Ain’t Nothing But a Man

As far as authenticity, there’s really no better moment than that recorded in 1947 AT THE MISSISSIPPI STATE PENITENTIARY at Parchman. In the melodies of the ballad, Alan Lomax writes, “the African slave, transformed into steel-driving John Henry, put the Bill of Rights into one phrase: A man ain’t nothing but a man.”

comes from Music Analysis at John Henry: The Steel Driving Man on ibiblio. The project mentions the work of Scott Nelson tracing the legend back to its possible historical origins. Like so many of those old stories, I find something attractive in the legend. “Spike Driver Blues” is my favorite Mississippi John Hurt‘s version of the legend, and I have blogged about it two times. The New York Times has this review of Ain’t Nothing But a Man, the children’s book Nelson wrote about his research. The best part of the review is this page with a photograph of one John Henry in the accompanying slide show. He could be the legendary one.

1 Comment »

Michael M. on April 12th 2008 in General

One Response to “Ain’t Nothing But a Man”

  1. Jim Hauser responded on 06 Jun 2014 at 6:46 pm #

    I’ve been researching the legend of John Henry for over three years, and so far I have identified 25 versions of the ballad in which John Henry challenges his captain by refusing to be brutalized, mistreated, overworked, or underpaid. I’ve concluded that, for at least some African Americans, possibly many, John Henry was a symbol of black resistance and rebellion–a race rebel. I’ve written an essay describing my research and posted it to the Internet. It’s titled “John Henry: The Rebel Versions.”
    Jim Hauser

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.