Wednesday, May 02, 2007

John Henry Was A Steel-Drivin' Man

I've already written about John Hardy this year, so it's only fair to mention a new book about the similarly-named West Virginia ballad character, John Henry. A Washington Post article Tale of Folk Hero Wins New Award For Arts Writing by Bob Thompson (Washington Post Staff Writer) April 26, 2007 alerted me to its existence, and I hope interlibrary loan can track it down for me.

When Scott Reynolds Nelson set out to write "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend," he couldn't have dreamed his book would win the National Award for Arts Writing. For one thing, the award hadn't been invented yet....

The National Award for Arts Writing is the newly hatched brainchild of the Arts Club of Washington, which will present it to Nelson at a dinner next month....The two other finalists were Ross King for "The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism" and Julie Phillips for "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," a biography of the pseudonymous science fiction pioneer. The judges were poet Rita Dove and novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Cheuse....

While researching his previous book [Nelson] stumbled onto reports from the board of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond that told, he writes, "a terrible story about railroad work." In the early 1870s, black convicts were leased to the C&O Railroad, which was running a line across the Alleghenies. Many died doing tunneling and other work for the C&O.

Later, Nelson got interested in African American work songs and was drawn to the ballad of John Henry and his fatal contest with a steam drill. One day he ran across an old photograph of the Richmond penitentiary that showed "a large white building in the center." He found himself suddenly putting two disparate bits of information together: a conversation he'd had with an archivist about nearly 300 skeletons discovered near the penitentiary buildings, and a stanza from one version of the song:

They took John Henry to the white house,
And buried him in the san'
And every locomotive come roarin' by,
Says there lays that steel drivin' man . . .

Hypothesizing that the building in the photograph was the "white house" in question, Nelson checked penitentiary records and found a "John Wm. Henry" who'd been sent to work on the C&O. More research supported--though it cannot prove--his belief that he'd found a legend's origin.

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