You may have heard of John Henry or the song of this name, about a man "who was so strong he beat a steam drill in a contest, but then laid down his hammer and died” (p. 9). Prior to reading Ain’t Nothing But a Man My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson, I had heard of the song, but didn't know much else. And I have to admit that what little I did know wasn't enough to entice me to pick up this book, until it was suggested to me by two different people and came with the recommendation that "it's great nonfic mix of music and history and folklore, all wrapped up in a mystery.”
Nelson, a historian, spent years researching the many versions of the song, determined to discover whether John Henry could have actually lived or was simply a myth. Nelson needed a few serendipitous discoveries and a lot of persistence, but he ultimately puts together the clues that point him toward the man he argues is the John Henry of the song. Recounting the discoveries that led him to conclude John Henry actually existed, Nelson's narrative touches on music, railroads, Reconstruction, and more.
Written in a conversational but authoritative style, this book is a pleasure to read. Even if you’re ultimately not convinced by every argument Nelson makes (I do think Nelson makes a convincing case that the John Henry he found is the John Henry of the song, but I’m not quite as convinced, as a non-musicologist, about all of the arguments concerning the evolution of music), the story of how he followed disparate leads is fascinating. Nelson demonstrates how he searched for primary source evidence to find John Henry, immersing the reader in the hunt for clues along with Nelson.
If you're at all interested in history and/or music, give this book a try.