According to the ballad that made him famous, John Henry did battle with a steam-powered drill, beat the machine, and died. Folklorists have long thought John Henry to be mythical, but historian Scott Nelson has discovered that he was a real person—a nineteen-year-old from New Jersey who was convicted of theft in a Virginia court in 1866, sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary, and put to work building the C&O Railroad. There, at the Lewis Tunnel, Henry and other prisoners worked alongside steam-powered drills. In his book, Nelson pieces together the biography of the real John Henry. It is also the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but also, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest. This lecture complements the VHS exhibition Organized Labor in Virginia. Scott Reynolds Nelson teaches history at William and Mary. (vahistoricalsociety)
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