William & Mary

Springsteen and Nelson: Joined by John Henry

  • Nelson and Springsteen
    Nelson and Springsteen  The professor and the singer got together and discussed history.  
  • Scott Nelson
    Scott Nelson  The professor discusses Springsteen's legacy during a video interview.  
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When Scott Nelson met Bruce Springsteen backstage at the Richmond Coliseum on Aug. 18, the conversation did not reflect that of a fan and a rock star. It was more of a chat between history buffs.

Nelson, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary, had caught Springsteen’s attention after he published his book “Steel-Drivin’ Man,” which is credited with uncovering the real man behind the myth of John Henry. Springsteen was particularly interested in the fact that Nelson traced Henry to New Jersey. Springsteen, also a New Jersey native, told Nelson that singing the John Henry song was a means of “completing a circle.” Springsteen recorded “John Henry” as part of  his album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” in 2006.

During their meeting, Nelson refrained from talking about his favorite albums by the artist. “I did not want to make him uncomfortable,” Nelson said. Instead, they talked briefly about how Henry came to Richmond in chains before being sent to work to help expand the railroads west as a prisoner in the Virginia penitentiary.

Back on campus, Nelson was complimentary of Springsteen’s work. “I think of Bruce Springsteen as an historian,” he said. “He’s got a way of capturing time and place and mood for a period of 10 or 20 years back that no other musician has been able to do.”