William & Mary

Backstage Pass

When folk hero meets guitar hero.

  • Nelson and Springsteen
    Nelson and Springsteen  The professor and the singer discussed a bit of history.  
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Not many professors can claim to have uncovered the real man behind a great American myth, let alone count Bruce Springsteen as their friend. Then again, history professor Scott Nelson, to many of his students, is a kind of rock star himself.

The story of their unusual friendship goes back to the publication of Nelson's Steel-Drivin' Man.  The book is credited with solving the mystery of John Henry's true identity. Like Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, John Henry is the stuff of American legends: an ordinary boy who grew up to challenge the steam-powered railroad hammer and, amazingly, won. Of course he collapsed and died as a result (and was still replaced by the machine), but his story has stuck around as an inspiration to American laborers—and, apparently, to history professors and musicians alike.

Springsteen was no stranger to Henry's story.  In 2006, he recorded the song "John Henry" as part of his "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" album.  Nelson's book came to the attention of one of New Jersey’s most famous sons because of its revelation that Henry had roots in the Garden State as well.  The rocker wrote a blurb for the book , and when Springsteen sang the song, Nelson said it felt like it was "completing a circle."

When the rock star and the professor finally met backstage at the Richmond Coliseum, Nelson didn't talk about his favorite Springsteen songs or albums. He played it cool, keeping the conversation on Henry himself—but back on campus, it was clear just how big of a Springsteen fan Nelson actually was. "I think of Bruce Springsteen as a historian," he said. "He’s got a way of capturing a time and place and mood for a period of 10 or 20 years back that no other musician has been able to do."

Download the video of Professor Nelson's interview.