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Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henryby Scott Nelson
Synopses & Reviews
Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.
Nelsons narrative is multilayered, interweaving the story of the building of the railroads, the period of Reconstruction, folk tales, American mythology, and an exploration of the tradition of work songs and their evolution into blues and rock and roll. This is also the story of the authors search for the flesh-and-blood man who became an American folk hero; Nelson gives a first-person account of how the historian works, showing history as a process of discovery. Readers rediscover an African-American folk hero. We meet John Henry, the man who worked for the railroad, driving steel spikes. When the railroad threatens to replace workers with a steam-powered hammer, John Henry bets that he can drive the beams into the ground faster than the machine. He wins the contest, but dies in the effort.
Nelsons vibrant text, combined with archival images, brings a new perspective and focus to the life and times of this American legend.
"Nelson (Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend) offers a highly accessible version of his research into whether or not the John Henry of folksong fame was a real person. Piecing together a panoply of facts and personal anecdotes that go back to his boyhood, the author models the study of history as an active and passionate pursuit: 'For years I had been following a trail, and it was stone cold.... And then... I suddenly saw it, the clue that changed everything.' This cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter draws readers into Nelson's journey through the song lyrics, old prison documents, maps, photographs and other primary and secondary sources. From 'trackliners' (workers, often African-American, who aligned rails) to steam drills to Civil War history, the first-person narrative follows Nelson as he plays detective. Seemingly diverse information presented in each of nine chapters becomes knit together by the conclusion, and visually unified by an aesthetically pleasingly layout that features a reddish brick palette with tinted photos and prints. One graphic — and telling — photo reveals the remains of two African-African men discovered on the grounds of a Virginia prison: John Henry, posits the author, was part of a huge prisoner work force hired out to tunnel through mountains for the railroad companies. Convincing and dramatic, this volume makes a good case that history is a living science. Ages 10-14." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
Author and historian Scott Reynolds Nelson is the Legum Professor of History at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. His previous book on John Henry, Steel Drivin Man, was awarded the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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