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March 2018 Book Review – Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (#nonfiction)

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Hello my lovely readers! Notice how that says book review and not books reviews? Well that’s because I somehow managed to only finish one book in the entire month of March. :-O

I know the reason for this. It’s because my print book I was reading was a real chunkster. So while I read religiously throughout the month, I just didn’t quite finish the print book within the month of March. But I’m actually ok with this book getting to take center stage, because it’s a cool one.

John Henry is an American folk song that I thought was famous until I was reading this book and had to keep explaining it to people. (I couldn’t find the version I grew up listening to on YouTube but here it is on Spotify – John Henry as sung by Wee Sing on the album America). Essentially the lyrics tell the story of John Henry, a black man who worked on the railroad and beat the steam drill at going through a mountain but died doing so. There are many different versions of the lyrics, but this is the closest to the version I grew up listening to. What’s the point of singing this song to and with children? Well, that depends on who you ask and what version you sang. The gospel version focuses on John Henry’s rewards in Heaven. The blues version focuses on the unfairness of the job and the fear (warranted or not) of machines replacing blue collar labor.

(I did find it comforting that the book indicates that this is an extremely popular folk song in the United States – with the librarians at the Library of Congress telling the author it’s the most researched folk song in the US.)

In Steel Drivin Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson seeks to find the origins of this folk tale and see if there was a real man behind it. Fascinatingly, he successfully found who most likely was the real John Henry. Perhaps not surprisingly, John Henry was a free black man who in the immediately post Civil War era (Reconstruction) Virgina was arrested on what may have been fair charges of shoplifting (no one can really say if a crime actually occurred or not) that was then escalated to a higher charge (most likely falsely). In spite of the North attempts at forcing the South to treat black men and women equally to white, some districts in the South pulled off the Jim Crow laws, which led to unequal punishment for equal crimes, which meant John Henry got put away in prison for a very long time for a very small crime. Unfortunately for him, this was about the time that people got it into their heads that they could use prison labor in the form of chain gangs much like they used to use slave labor. John Henry was sent out to work on the railroad and died there, as working on the railroad was essentially a death sentence.

Some prisoners escaped, and some were killed by guards for what the railroad labeled “mutiny,” but the remainder entered tunnels where tiny bits of microscopic rock floated in the air, entered their lungs, and over a period of six months to three years, strangled them. These prisoners died gasping for air. (location 34%)

I for one after reading that passage couldn’t help but think of Eric Garner and was saddened by how little some things have changed.

Many American folk songs, including this one, were actually originally work songs. I learned through this book that rock and roll refers to these work songs, as the two man crew who drilled had one man to shake the stake and another to hit it, which was called rocking and rolling. Songs were sung to a particular beat both to pass the time and to help ensure no one’s fingers got smashed.

The original blues version of John Henry as opposed to praising his work ethic actually was memorializing his strength and the unfair situation. His status as a prisoner wasn’t so much rewritten as not mentioned (because it didn’t matter), and his strength of character was symbolized by being a man of large stature, even though the real John Henry was actually quite short (under 5’4″). The gospel version focuses more on his strong Protestant work ethic and the rewards he’ll see in Heaven.

The author speaks some about the song and the groups that attached themselves to it over time. I found it interesting that Communist groups in America liked it because of its demonstration of an unfair use of labor. Also interesting was that he found that schools in historically black neighborhoods would devote entire music classes to the song and its history. He also traces John Henry in everything from comic books to Disney shows. I admit that I found the beginning of the book about the real John Henry and the early versions of the song to be the most interesting.

I would have given this book 5 stars but the ending let me down, particularly when the author postulates what message John Henry’s bones might tell us, and I thought that message was very far off the mark, speaking about working less when in fact John Henry was mistreated due to racism, not out of any workaholicism of his own!

Overall, though, I’m not sad this was the only book I read in the month of March. I learned so much, and I really did enjoy it.
(4 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(source: Amazon)

My total for the month of March 2018:

  • 1 book
    • 0 fiction; 1 nonfiction
    • 0 female authors; 1 male author
    • 1 ebooks; 0 print books; 0 audiobooks
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