Friday, March 6, 2009

Just finished reading: John Henry-Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend. I remember hearing about John Henry in grade school, and I remember hearing the song played to us by my American Studies teacher in high school, but I never realized the true story behind the legend.

Author Scott Reynolds Nelson, a professor at William and Mary has done an exhaustive amount of research to tell (as Paul Harvey often said)...the rest of the story. It is a sad story of Reconstruction, industrialization, and a rapidly changing America. Nelson contends that John Henry was a laborer at City Point (now Hopewell) Virginia at the end of the Civil War. The records list him as coming from Elizabeth City, NJ. The huge Union supply base there must have offered well paid work. The historical record also lists him being a short man, at 5'1", much different than you might imagine the legend.

In 1866 John Henry was charged for breaking and entry to a store in City Point and was sentenced under the then enforced Black Codes that were established in Southern states after the Civil War. His sentence, which was reviewed and approved by the Freedmen's Bureau, was 10 years in the Virginia State Penitentiary. He was leased out as a convict to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to serve as a laborer building a railroad from Richmond to Huntington, West Virginia on the Ohio River. If you have driven on I-64 through West Virginia you know what a task this must have been before the days of bulldozers and cranes.

John Henry apparently worked on the railroad tunnel operations for several years. Reynolds suggests that he died of lung failure due to the debris dust that built up in his lungs. Records indicate that large numbers of tunneling lease convict laborers died of lung ailments, then broadly lumped with all lung issues as "consumption." It has been rumored for years that John Henry died building the Big Bend Tunnel, buy Reynolds found no evidence of steam drilling at Big Bend. He did find evidence of steam drilling at Lewis Tunnel and he explains that is where Henry died racing a steam drill in a competition in the early 1870s.

Reynolds research is well done and the book is well written and easy to follow. My favorite part was the opening chapter where he takes the reader with him and his dog on a road trip to find Big Bend Tunnel, only to conclude that John Henry had not died there. Equally interesting is his tracing of the folk song. The tune has been appropriated by everyone from communists to blues singers. He even links the image of John Henry to comic book heroes Superman and Captain America.

The book is an excellent source for anyone interested in Reconstruction, folk music, or just plain good history. Pick it up at your local library, you won't be disappointed.

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