W&M News: How did you “find” the real John Henry?
Nelson: John Henry is the most researched folk hero around. I came about my study in a completely different way than most researchers: I wasn’t so interested in the song. I had heard it, but the descriptions of John Henry being this black man who was, in the 1870s, a highly paid worker who was renowned throughout the South and who could earn any amount of money struck me as odd. I knew a whole lot about black railroad workers in the South, and it didn’t fit with anything I knew. It’s not that black railroad workers’ lives were terrible—they weren’t awful, but these men were not highly paid, highly respected people.
The social history sort of told me that there was something wrong with these accounts. So, I was looking at the song and thinking about how to parse it and analyze it. I had that picture of the Virginia penitentiary as my background screen on my computer because I was working on hammer songs. It’s mostly prisoners who have these hammer songs. These songs are sung to hammer blows. I was looking through the song and the last lyric: “They took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand, and every locomotive comes roarin by says there lies a steel drivin’ man.” The standard account of that, when scholars looked at it, was “well, isn’t it funny that he was brought to the White House, where there isn’t any railroad and there is no sand.” Actually, the term "White House" wasn’t used for the executive office until Teddy Roosevelt was president in 1901, so there wasn’t the White House. I’m looking at the penitentiary on my computer screen, and there is a white house, there is a railroad running by and there is sand all around. Suddenly—well, it was one of those moments … .
W&M News: Why did other historians fail?
Nelson: When you start with the penitentiary, instead of starting with the Big Bend Tunnel, everything sort of comes together. You find someone named John Henry; you find that all these convicts had been shipped up to do construction for the railroad; you find steam drills side by side with these convicts and you find that the tunnel they worked on primarily was the Lewis Tunnel. It was because I started searching the names of the contractors—of the C&O officials who were working on the line—that I found all of those things that everyone said were missing. People had said that you can never know what happened on the C&O railroad because all of the engineering records were destroyed in a fire. I found that the papers of the contractors were available at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. They describe construction of the C&O railroad tunnels. Taken together, they are the smoking gun.
W&M News: You talk in terms of “murder” and “smoking guns.” Why?
Nelson: It’s a grim story. You think it is a grim story to begin with—you have a man challenging a steam drill to a race and then dying. The real story is uglier. The C&O railroad wants to get these tunnels dug; it has to get these tunnels dug by 1872 if it is to be granted the rights to the whole run from Richmond to the Ohio River. So, they buy up all of these convicts; they buy up the steam drills.
John Henry doesn’t really challenge the steam drills. He, and everybody else, is forced to work on these tunnels, and the terrible tragedy here is that nearly everyone who was forced to work on these tunnels died in the space of five or six years, not from exertion but from acute silicosis—they actually inhaled all of this crystalline dust from the rock. The Appalachian Mountains are, of course, the oldest mountains in the world, and this crystalline rock comes right up to the surface. That stuff, when hit by steam drills, produces this powdery stuff—it’s like drilling into concrete. Everyone who drills into concrete knows you have to wet down the drill. They didn’t during the tunneling, so the workers sucked this stuff down into their lungs. It killed everybody.
The tunnel is still there. When you go to the Big Bend Tunnel, you can see that it wasn’t a particularly difficult tunnel to dig. The rock is not that hard. When you go to the Lewis Tunnel, you can see why it was a gut-busting project.
W&M News: Why do you refer to the song in terms of rock ’n’ roll?
Nelson: The term rock ’n’ roll is, of course, a sexual term. It’s also a mining term. That is how these tunnels got built. The person who was the shaker—the person who held the drill—rocked it from side to side and twisted it in order to get it to bite better. That is why a two-man team was better than a steam drill. The two-man team could rock ’n’ roll. So you hear these hammer songs. They have lyrics such as “rock buddy rock, roll buddy roll, you roll like a man never rolled before.” These were instructions by the hammer man to the shaker about where to move that drill around. You were making a mouse-sized hole about 14 inches deep so you could place a dynamite charge in it. The reason the songs were sung so slowly is that it was an attempt to get the workers to slow down. If you work too hard, you’re going to kill yourself.
W&M News: How did the song evolve to so thoroughly capture the American imagination?
Nelson: Originally, of course, it is a work song. Originally it is a song about murder but gradually a song about grit—John Henry is the pinnacle of masculine achievement. Railroads in the 1970s were kind of like the NASA of recent decades. Then it becomes a blues song for workers—the “John Henry Blues.” At that point, you’re beginning to see the start of the Great Migration, first by black people who are day laborers who move up to places like New York and Chicago. When World War I curtails immigration to the United States, the factories up north that relied on immigrant workers couldn’t get them. They started recruiting black workers from the South to fill industrial jobs. So, it became a song about the South left behind—a terrible past but a cherished past.
One of the first people who heard it was Carl Sandburg, who really is the first folk singer. Sandburg gives poetry readings. He would give a lecture, and then he’d say, “If you don’t mind, I want to sing you a few songs,” so he pulls out a guitar on the podium. He’s a great master of voices—he would have a different voice for each of these songs—but he is a terrible singer. He is just awful, but he’s got this unique intonation. This fascinates people; people like Charles Seeger.
Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first country singer, grows up entirely surrounded by black people. He’s a waterboy for black workers in his early teens. He worked in a picking room of a textile mill. The second song that he records is "John Henry." He’s singing to a different sort of people. Sandburg is singing to a literate audience around poetry. John Carson is singing to people who have left the country to work in the cities. The biggest market for country music is not in the country; the biggest market by far is people who have left the country, such as the textile-mill workers. The song becomes a huge hit. I think a lot of these workers understand the process of fighting the machine. To compete with other mills, these workers are involved in the “stretch out,” in which they’re speeding up the production process to keep up with all of the other mills. They’re making workers work more and more looms. It leads to all kinds of nasty strikes. Ironically, the milling process produces this byproduct that people inhale, and it kills them the same way that John Henry was killed.
Eventually the Communist Party takes it up. Charles Seeger is responsible. John Henry is a transforming song for Seeger. He sees it as about fighting against the capitalist machine. John Henry becomes this kind of icon. It was used to organize black workers. John Henry becomes this sort of poster boy who becomes the true American hero who fights against capital and ultimately is destroyed.
Then in the ’40s, John Henry goes to work for the U.S. government. The song is broadcast in Europe to U.S. troops and to the resistance fighters as a symbol. In effect, it says, Germany and Japan are the nations that hate other races. America is united. Blacks and whites work together. Italians and Asians all live together. To prove it, here is a song about the black working class.