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Scott Reynolds Nelson discusses John Henry and the birth of Rock 'n' Roll

On Thursday, Feb. 16, Scott Reynolds Nelson, UGA Athletic Association Professor of History at the University of Georgia, visited Carnegie Mellon as part of the Department of History and the University Lecture Series in conjunction with the Hiawatha Project. The award-winning author of Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend and several other books, Nelson revisited the legend of John Henry and its roots in the evolution of music from the 19th century to today in his lecture, titled “Take this Hammer: The Death of John Henry and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Nelson explains that the legend of John Henry has been an integral part of American folklore since the end of the 19th century. A “steeling-driving-man,” John Henry is known for his huge and powerful figure, always carrying his hammer. The story goes that he raced a steam drill and won, before falling over and dying from exhaustion. John Henry is also known as the hero of the trackliners, 100,000 men, mostly African American, in the South who laid the railroad track in the 1860s and 1870s.

The origin of John Henry is shrouded in mystery, and in his 2006 book Steel Drivin’ Man, Nelson proposed a different history of the man. Contrary to previous beliefs that John Henry worked on the Big Bend Tunnel of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in West Virginia, Nelson’s research suggested that he instead worked on the Lewis Tunnel, 40 miles away in Virginia. By interpreting lyrics of the songs of John Henry that said he was buried by a “white house” deep “in sand,” Nelson was led to the Virginia State Penitentiary, which was often referred to as the “white house” of Richmond.

Convicts from the Virginia State Penitentiary were used as labor to finish the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. According to Nelson, “the working conditions were horrible” and “10 percent of prisoners who worked in railroad construction died every year,” many from silicosis from the dust built up during construction. Through his research, Nelson discovered that there was a man named John Henry from New Jersey who was jailed in the Virginia State Penitentiary and was quite likely one of the 200 bodies of convicts found buried in the sand near the Virginia State Penitentiary.

The story of John Henry is deeply ingrained in the history of music. It was one of the first blues songs, the second country song ever recorded (by Fiddlin’ John Carson in the 1920s), and also a bluegrass song. It took center stage in the 1970s during the revival of folk music, and many famous musicians recorded ballads about John Henry, such as Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie. The trackliners carried this song and its floating verses as a tool to set the pace during work.

While songs about John Henry were carried by the trackliners and used during the work on the railroad, Nelson argues that it also talks about where the bodies of the 200 convicts were buried — a song about the dead. Nelson paused the lecture to listen to a recording of the Song of John Henry sung by trackliners with the base of the hammer and steel. The lyrics “say now who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks/Darlin’ who gonna be your man/Well-a who gonna be your man” are indicative of the country ballad, but when combined with distinctive African music elements, the trackliners created the first Black ballad.

“Rock music rests on the foundation laid by the trackliners in the 1860s carried forth by the blues musicians of the 1920s to the 1940s,” Nelson said. He again paused the lecture to listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Bring it on Home” (1969), which is clearly grounded by old work songs. The base and rhythm of the song paired with the tone of the harmonica create the sound of the moving train. Like the trackliners’ songs about home and women, “Bring it on Home” is also a song about lonely men traveling and leaving their girls home. The famous slide and twang so prominent in rock music is half violin, half guitar, derived from the techniques of blues musicians.

Nelson argues that rock ‘n’ roll music was not “some special blast that hits Elvis Presley” in the 1950s. The fusion of blues and country music instead began nearly a hundred years prior, in the time of trackliners, who cut into mountains to the rhythms we hear in rock music today.

The story of John Henry, Nelson said, changed from a story about death to a story of a legend, a story of heroism, embraced by workers and laborers against the perils of capitalism and advancing technology.
Nelson is currently working on a history of Kansas wheat, Russian communists, and the end of World War I.