Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story Of An American Legend
If Scott Nelson’s fascinating assemblage of research and folklore is correct, John Henry was a free black man from Elizabeth City, New Jersey, who stood 5-foot-1-and-a-quarter-inches tall and ran afoul of the complicated racial and economic politics of Reconstruction-era Richmond, Virginia, before succumbing to the effects of forced railroad labor.
It diminishes none of the book’s pleasures to give away its core discovery, for Nelson is an able storyteller, and the finding of John Henry opens up any number of tales to the telling. Beginning (and this seems unintentionally appropriate given the U.S. role in Iraq) with the mystery of woe and misbehavior that characterizes the reconstruction of the American south after the Civil War. So many opportunities lost all at once.
Almost every classic narrative involves plot points too painful to read (why, Odysseus?), and only lately have I come to grasp how completely an exhausted and still adolescent country mishandled Reconstruction, how much Lincoln’s leadership was missed, and how many profited and lost during those turbulent years.
And so John Henry’s story is also the story of the robber barons who built railroads (and, in John Henry’s case, railroad tunnels) with slave labor and at public expense; it is the story of racial hatreds; it is the story of emerging technologies; and it is the story of how one particular song came to be used, and reused.
Even the footnotes offer fascinating glimpses. “Rock and roll,” for example, appears to enter the language as a descriptive of the actions of the two-man drilling teams who chipped rock holes for explosives. Sprint is an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad International, one of several railroad companies that laid telephone cable on disused right-of-ways.
Concluding chapters follow the song from 1900 through its co-option by the labor movement and the Communist Party, from its inception as a work song through its evolution into folk tale. Key actors include poet Carl Sandburg, muralist Thomas Hart Benton, and song collector Alan Lomax. And, in another fascinating sidebar, the Henry mythology works all the way through to the artwork of legendary comic book master Jack Kirby.
All that said, one quibble remains: Professor Nelson has found a man named John Henry who worked and died in the right time and place to have given birth to one of the most recorded folk songs of all time. But I do not easily yield the image of John Henry as a large and powerfully built man, and note that some thousands of men worked and died building those railroads. Surely his was not an uncommon name. So little is known about all those men that it seems almost unfair to ask…but how did this man, a few inches shy of Spud Webb’s height, come to be the stuff of legend?