History prof unearths folk legend

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December 7, 2006

8:45 PM

College History Professor Scott Reynolds Nelson has published his book, “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend” this past October. In it he chronicles the mysterious life behind the man whose life has inspired at least 200 folk songs. Critically acclaimed from its first release, the book has been welcomed with rapid sales and glowing reviews from the likes of The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly magazine.

p. Nelson specializes in southern U.S. history and culture. He had previously studied the life of John Henry, a famed railway laborer in the mid-19th century, whose burial site had never been found.

p. In 1998, Nelson set his computer desktop wallpaper to a picture of the old Richmond, Va. state penitentiary and its adjacent railroad. Nelson, who often listens to country, bluegrass and folk music for their historical relevance, noticed a white house in the picture. He recalled that in one of the many odes to John Henry there was described a “white house.” Nelson made the connection and contacted the excavation team, which had unearthed over 200 anonymous corpses beneath the penitentiary site years before. His speculation was correct: John Henry was a lost legend no longer — his bones were finally reclaimed. Upon this discovery, Nelson unraveled the previously unknown story behind the man memorialized in many a song and entrenched in American southern culture.

p. Professor Nelson experimented with a variety of methods to conduct his research. He examined traditional historical documents such as court records, engineering letters, personal letters and company reports. Additionally, Nelson followed a trail of oral interviews and song lyrics that, when pieced together, unveiled Henry’s history.

p. Born in 1847, Henry was from New Jersey, but came to Virginia when recruited for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, Henry stayed to reside in Virginia, but as an African-American quickly realized the inefficacy of the Reconstruction. Soon thereafter he was prosecuted under the Virginia Black Codes, laws made specifically to punish African Americans, and was incarcerated at the Richmond, Va. state penitentiary. The penitentiary leased him to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as an unpaid laborer.

p. It was in his tenure as a railway laborer that Henry would earn his fame. The many convicts condemned to repairing and laying tracks would sing songs to pass the time, songs that would endure for generations to come. Nelson estimates the songs were transmitted orally for at least 40 years prior to being popularized in country music. The recurrent theme in these work tunes, normally hummed and sung to the cadence of hammering, was to slow the pace of life. Many workingmen carried the motto that if you worked too hard, you would kill yourself — quite literally.

p. Hundreds of railway workers, including Henry, were eventually killed by what they called “consumption,” a condition we now know as acute silicosis. Granulated rock and metal produced from detonating rocks to clear passage for railways would accumulate in workers’ lungs and internal organs and inevitably kill them. With Nelson’s discovery that Henry’s remains were among the hundreds of unidentified workers buried under the penitentiary, he revealed not only the history of one man but of so many like him whose fleeting lives have faded from history.

p. One of Nelson’s greatest obstacles was the organization of the book. He defied the history code of writing in the third person and chose to write Henry’s story in the first person. Nelson said that the first person tense better conveyed the investigative experience of Henry’s historical quest, making the book “more interesting, fun and accessible.” Nelson also said that he wanted to appeal to a broader audience and opted to narrate the book to make it more relatable to readers.

p. Even before the release of “Steel Drivin’ Man,” Henry’s life has permeated American historical culture and music. Long-revered in country and bluegrass music, Henry has been the subject of songs by artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Van Morrison. Nelson said he is thrilled with the surprising success of his book and considers it an examination of and tribute to the life of a man whose mystique has finally been unveiled.

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