- The Elusive Search for the Real John Henry
The ballad of John Henry, the story of the larger-than-life muscle-bound African-American worker who won a contest with the new mechanical steam drill, but who tragically died after the feat, has captured the hearts and minds of folklorists, musicians and musicologists, historians, and amateur enthusiasts for decades. Deciphering the meaning of the song and debating whether this was a derivative legend or a real man has consumed the energy of untold numbers of scholars, amateur detectives, and southern tourism promoters.
Beginning in the 1920s, when folklorists started collecting the many versions of the song as well as oral testimonies about the legend, the debate has continued. The elusive search for John Henry has been compounded by the lack of sources from the period and a confusing record of oral testimony. Most of those who have researched the story have sought to connect the song to the lived experience of African-American tunnel builders, to discover the real beneath the mythic. But none of them have had the knowledge and insight into southern railroad workers and the corporations that transformed the South that Nelson possesses, and this intimate knowledge makes Nelson's book special. He renders the tragedy of the real tunnel builders whose world is not adequately captured and is even distorted by the ballad and legend. Nelson brings a trained eye and ear for evidence about that context and allows us to follow the paths that thousands of workers trod in that period.
Nelson is sure that he has found the real John Henry. The figure he presents bears only a distant relationship to the ballad legend. Nelson's John Henry was from New Jersey, was very short, very young, and very unfree. John Henry is unveiled as part of the "hidden history" of the convict labor force that helped to build the South's infrastructure in the late nineteenth century. Rather than contesting the power of the machine, the original "real story," Nelson argues, was rooted in the prospect of death as a predictable outcome in a brutal labor system that was racist to the core. He finds a John Henry story that adds more collective action and resistance to the upbeat ballad narrative, an element that [End Page 399] is sure to please those labor historians who have felt the ballad is sometimes out of step with much of what we know about railroad workers' relationship to their bosses. Nelson's Henry topples the Bunyanesque, individualistic, macho Henry, replacing him with a memory of a short abused laborer whose song originated in a tale of power and death in a tunnel. The real John Henry, he assures his readers, would join his fellow workers in instructing us all to "slow down."
Nelson allows us literally to drive with him on his journey of discovery, taking the reader along with a first-person narrative. We learn about the transformation of the South's landscape, politics, and economy by the railroads in the late nineteenth century as it is woven into Nelson's narrative of a trip with his dog in his wife's Ford Escort through forgotten towns. Readers learn about the craft and abuses of history (he is targeting a popular audience) and the intricacies of archival work in relationship to Nelson's penchant for dumpster diving and junk-road scavenging and his work on a documentary that covered up the true history of railroad workers past. We experience Nelson's epiphany when serendipity and a trained eye led him to recognize that an old postcard he found on the Internet held the key to the real John Henry. Nelson uses a self-effacing "aw-shucks" approach that tips his hat to Carl Sandburg, who he credits with elevating the ballad and helping to inaugurate folk music in the white intellectual community. Nelson expresses concern that academic historians will reject the book because of this use of the first person. But...