Aint Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson - Book Review & Teaching Activities

Ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up. What will you hear? Race car driver? Ballerina? Doctor? Astronaut? Historian… Huh?

In Ain't Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, Scott Reynolds Nelson has done for historians what Indiana Jones did for archeologists. While the book appears to explain whether a real John Henry, the steel driving man of folk legend, actually existed, it slyly tells a first person story of Scott Reynolds Nelson, historian.

Nelson's personal quest starts as a small kernel of wonder while researching the men who built the railroads. He looks up from his computer screen and a clue pops out at him. From there, Nelson is off to find out if there was a real John Henry.

Ain't Nothing But A Man describes the journey, dead ends and all, Nelson had to mount in order to get proof, one way or another. That journey, in another’s hands, might have been made of stereotypical stuffy old textbooks and kids nodding off to sleep; but Nelson wrote it in first person, sort of like a detective novel. That choice, along with a step-by-step narrative and a storyteller’s sensibility, makes me speculate that a few kids might answer my opening question with “historian” after reading this book.

Oh! And was there a real John Henry? I’ll not tell you the conclusion, it’s just too much fun to spoil, I’ll just recommend you go pick up Ain't Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry for both your classroom or library. You won’t be able to put it down.

-------------------- Resources --------------------

Genre: Nonfiction. Grades: 4th through secondary. Pages: 64.

Themes: History, Research Methods, Racial Tensions
Awards: Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year, Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, ALA Notable Children's Book
Thank You: Karen @ Media Masters
Publisher: National Geographic Children's. Date: December 2007.
ISBN: ISBN-10: 142630000X / ISBN-13: 978-1426300004

Buy Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry Here

Note: Ain't Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry also features old photographs, song lyrics, and various historical artifacts as well as appendices, a blurb on the birth of Rock & Roll as related to railroad men, a map, a note about research sources, an index of topics, suggestions for further reading and links where readers can find versions of the songs. It also includes the essay "How to be a Historian" by writer Marc Aronson. He also writes Nonfiction Matters for School Library Journal.

Lesson Plan & Activities

Pre-reading activity: Read or listen to the original song before reading the book to provide background knowledge on the subject. The New York Times has a review with a picture slideshow from the book which would also work well as a story starter activity. You can also listen to a recording of the song from the Smithsonian (left side) there.

Vocabulary (with page found): research 7, locomotive 7, trawling 9, scavenger 11, ammunition 13, impulse 13, jostles 15, archive 16, evidence 19, steam drill 23, nitroglycerine 24, wagered 26, anvil 31, penitentiary 35, contractor 37, archeologist 37, gully 38, theory 38, archivist 39, scholars 39, census 39, convicted 41, embankments 43, siege 43, midst 44, improvised 44, gnashing 44, barbaric 47, trove 52.

Discussion Questions:
Chapter 1:
Predict what Mr. Nelson might have seen with “the clue that changed everything.” (try to get students to back-up predictions with textual clues from Mr. Nelson’s writing in Chapter 1. Example: “Mr Nelson said that he was researching men who worked on the railroad so maybe he saw a picture that reminded him of how John Henry might look”)

Chapter 2:
What is “making the grade?” (Answer: p. 9 photo caption)

Why does Mr. Nelson become a historian? (Answer: whole chapter gives examples of his love of finding the undiscovered clues to how people lived)

Chapter 3:
Who were trackliners? (Answer: p.15 men who go out day after day to realign and maintain the tracks)

How would singing a song help the trackliners? (Answer: p. 17 -18 They would be able to sing the song in a way to create a rhythm between the men realigning the track)

Is Mr. Nelson really trying to find John Henry to prove his existence? (Answer: p. 19 No, he is trying to find out information about the 40,000 missing men)

Chapter 4:
Discuss the steam engine illustration technology vs. technology today. How must people have felt when a mechanical device could do their job? Do you think people today feel the same way about computers and robotics? (own ideas)

Chapter 5:
Mr. Nelsons begins his quest at Big Bend Tunnel. Why? (Answer: p.29 many versions of the songs mention the name Big Bend and there is even a statue there of John Henry)

Why does Mr. Nelson believe that Big Bend is the wrong place to look for John Henry? (Answer: p. 29-31 The rock is too soft there, there was evidence of men working – not machines, the tunnel was not large enough for a steam engine)

Chapter 6:
What do you think? Could Mr. Nelson be on the right track? (Answers that might disprove research = size wrong, name common, no death listed, criminal…)

Chapter 7:
Remind students of the Civil War and the freeing of slaves. Let students discuss how uneasy the country must have been with distrust, prejudice and fear motivating the legal system.

Chapter 8:
Mr. Nelson gets his proof about Big Bend. How does he get it? (Answer: p. 51-52 A library in Ohio has railroad records that state that only men where used on the Big Bend Tunnel)

Where does the report lead Mr. Nelson? Why? (Answer: p.52 to the Lewis Tunnel where the old reports state that men were tested against machine and from old newspaper reports)

How does Mr. Nelson piece this all together? (Answer: conclusion - No machine at Big Bend + Machine & contest at Lewis tunnel + John Henry at Lewis Tunnel)

Chapter 9:
How does Mr. Nelson believe the legend/song got passed to Big Bend? (Answer: p.56 there was a cook and a waterboy who transferred from Lewis to Big Bend)

Did Mr. Nelson find his original answer? Do you believe him?
(Answer: p.57 He believes that the song was a warning about the hardships of working for the railroad, not a literal John Henry died-right-then tale.)

Extend the book further with:
Art: Research the painter Palmer C. Hayden p.8.

Wikipedia lists two other possible theories, both by historians, as to the origins of John Henry. Do a compare and contrast Venn diagram of the theories.

Research folksongs: Mr Nelson tells us that one way historians trace history is to listen to the songs of a specific time period for clues (p.16). He mentions three songs: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Ring around the Rosy & Bingo. Research the origins, dates and relevant information of these songs.

A study of folklore: Compare to books/stories on folk legends like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, etc… Here are a couple good websites to help: American Folklore and The American Folklife Center.

This is the US postage stamp honoring John Henry. Have students make stamps honoring other book or folklore characters that have inspired them to learn more.

Some book recommendations?

From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs

American Tall Tales

Or what about the Steven Kellogg series?
Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink,

Pecos Bill

And don't forget these two titles to accompany the fun:

John Henry by Julius Lester with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney

John Henry: An American Legend by Ezra Jack Keats

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary. He was recently awarded a Newberry Library fellowship to research the history of financial crashes. Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry grew out of his adult research book on the same topic, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. You can read a bit more about him on his website or read an interview transcript on Sound Authors.
© 2007-2009 Cheryl Vanatti for

Bookmark and Share