JH: Mechanics of a Legend (working title) deconstructs the converging events of the 1870’s that destroyed the historical man John Henry and gave rise to an iconic American folk hero.
A legacy left to us in song by early American minstrel performers and echoed today by Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, and Bruce Springsteen, John Henry is the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than any steam drill and dies with his hammer in his hand. In children’s books and schools around the country, John Henry is a celebrated American tall tale character who stands undefeated as a champion of the human spirit and an emblematic figure in the conflict of man against machine.
As revealed in Scott Reynold Nelson's groundbreaking book Steel Drivin' Man, the real John Henry was racing against machines more cruel and violent towards humanity than any steam drill. A young black veteran of the Union Army, he was a man caught in the confusion and fury of a nation still battling itself despite the political end of the Civil War. His fate is forged by the complex and unforgiving machines of industrialization and institutionalized racism during the period of Southern Reconstruction.
Through a moving juxtaposition of bodies in motion and the science of mechanics, Hiawatha Project joins forces with community members and local artists to measure the myth, the man, and the machines behind the story of a true American legend.
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The College of William & Mary, academic home of
Scott Reynold Nelson, author of
Steel Drivin' Man,
John Henry:The Untold Story of an American Legend.
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