Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson
Ain’t Nothing But a Man was recommended by Laura and Joanna in response to my favorite music book/freakout over the Mandy Moore-Ryan Adams engagement post. (Which makes this my great book/oh my god, Mandy Moore and Ryan Adams are actually married now post.) Laura said, “It’s a great nonfic mix of music and history and folklore, all wrapped up in a mystery,” and having now read the book, I could not put it better myself.
Prior to reading Ain’t Nothing But a Man, what I knew about John Henry could pretty much be boiled down to two things: 1) he had something to do with railroads, and 2) was the subject of a folk song. This excellent book by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson fills in the blanks and then some.
Nelson, a historian, spent years researching, determined to discover “if there was a real John Henry, the man in the song who was so strong he beat a steam drill in a contest, but then laid down his hammer and died” or if he was only a myth (p. 9). 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. As Nelson recounts the discoveries that led him to conclude John Henry actually existed, he also imparts a lot of information about 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, the story of how he followed disparate leads is both informative and fascinating. (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 way Nelson doesn’t simply relate facts, but also demonstrates how he searched for primary source evidence to find John Henry, makes this book stand out. History as a discipline is presented in an engaging, appealing way, and so are the historical facts that are important to Nelson’s quest.
As is to be expected from National Geographic books, plenty of pictures are included. The layout and design are pleasing to the eye and make it easy to follow the text. There’s also a nice amount of backmatter, including an appendix, a further reading section, and more.