“That’s The America I Came Home To. That’s It.”

I just finished Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Driving Man–John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend.

It’s good, but in one of those ways that nags at you.  He doesn’t address the Alabama evidence.  Instead, he just goes to the Big Bend Tunnel, discovers there weren’t men and steam drills working side by side, looks for another tunnel on that same line where the did, and then looks for who was working on that tunnel–prisoners–and finds one named John Henry.

It seems straight enough forward.

So does John Garst’s evidence

I guess I just wanted to see it addressed, especially because I come to trust Nelson’s take on things and want to believe that his take considers all the evidence.  If Garst’s evidence is shoddy, I’d like to know why.

Still, the book does a wonderful job of really getting at how rough digging these railroad tunnels was and how it could be a death sentence.

The other task the book sets out to do is to show how the legend of John Henry (and the song) have been appropriated by different groups for their own purposes.

Some of these assertions need better back up.  He comes pretty damn close to saying that Superman is just a white version of John Henry based on the fact that Superman’s creators grew up very near where a famous lithographer who made John Henry lithographs lived, so “Steel Drivin’ Man” of course equals “Man of Steel.”

I wanted him to tease that out a little more.

But his section on Sinclair Lewis (“That’s the America I came home to.”) and Carl Sandburg?

It made me start to wonder about who I consider to be my intellectual family.  I think of Walt Whitman like some eccentric uncle who doesn’t love me half as much as I love him.  And there’s Stephen King, the older cousin who should not have spent so much time in our grandma’s basement telling me scary stories.

But I wonder about Lewis and Sandburg.  Reading about Sandburg’s performances of John Henry… God, these folks are so familiar to me.  Sandburg is the kind of Midwesterner I think I was raised to be.  

I don’t think I’d ever really understood that before reading this book, as no one articulated that–but there it all is, the great deep love of America, the socialism, the feeling that the kinds of things Americans do are of value and should be shared with other Americans, the love of history and music and folklore and stories, etc.

I need to remember to ask my parents about Sandburg.

We went to his house in Galesburg, once, which I was thrilled about but remember thinking was strange.

I don’t know.  The past leaves you bits and pieces of things.  It’s hard to tell which are clues and which are not. 

14 thoughts on ““That’s The America I Came Home To. That’s It.”

  1. John, you about made me fall out of my chair! I forget that one of the pleasures of the internet is that folks who you write about can often find you writing about them. Thanks for stopping by. What a treat for me!I’ll say again that I really liked the book, but yeah, I was frustrated that he didn’t address your argument. Well, and not just your argument. I really expected some kind of overview of prevailing theories about John Henry and then an explanation of why he thinks his theory is right.Was it you who said on Mudcat that you know he’s aware of the Alabama theory? Have you guys duked it out on-line somewhere? I’d be interested to read that. Also, do you have more to say about it than just what’s on the John Henry website?http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/alabama.htmlAnyway, thanks for stopping by.

  2. IMHO, no book of this type, evidently scholarly, should fail to summarize previous work in its area and address previous conclusions. These omissions in "Steel Drivin’ Man" reflect poorly on the publisher, Oxford University Press, as well as the author. I suspect that Oxford failed to find qualified reviewers, and I fault them for that failure.Yes, I have corresponded with Scott Nelson. Yes, he has been aware of my work – he cited (without discussion) my paper, "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi" (Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, No. 5, 2002), in his 2005 article, "Who Was John Henry?" in Labor. When I e-mailed him a brief summary of my findings and ideas he replied that he thought I still had a lot of "dots to connect."My opinion of his evidence for John William Henry as the legendary steel driver (at Lewis Tunnel, Virginia) is very low. I give Virginia a 2% chance, West Virginia (Big Bend Tunnel) 1%, Alabama (Oak Mountain or Coosa Mountain Tunnel) 90%, and other (another place or not an historic figure the remainder (7%)You can find some of the arguments against John W. Henry athttp://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=50747andhttp://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=45408I hope to have an op-ed column on this subject published in the next month or so at History News Network.http://hnn.us/

  3. "IMHO, no book of this type, evidently scholarly, should fail to summarize previous work in its area and address previous conclusions."The problem is compounded once the published reviews start coming out, if a reviewer happens to be unfamiliar with the neglected scholarship. As is the case, for instance, with the review of Steel Driving Man in the new No Depression.

  4. nm pointed out that books may get reviewed by people who are not familiar with "neglected scholarship."Certainly, and I suspect that a book by a history professor is more likely to be reviewed by an historian than by a ballad scholar.

  5. Aw, damn it, NM, now I’m going to have to be sure to get my hands on a copy of No Depression just to see what’s going on in there.I’m not in a position to badmouth Oxford, obviously. They make some strange decisions, but they sell books, so I suppose they know what they’re doing.But there’s certainly a way in which the book has been deliberately shaped to be a trade book, and that can lead to a certain kind of story arc that depends on one lone adventurer climbing a mountain, not a bunch of guys arguing over minutia on the internet.John, I’ll be looking forward to your opinion piece and to a book, should you ever write one. It may be that you haven’t connected all of your dots, but it certainly seems like you have a lot more dots to connect.

  6. Of course, for the popular press books will be reviewed by professional reviewers. In the case of a scholarly book, or perhaps any other nonfiction, a reviewer is not likely to have much expertise in the subject.

  7. Isn’t that the truth?Still, I have to say that the thing I find most compelling about your evidence is that you find a John with a wife. Of all the things that troubled me about things Nelson left undiscussed, his John Henry has no wife.I’m no musicologist, obviously, but it seems that the arrival of his wife and her picking up the hammer and driving steel like a man is one central part of the song.I don’t care what the wife’s name is as much as I care that she exists and that also fits the song.That seems crucial to me. If a John Henry in prison far from home was the subject of the song, even if he had a wife, wouldn’t he long to see her before he died? You know? There’d be some sense of that separation, to really add to how sad the song is.

  8. Of course, there’s also a strong possibility that John Henry the figure in the song wasn’t really called John Henry, either. "John Henry" sings well, as a name, and might well have been substituted for something that didn’t scan or whatever. A parallel being "Frankie and Johnny," which we know was based on a real incident in which a woman named Frankie shot a man named Albert. There was even a "Frankie and Albert" song about it all, but Albert just isn’t a good name to sing, so it wasn’t until someone had the guts to mess with the facts that the version we know took off. It could be the same with John Henry.

  9. This is why John Garst needs a book! I think his argument is that the guy he found is not John Henry but John Henbry… I’m probably getting that wrong.Anyway, I’m putting that on my wishlist–John Garst’s John Henry book.

  10. There is certainly a possibility that "John Henry" was not the name of the legendary steel driver. In my paper, I noted that "John Dabney" and "Captain Dabney" might not last long in tradition.One version of the ballad states John Henry’s cap’n Tommy,- V’ginny gave him birth; Loved John Henry like his only son, And Cap’n Tommy was the whitest man on earth.I see "Tommy" as a plausible mutation of "Dabney."It is true that Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was born in Virgnia. He moved to Mississippi before he was a year old and grew up in Raymond, where his father was a lawyer and judge.It is plausible that Captain Dabney "loved John Henry like his only son." This branch of the Dabney family was noted for their (relative) kindness to slaves. Indeed, the reason that Captain Dabney’s uncle moved from Virginia to Mississippi is said to have been to be able to provide better for his slaves. He did not want to have to break up families by selling some but his slave population had grown too large to be supported on his Virginia property."John Henry," conceivably, could be a mutation of "John Dabney." One African-American family of Leeds, Alabama, whose ancestor was a mucker who worked on the 1887-88 extension of the Columbus & Western, preserves an oral history of a steel driver named "John" who won all the contests. Their memory does not preserve any other name, and they had never associated him with the legendary steel driver until they were approached in 2002 and asked if their family had any stories about John Henry.Even so, it seems likely that "John Henry" is the correct name. C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eyewitness whose testimony "drips with authenticity" (phrase borrowed from G. Legman), said that his name was "John Henry Dabner" but that "we called him John Henry." F. P. Barker, an old steel driver, contemporary with John Henry in place and time, who claimed to have known him and who called him the "champion of the world with a hammer," also knew him as "John Henry." So did Glendora Cannon Cummings, who said that her uncle "was working by John Henry and saw him when he beat the steam drill and fell dead" in 1887 at Oak Mountain, Alabama. In the oral tradition around Leeds, he is "John Henry" and he and his "Captain" were both from Mississippi.Captain Dabney’s father owned a slave named "Henry" who was a teenager during the Civil War. This may be the "Henry Dabney/Dabner" who was farming in Copiah County in 1870/1880, and he may be the "John Henry Dabner" named by Spencer. The "Henry Dabney" of the census married Margaret Foston (Boston? Poston?) in late 1869. He was 20 years old when the census was taken in 1870 (and 30, as "Henry Dabner," in 1880), so he was born 1849/50 and would have been 37/38 years old in 1887, when John Henry Dabney is said to have died after beating the steam drill. Captain Dabney was about 16 years older than John Henry and had probably known him from birth.A young man I know just died of a heart attack at age 43. With a typical black laborer’s diet in the mid-19th century, I can easily imagine that John Henry’s arteries could have been in bad condition and that he could have had a heart attack at age 37/38. Spencer’s description of his death conforms to bleeding out from ventricular rupture, which can follow a heart attack.

  11. On "Frankie":In his "Frankie" essay in the book, "The Rose & the Briar" (edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus, Norton, 2005), Cecil Brown states that Frankie’s lover’s name was Albert Britt. He provides no evidence but I think I know where he got this piece of almost certain misinformation, from transcriptions of interviews with Frankie that are given in John Russell David’s dissertation, "Tragedy in Ragtime." There Frankie sometimes refers to him as "Albert."His real name was Allen Britt. Frankie says that they called him "Al" or "Al Britt." "Al Britt" would instantly become "Albert" in tradition. Similarly "Al Britt" may have been what Frankie said in the interviews that transcribed it as "Albert." Alternatively, she was humoring the ballad by calling him "Albert."Whatever, his name was not "Albert." It was "Allen."

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