Sep 24 2005

Steel Drivin’ Man

Published by at 9:07 pm under Folklore,Very First Web Sites


In 1993 I wrote a National Endowment for the Arts grant to produce a half-hour documentary about the John Henry legend and the small West Virginia town where it took root.

Dad was the one who told me about Talcott, reputed to be the site of the legendary race with the steel drill. He and I visited a couple times, climbing down to the railroad tracks and hacking our way through dense and prickly undergrowth to find the entrance to the abandoned Great Bend Tunnel.

The radio production turned out to be a gargantuan project, another of those five-cent-an-hour labors of love, and the last big documentary I did. Also probably my favorite. Steel Drivin’ Man aired in a couple of places, including All Things Considered, in ’95.

I was asked to write articles for the NEA Web site and for a South African print publication about the process of producing the program. Here’s one version: Looking for John Henry.

Right afterwards — my first all-by-myself Web project — I decided to build a site about it. There was a lot less stuff on the Web back then — a much cozier place — so a lot of people found my site and contacted me for John Henry info. Among those were representatives from Disney, who’d decided to produce an animated short about the legend. One person who didn’t contact me but who apparently found my information useful in writing his bestseller [oops: did that smack of bitterness? sorry] was Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days. According to his essay on the Random House Web site:

I knew vaguely I wanted to do a modern update of the John Henry story. But I didn’t know much about him except for half-remembered details from the legend. So one day … I plugged the man’s name into a search engine.

Well, there are a lot of John Henrys, a lot of Johns, and a lot of Henrys. So I added various keywords such as hammer, steel-driving, etc., and narrowed it down. I didn’t find that much. Put such a search into Google these days, and you’ll get almost six thousand hits. But these were the early days of the web…

Anywho, the next thing I found was a web page for Ginna Allison’s radio documentary “Steel Drivin’ Man,” broadcast on NPR in 1995. Well, this was news. Until then I had no idea that there was an historical basis to the story. I had thought it was just a legend. Ambiguity! Conflicting stories! Now I was cooking with gas, or at least getting my grocery list together. I’m glad this page is still on the web, and hasn’t gone on to that Big Link in The Sky.

Now that I had a name of a town, Talcott, West Virginia, I started noodling around with that…

I would’ve loved a mention in his book’s credits, but oh well.

So… for posterity, here is that old John Henry site. There was actually an earlier (funkier but more interesting) version that I don’t have any more.

If I can ever figure out how to do audio for the Web, I’ll put the program up here too.

Editor’s Note September 17, 2008: Hey, check it out! I figured it out. Here’s the program…

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