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Steel Drivin' Man

The ballad "John Henry" is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry--the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill--is a towering figure in our culture. In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott recounts the true story of the man behind the iconic American hero, telling the poignant tale of a young Virginia convict who died working on one of the most dangerous enterprises of the time, the first rail route through the Appalachian Mountains. Using census data, penitentiary reports, and railroad company reports, Scott reveals how John Henry, victimized by Virginia's notorious Black Codes, was shipped to the infamous Richmond Penitentiary to become prisoner number 497, and was forced to labor on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the C&O railroad. Equally important, he captures the life of the ballad of John Henry, tracing the song's evolution from the first printed score by blues legend W. C. Handy, to Carl Sandburg's use of the ballad to become the first "folk singer," to the upbeat version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Steel Drivin' Man offers a portrait of a beloved folk song--and a true American legend.


Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Literary Award
Winner of the National Award for Arts Writing
Winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the OAH's Merle Curti Prize for Social and Cultural History
Finalist for the Virginia People's Choice Award


"Written at the crossroads where American myth and reality intersect, Steel Drivin' Man is a tribute and requiem to the real steel drivin' men who built this country." -- Bruce Springsteen

"It is thrilling to follow the exegesis of the 'John Henry' lyrics through to the discovery of John Henry's identity. Many disciplines are necessarily examined in the course of this detective tale: history of course, but also geology, forestry, engineering, anthropology, anatomy, sociology, law, music, literature, poetry, art and popular culture. Yet Mr. Nelson stirs the brew with the effortless touch of a master chef, deftly adding ingredients at just the right temperature (a dash here, a sprinkle there) to seve up a most enticing gumbo." - National Awards for Arts Writing Committee: Alan Cheuse, Professor of English, George Mason University; Rita Dove, Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Joyce Carol Oates, Professor of English, Princeton University.

"A remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story....It's the story of fatal racism in the postbellum South. And it's the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest."-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Over the last century, the legend of macho steelworker John Henry with his ''two twenty pound hammers'' has been appropriated by chain gangs, Communist radicals, and Johnny Cash. The real Henry, usually envisioned as a bulky strongman, was in fact a 5' 1'' convict from Elizabeth, N.J., as Scott Reynolds Nelson shows in his slim, meticulously researched[book]. He sifts through prison records, railroad progress reports, and census data--as well as songs and art--to create a multilayered portrait of a poor teen, his tragic run-ins with racist Black Codes laws (and his likely wrongful conviction), and his unexpected journey to iconhood."--Michelle Kung, Entertainment Weekly

"What Mr. Nelson proves is the undying power of the John Henry myth, which reduces almost to a pinpoint the historical figure he resurrects from the archives...He is a fascinating guide to the world of Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction."--William Grimes, New York Times

"...readers will find his imaginative reconstruction of the John Henry story a profound and welcome acknowledgement of the unrecognized labors that went into building this country..."--Alex Lichtenstein, Houston Chronicle

"...fleshes out the real John Henry and shines a bright light, for the first time, on the building of railroads in the 1870s and on the men who built them."--Andy Petkofsky, Richmond Times-Dispatch

"...his deft detective work, in effect, serves as a search warrant, authorizing him, as he traces the evolution of the song, to drill deep down into the scorched earth of the South in the years after the Civil War to lay bare the lives of African Americans under the notorious Black Codes."--Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer

"an original, compelling, sometimes speculative but always fascinating biography...Nelson's accomplishment lies in eloquently breathing life into an iconic figure and elegantly re-creating his lost world in a mode that is respectful, moving and entertaining."--Eric Arnesen, Chicago Tribune

"Nelson's incandescent story of John Henry...begins trailing the legend, winding it back to the world of work that birthed it, the hammer songs leading him to "John Henry." In the process, he shows the realities of life for the largest industrial workforce in the postwar South: the 40,000 black men in railroad gangs, their work processes and cocaine-aided pain relief, their itinerancy and night-time diversions in mess tents and bunkhouses, where the ring of the hammer or the huh of the track-line transmuted into the backbeats and caesuras of what would become the blues."-- JoAnn Wypijewski, The Progressive

"Nelson is a magnificent writer, and he tells a story as great and terrible as any... Steel Drivin' Man is a rarity among history books in that it is a concise one. It's like John Henry: It's short, and it does its job well."--David Kirby, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Aimed at a general readership, the book tells a nifty historical detective story...a tale that combines highly specialized historical knowledge, needle-in-a-haystack archival work, and a first-person narration that historians rarely dare to use." --Jennifer Howard, Chronicle of Higher Education

"This superb book will satisfy those seeking a compact history of post-Civil War race 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..."-- Michael Cala, Sing Out Magazine