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.