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Steel Drivin’ Man: An Excerpt

It’s not everyday that the true history behind a folk icon is discovered. Scott Reynolds Nelson has done just that in Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry The Untold Story of an American Legend. By using census data, penitentiary reports and railroad company reports Nelson follows the trail of John Henry from jail to the legendary contest with a steam drill. Below we have excerpted the beginning of chapter one.

The story grew among black day laborers, men who laid track, drilled steel, and drove mules for the railroads in the days before gasoline. John Henry, they said, was the strongest man there was. And from his first days on the line he knew that his hammer would kill him. As a young man, John Henry drove steel on the tunnels of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, striking a hand drill all day with his nine-pound hammer. John Henry sang while he hammered, his partner swapping out chisels as they dulled from the blows.

Ain’t no hammer


Ain’t no hammer

In these mountains

In these mountains

Rings like mine

One day, as the work progressed, an engineer brought a steam-powered drill out to the site. The workmen at the tunnel resented it immediately, but John Henry boasted that no man or machine could beat him at his task.

Before I let that steam drill beat me down

I’ll die with this hammer in my hand

I’ll die with this hammer in my hand

Thus began their contest, man and machine, side by side, in a race to the bottom. John Henry took the right-hand side, with the steam drill on the left.

By sundown John Henry had drilled fourteen feet; the steam drill had only made nine. Then, just as John Henry finished his work, he collapsed.

blood am runnin’ red!

Falls right down with his hammah to th’ groun’,

Says, “I’ve beat him to th’ bottom but I’m dead, –

Lawd, – Lawd, –

I’ve beat him to th’ bottom but I’m dead.”

He knew the end was coming, and, like Samson, he asked for a cool drink of water before he died. According to legend, “they took John Henry to the white house and buried him in the sand,” and forever after steam engines paid their respects as they passed.

Every locomotive comes roarin’ by

says yonder lies a steel-drivin’ man.

There are almost two hundred recorded versions of the ballad of John Henry. It was among the first of the songs that came to be called “the blues” and was one of the first recorded “country” songs. Folklorists at the Library of Congress call it the most researched folk song in the United States, and perhaps the world.

Particularly among African American men and women, John Henry is an icon. In Philadelphia, men ask one another, “How’s your hammer hangin’?” Cardiologists have coined the term “John Henry syndrome” to describe black men’s propensity for hypertension and heart attack. In the schoolrooms of working-class Cleveland and rural West Virginia, teachers recite his exploits to inspire black boys and girls to think about their own history. For more than a century, most historians and folklorists have assumed that John Henry was just a legend, a story designed to inspire pride, an invention. When I began my research, I too started out looking for a legend, but in the end I found a real man. I discovered how John Henry came to be a steel-driver on the C&O, how he lived, and where he was buried. But how he died remained a mystery, and I set out to uncover the truth behind one of America’s most powerful legends.

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