West Virginians are gonna hate this book whose sole purpose is to argue that John Henry challenged a steam steel drill with his muscles in an Alabama railroad tunnel, fifteen miles east of Birmingham. It includes chapters on the case for West Virginia alongside chapters on the case for Virginia and Jamaica, as if they are comparable! You gotta admit, there is a lot of railroad and music and African American history in this book. “John Henry and His People is the definitive work on the most famous ballad of all time. With eloquent prose and a keen eye for detail, John Garst traces the history of the ballad and identifies both its location (the Oak Mountain Tunnel in Alabama) and its hero―John Henry Dabney, a black man born on the Burleigh Plantation in Hinds County, Mississippi. Generations of black and white musicians have sung about how John Henry drove steel into the mountain with his ten-pound hammer and beat the steel-driving machine. Thanks to John Garst and his fine book John Henry and His People, we now know the history of this epic ballad.” ―William Ferris. “Like many folk enthusiasts, I have listened to literally hundreds of recordings of John Henry as a story, a song, and an American legend. In John Henry and His People, John Garst presents a comprehensive and definitive examination of an actual event that may have inspired the song. While that is worth the price of admission, the book takes you on a much deeper journey. It reveals that the storyteller is at times just as mysterious as the story itself. John Henry and His People shows the way this original tragedy became a symbol of freedom that still resonates at the foundation of the American ideal.” ―Dom Flemons. The author, John Garst, is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Georgia. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and his research interests include not only the historical bases of ballads, but also shape note hymnody.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2022. 274 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Appendix, a Foreword by Art Rosenbaum, and photos and illustrations. Trade paperback.