil War.
Nelson makes it clear that the ballad of John Henry was sung by the convicts not as a heroic tale but as a warning: This work will kill you. The author notes that early versions of the song were more dirge-like than celebratory.
Despite the considerable research, this book reads like something between autobiography and murder mystery. In addition to tracking down the song and its many singers and specifics on Henry’s life and death, Nelson introduces us to 19th century commerce, to the failure of Reconstruction, the inefficacy of Freedmen’s Bureaus, and greedy barons like C. P. Huntington of the C&O Railroad.
A couple of heroes emerge, however, like Burnham Wardwell, the prison warden who initially believed he was performing a service by getting convicts to work on the railroads instead of languishing in jail. He later reversed himself when he realized the inhumanity of that system and its fatal results.
This superb book will satisfy those seeking a compact history of post-Civil War politics, commerce, labor and race relations, as well as scholars, poets and singers who want to read for themselves the terrible tale of a now-legendary figure who met death in Pyrrhic victory in what Nelson calls “a tale of the terrible betrayals of the postwar South.” Michael Cala
Originally published in Sing Out!
Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend
Author: Scott Reynolds Nelson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: September 28, 2006 (224 pages; hardcover)