Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry - The Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson, recounts an effort to research the story behind the traditional song.
I came across this when I found the children's edition, Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, at my library. It was told in an immediate first-person narrative, and I found it a great work for younger readers. It teaches kids how to do historical research and investigate folklore. After looking through it, I knew I had to read the full edition.
I thoroughly enjoyed both versions, although I leaned more towards the one for adult readers, which was longer and more in-depth. It's filled with resources, looks at different versions of the John Henry song and its evolution, and visits to the area where the song would have originated.
Nelson ultimately comes up with a theory for the origin of the song, and a candidate for a historical John Henry. Not everyone will agree with the theory, but I found Nelson's process fascinating and the theory fairly convincing. More than anything, the moment where the pieces fall into place is fantastic. A lot of effort went into this book and it shows. I recommend both versions to anyone interested in researching folklore.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.