Guest Blogger Scott Reynolds Nelson will be speaking about his book Steel Drivin’ Man tonight at the Arts Club of Washington. His book won the Club’s first National Awards for Arts Writing. 7pm. Free.
How I got Interested in the Legend of John Henry, the Steel Drivin’ Man, and Then Found Him in the Archives: A Cautionary Tale for the Wise, the Wizened, and the Faint of Heart
“You should write something about John Henry,” Leon said. “I think he worked on one of your railroads.” For a graduate student finishing his dissertation there is no most frightening sentence from an advisor than one beginning with “you should.”
It was 1994, and I had just finished a dissertation on the Southern Railway, and my research trips to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, Virginia, and Washington, DC had caused me considerable pain already. The directors of the Southern Railway, it turned out, were a secret cabal of capitalists, swindlers, and rough men who held their meetings in a private room on Liberty Street in New York City. Their charter was dubious and they had bribed legislators to gobble up railroads throughout the South. If these men were difficult to study, their principal opponents were worse. The White Brotherhood, or Ku Klux Klan met at night, in the forests of the rural Southeast where they fumed about the new railroad and plotted the murder of black railroad workers. That story became my first book, Iron Confederacies.
Needless to say I never found the minute books of either of these secret organizations. Newspapers, senate investigations, spy reports, coded telegrams – those were my sources. If it was marked secret, or “destroy this immediately”, and it was written in the 1870s, then I had looked at it and filed it away on my computer. So Leon’s suggestion that I look at John Henry, a mythical man who died building a railroad tunnel seemed like a genuinely terrible idea.
John Henry was a song about a black railroad man, sung by black railroad men. And unlike the few letters or scraps of speeches I had found, it was a powerful story, about pain and grief, overwork and early death.
I remembered the song of John Henry, of course. I had first heard it in Sunday school. The Unitarian church was Orlando Florida’s hippie alternative church built as an open square with courtyard for the kids to run around in. Most of the grown-ups wore beads, tie-died t-shirts, and socks with sandals. The little kids, younger than ten, hung out for two hours in a kind of grown-up nursery with a little fence on the door. Each of us was issued a kazoo or a drumstick or a tambourine. After receiving our instruments, the teacher put on an album of songs for us to accompany with our instruments. If the mood hit us, we could sing. The Unitarian church was like that. If the spirit moves you, sing. If not, hey. [shrug]
The albums in the Unitarian repertoire was small. My favorite was a scratched-up album by Burl Ives with nursery and folk songs. The front cover had a grandfatherly looking man surrounded by kids. While I don’t remember much else about the church, I remember the song of John Henry. It was strong stuff for kids. “John Henry told his captain, I believe these walls are cavin’ in.” It was satisfying, too, to whack a chair or a table with a drumstick and yell at the top of your lungs about being a steel-drivin’ man. So I remembered John Henry with some reverence, and maybe a little nostalgia.
In the Burl Ives version, and in most of the longer versions, John Henry enters a drilling contest with a steam drill on the C&O road. He hammers spikes, and the steam drill drills. His ‘buddy’ holds the drill while John Henry hammers. Side by side John Henry and the steam drill push their way into the mountain, John Henry sings, his hammer rings. His captain is scared, telling him the walls are caving in. John Henry says “that’s just my hammer suckin’ wind.” By the end of the contest John Henry has gone in fourteen feet, and the steam drill has made only nine. But now John Henry is nearly dead. He asks for a “cool drink of water before I die.” When he dies they take him to the White House, bury him in the sand (or stand) and every locomotive that comes roaring by says “there lies a steel-drivin’ man.”
There are hundreds of variations to this popular song, and I
discuss many of them in my new book, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the
Untold Story of an American Legend. The song as I have told it above is
the one most frequently repeated, but that does not mean that it is the
right version. It is only the most popular one, which eased out other
versions by the end of the 1930s. Finding the “original” version of a
folk-song is often impossible because its origins usually precede the
printing of it. This is especially true of African-American folk songs,
which were not routinely printed and sold to black audiences.
There are a few tricks literary scholars use to build a family-tree of songs, such as finding old, anachronistic phrases or identifying attempts to push new songs into accepted patterns. Many folklorists have tried these tricks on the John Henry song, but they must be used carefully. Luckily for me, there are many history tricks that can help us identify what actually happened. And I had hundreds of pages of secret hearings, court testimony, prison records, all about building railroads in the South.
But now Leon had given me a new question to use those sources on. What happened on the C&O road that made for such a sad and terrible song? It turns out that “they took John Henry to the White House” was a clue. It led me to sources no one knew existed, the sources that describe convicts hammering side-by-side with steam engines and then dying by the dozens, and then by the scores. The song of John Henry, it turns out, describes one of the worst industrial disasters of the nineteenth century, a story hastily covered up by a different railroad baron, Collis Potter Huntington.
Steel Drivin’ Man suggests how I think the song originated, how it was sung, and how it changed. This is not a dissertation, not even a history book, but a story about my journey through the archives, the story of the life of the man named John Henry, and the story of the song, and how it became the most popular folk song in American history. If you want to follow the song yourself your mileage will certainly vary. I tried to bury the references in the back sections, so as not to bore the smart but interested general reader. I have already apologized to scholars, historians, and folklorists for the detective-story-structure of this book. It’s a potboiler, what can I say Leon? I’m a professor, I have tenure, I am always losing my chalk.
The response to the book has been weird and intense. It is like some little kid I sent off into the world who has now grown up and left me behind. My professional association gave it a prize for best book in U.S. social and cultural history (the Curti Prize). But when Sarah Browning called to tell me that Steel Drivin’ Man won the National Awards for Arts Writing I could only grunt sagely over the phone and then sit down very quickly. What had happened here? I listened to my advisor but wrote the breezier, nastier, novelistic book I had always wanted to write, quite against his advice. And I won a prize for the best book about the arts. So who is to blame? John Henry is dead. I think this is all Leon’s fault.