A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


To Carry The Fire & Light The Spark

As Bruce Springsteen begins the 2nd North American leg of his "Wrecking Ball" tour, it's hard to think of an analog for the artistic, cultural and political project in which he's engaged. This isn't a group of musicians touring on behalf of a cause (e.g., the Amnesty International tours of the 1980s) or a campaign (e.g., the 2004 Vote For Change tour). It's not an artist hitching his star to a candidate and appearing at rallies (as Springsteen did with Barack Obama in 2008).Instead, he's taking his entire song catalog (as well as the hundreds of other songs his band can cover), every bit of stagecraft he's learned from 45 years of performing, and as much of the past 150 years of American popular music as he can gather, and bringing it all to bear on the central social, cultural, economic and political challenge of our day: how to survive (and overcome?) our current depression, now nearing the end of its 5th year.Take, for example, the 3 shows in Boston last week that kicked off Springsteen's return to the U.S. after touring Europe for the previous three months. He sang over 60 different songs. The shows were all at least three and a half hours long. Unlike most performers his age, at least a third of the songs---including most of the ones at the heart of any given show---were written in this century.Here are some of the key elements that---in one observer's view---Springsteen uses to create this unprecedented series of shows. More (much more) after the jump.

"The Legendary E Street Band"The central artistic conceit of a Bruce Springsteen show is that this is nothing more than a really big house party, or a really large pub. The band dresses plainly. There are no costume changes or elaborate sets---just risers for the backup singers and horn players. There's no curtain. When it's time for the show to begin the band members simply walk onstage, take their places, and Springsteen counts off the first song.Just like at your local bar, the band takes requests. Just like at a house party, everyone's welcome to sing along on the songs they know. There is a presumed intimacy in the way Springsteen addresses the crowd (e.g., explaining that his wife and bandmate, Patti Scialfa, "is home tonight, protecting the house from our teenagers"). There's also a presumed responsibility for those attending. Sing, clap, cheer, get on your feet, raise your hand. It's not really a party if only the band is performing. For the show to work, there has to be an exchange, a mutual sharing of energy, a call and response.For this tour Springsteen has added a five-piece horn section, a second percussionist and three (more) backing vocalists. With 17 people on stage (every one of who can and will be featured during the course of the show), and with the bandleader changing the set list on the fly, the closest musical analogy to the current incarnation of the E Street Band---most of whom have played together for decades---is the great jazz orchestras and big bands of the mid-20th century.Like any rock and roll show, you'll hear drums, bass, and guitar. You'll also hear piano, organ, violin, accordion, banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tuba, tin whistles, cowbells, congas, and maracas---the full range of musical instruments. You'll hear these instruments in combinations familiar and unexpected. And you'll hear voices---male and female, solo, in unison, and in two, three or four-part harmonies.In the course of a single song, the band will go from everyone playing and wailing in a wall of sound that Phil Spector would envy, to just a single instrument or hushed voice carrying the song. At times, the entire band will cut out as Springsteen holds his microphone aloft from the stage and the audience carries the song for a chorus or two."I Hear America Singing" Much of the audience at a typical Bruce Springsteen concert looks like the folks you might see at the 11:00 Sunday Mass in suburban parishes across the country. (In some cases, they are the same people.) There's one notable difference: the people at Springsteen's shows sing. They sing song after song---knowing every word, catching the slightest tempo change, reasonably in tune and definitely in full voice. Furthermore, in the course of an evening they'll sing and listen to songs that touch on the full spectrum of American popular music.Bruce Springsteen is not a musical innovator. His talent---and it's a characteristically Catholic talent---is for absorbing influences, choosing both/and not either/or, and making them his own: Elvis and Dylan, Chuck Berry and Darlene Love, Woody Guthrie and Aretha Franklin, Stephen Foster and Blind Alfred Reed, Johnny Cash and Chuck D.Since he was a young boy listening to the sounds brought into the house by his mother's AM radio, Springsteen has soaked up musical genres: rock and roll yes, but also pop, folk, gospel, boogie-woogie, country, rockabilly, spirituals, hip hop, Celtic, soul, punk, doo wop, Motown and Brill Building, Nashville and Memphis, Chicago blues and New Orleans jazz, work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, church songs. All those influences come tumbling out in the course of an evening---playing off each other, crashing, colliding, resonating, giving the audience as full a range of human sound, emotion and experience as can be packed into a single concert.Most Americans under the age of 75 (which is to say, most Americans) have no experience of an economic depression like our current one. Both on the Wrecking Ball album and on this tour Springsteen digs deep into the rich, multi-layered soil of American popular music and history to find words and sounds and rhythms that are equal to the challenges of the present moment.Wrecking Ball is full of old words---words like shotgun shack, cavalry, fat cats, shackled and drawn, gambling man, workingman, banker man, banker's hill, robber barons, hard times, rocky ground---that evoke dim, faded, almost forgotten images from the 1930s, or the 1870s.And it's full of old sounds. Always open to new influences, Springsteen has been experimenting since the early 1990s with the hip-hop technique of sampling---taking a snippet of an older recording to serve as the basis for a new song. On Wrecking Ball he and producer Ron Aniello incorporate decades-old samples (some also used recently by rappers like Ludacris and M.I.A.) from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, the Peerless Four, Johnny Cash & June Carter, Curtis Mayfield, Lyn Collins and James Brown.Earlier generations of Americans created those songs and sounds to keep themselves singing, dancing, working, praying, laughing and loving as they struggled to survive hard times. In effect, Springsteen offers his audience a chance to "drink from our own wells", so as to be able to carry on through the struggles we face today.I'll Fight You For America The BeautifulSpoken word artist Taylor Malis poem, Ill Fight You For The Library is a battle-in-four-letters between a veteran teacher and an administrator over whether the schools library will be available for the teachers students to conduct research for an assignment, or will be used for a committee meeting. (It's well worth viewing. Go ahead, click the link.....Everybody back? Okay, let's proceed.)Months before the Obama campaign took aim at Mitt Romney's repeated use of "America the Beautiful" on the campaign trail, Springsteens new single, We Take Care Of Our Own in effect raised a similar challenge: Ill fight you for "America the Beautiful".This is, on the whole, a good thing. Defining the promise of America, and to whom that promise is available is supposed to be contested. Thats why we have elections. That's part of what underlies the political theory of a republic. It was part of the genius of the Founding Fathers. Even though they didnt include most ofus in their understanding of what it meant to be fully American, they understood that creating a culture and politics of robust debate and argument, and of widespread participation was the best shot they had at creating a republic that could survive and thrive. Its because of the best parts of that culture that the promise of America has expanded as much as it has over the last two centuries.Springsteen has long spoken of his vision of a "big-hearted America", one that is a broadly inclusive and welcoming land of opportunity. The opening track on Wrecking Ball, "We Take Care Of Our Own" raises the questions that the rest of the album responds to: Who's included in "our own"? Do we take care of our own? How do we take care of our own? What does it mean to "take care of our own"? "Where's the promise from sea to shining sea, Where's the promise from sea to shining sea, (that) wherever this flag is flown...we take care of our own?"It's immediately clear from the verses ("From the shotgun shack to the Superdome; There ain't no help, the cavalry stayed home") that Springsteen, like many Americans, is still flushed with shame and anger at the abject failure of our political commonwealth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That anger burns throughout Wrecking Ball as Springsteen measures---one human story at a time---the cost of the recession that began in late 2007, the financial collapse that followed in 2008, and the depression (economic, social and psychological) that continues in their wake. On the album and on tour, Springsteen presents his vision of America the beautiful: the dignity of work, the solidarity and joy of community, the power and solace of love, the worth of each person's life, even the sacredness (my word, not his) of anger.Bruce Springsteen came of age musically in the early 1970s, when serious popular artists aspired to make great albums, not just great singles. Even though albums disappeared nearly 20 years ago (replaced first by single-sided CDs, then by digital MP3 files), Springsteen still makes albums---collections of songs that form a cohesive whole and that gain meaning from their relation to each other, and the sequence in which they appear.Following "We Take Care Of Our Own" on Wrecking Ball, the rest of "side 1" is filled with songs narrated by individuals whose lives have been overrun by "This Depression". More specifically, what happens to people---as sociologist William Julius Wilson first asked nearly 20 years ago---when work disappears? A reckless and desperate young couple goes out looking for "Easy Money". The narrator of "Shackled & Drawn" asks questions---"Let a man work, is that so wrong?" "What's a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong?" ---that have no answer. In a voice heavy with experience and resignation, a "Jack Of All Trades" tries to reassure his wife (and himself) that "we'll be all right".With the title track, "Wrecking Ball", at the start of "side 2", the album takes a definite turn---not exactly hopeful, but at least one of people beginning to find their bearings, to gather the resources needed to confront the evils they face, to take a stand for themselves, their communities and their values.The first of those resources is anger (from the Old Norse angr meaning "sorrow, affliction"). "Wrecking Ball" was written and first performed in 2009 as a farewell song to the old Giants Stadium ("I was raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey some misty years ago; Through the mud and the beer, the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go.") But midway through it takes an unexpected turn to the afterlife: "...tonight all of the dead are here, so bring on your wrecking ball".Springsteen's narrator implores, "So hold tight to your anger, hold tight to your anger, hold tight to your anger, and don't fall to your fears". And then suddenly the subject has switched again to the listener's own approaching end: "When...all our youth and beauty has been given to the dust, when the game has been decided and we're burning down the clock....When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind, ...and hard times come and hard times go, just to come again...Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball."This is Dylan Thomas not going gently into that good night. It's also every saint, martyr, hero and heroine who looked death in the eye and decided not to blink.Surrounded By A Great Cloud Of WitnessesNot a practicing Catholic ("We're raising a bunch of pagan babies" he once told a fan asking about the religious imagery in his music), Springsteen has (as befits a man in his 60s whose friends are aging and dying) increasingly written about death in recent years. As he's done so, he's has drawn upon the Catholic language, imagery and symbols that pervaded his youth, and upon the Black church's traditions---often as transmuted through soul music---to confront the topic.In concert, Springsteen uses "My City Of Ruins"---which samples and echoes Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready"---to introduce the E Street Band members both living and dead. Speaking of the E Street Band's late organist, Danny Federici, and saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen declaims to the audience in preacherly fashion, "If you're here and we're here, then they're here."Wrecking Ball itself ends with a blizzard of religious images in the service of its tenuous and tentative hope for a brighter day. In "Rocky Ground", the singer implores "Rise up shepherd, Rise up....Find your flock, get them to higher ground; The floodwater's rising, we're Canaan bound." "Land of Hope and Dreams" is a reworking of the old gospel standard, "This Train Is Bound For Glory"; but instead of welcoming only the righteous and the holy, Springsteen's train "carries saints and sinners...losers and winners...thieves and sweet souls departed".The album's closing song is "We Are Alive"; and those making that claim are the dead and martyred themselves. "A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877 when the railroad workers made their stand. I was killed in 1963, one Sunday morning in Birmingham. I died last year crossing the Southern desert, my children left behind in San Pablo. Well they've left our bodies here to rot; Oh please, let them know, we are alive".Those voices are carefully chosen by Springsteen: from the 19th century workers who waged the closest thing to a national strike the U.S. has ever seen, to leaders of the great Freedom Movement of the mid-20th century, to the largest wave of immigrants to come to this country in living memory. These are the voices of those who have fought to make a place for themselves---and for us---in America the beautiful. Springsteen, the songwriter-and-performer-as-shaman, says the message our beloved dead have for us today is this:We are alive, and though our bodies lie alone here in the dark;Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark,To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart....We are alive.Or as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1) puts it: Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us....When facing hard times that exceed the limits of personal experience, remember your history. Remember those who've gone before you. Draw strength from their stories and examples.You may need to do what you've never done before. If you're a rock and roll star, you may need to dig deep into your own catalog of songs to find the ones that resonate most powerfully with your new songs and these new times. You may need to cover songs that served as inspiration in your own childhood, and draw on songs and sounds from earlier decades and centuries. You may need (at age 62!) to give 3 1/2 hour concerts---comforting, challenging and inspiring your audience with songs old and new.On many nights throughout this tour---including two of the three Boston shows---Springsteen has closed with "Twist and Shout", first popularized in the early 1960s by the Isley Brothers and the Beatles.It is as apolitical a pop confection as any dance song ever written. And yet, coming at the end of a Wrecking Ball show, a listener could be forgiven for wondering: "Shake it up baby now...Twist and shout...come on baby now...come on and work it on out". What does that really mean?It may not exactly be a call to arms, but it just might be a call to keep moving, keep laughing, keep talking, keep dancing, keep singing, keep working, keep loving, keep on keeping on. Don't give up the fight.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

And I thought I was the world's biggest Springsteen fan! I bow humbly before you, Luke. :)

@william collier (8/22, 5:48 pm) Please, no bowing! (But thanks for the kind words.)From what I've read over the years at and, I'm a long (long!) way from being the world's biggest Springsteen fan. But if you (and anyone else) want to continue the conversation in this thread, I'd be happy to.

Luke --Since you have such a thorough understanding of The Boss' music, maybe you can explain to me just what rock and roll is. (He does do some of that, doesn't he?) I've been trying to find a definition for years so I can know it when I find it. So what is it? I get as far as "having a loud, highly repetitive beat".

@Ann Olivier (8/23, 1:07 pm) Great question!Wikipedia's definition is here: way to think of it is as the music that comes out of the South as it "rejoins" the rest of the country in the wake of World War II and the Rural Electrification Act. That "rejoining" happens as AM radio stations (particularly 50,000 watt stations that had licenses to broadcast at night) take music out of the churches and bars and dance halls and delivers it into the intimacy of people's homes. It also happens as the Great Migration reaches a peak during and after the war, and people carry their music from, say, the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. The mix of blues and country and jazz and gospel---along with the electrification and amplification of instruments---ends up creating, among other things, rock and roll.Springsteen gave some of his own thoughts on the topic at the South by Southwest conference in Austin earlier this year. The video of his talk is here: A transcript is available from NPR here: hope that's helpful. Let me know if it's not.)

Luke --Thanks. That explains Elvis' brand very well -- blues plus country plus jazz and gospel. I remember hearing Fats Domino on the radio here when I was young, but I wouldn't call what he did rock. It was too sweet. Still, they say he's a founder of rock. He certainly has that thump, thump, thump, thump down in the base, but otherwise the spirit is different. Certainly hard rock has none of that sweetness the early ones (including Elvis, sometimes) had. It's brutal. And so's The Boss sometimes, truth be told :-(There are just so many things that are called "rock"! I guess it's what Wittgenstein (him again) called a family resemblance term -- its uses include no one specific, defining characteristic but no matter which use you pick it has something in common with some other pick.

@Ann Olivier (8/23, 3:37 pm)You're welcome. And I agree with your observations about hard rock (heavy metal, etc.), and about Springsteen. I think something similar happens in other musical forms. Think of the initial reaction to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre Du Printemps". Or how different bebop and free jazz are from earlier forms of jazz. Or that great, wild discordant climax in Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue".To some extent I think what we're hearing in all of them is a response to urbanization, industrialization and electrification. (But now I'm way off topic.)

Luke --You're not off-topic. ISTM t hat the importance of music *and* its place in a culture can hardly be over-estimated. It's an integral part, and its influence especially in this culture seems overwhelming. I think a lot of people get their values from contemporary lyrics and the sounds surrounding the lyrics. Its sounds and its messages are to most young people vastly more important than what happens in church.I suspect the super power of music in this culture is grounded in how the same music, even the same performances are available to everyone through radio, movies, and all the other media. And you can play one performance over and over and over. When all the adolescents of a culturer are experiencing the same thing that is bliss to them, or, rarely, a common hell. Anyway, music binds these kids like nothing else. And the musicians are their saints.I'd like to hear more of what you have to say about it.

@Ann Olivier (8/24, 2:51 pm) Thanks for your kind words, and for your own thoughts about music and culture. I'm not sure that I have much more to say right now, but (with your encouragement) I may look for other opportunities to continue the conversation.P.S. It's not just adolescents. It's true for Springsteen's mostly baby-boomer audience. I know people in their 80s who still experience some level of bliss when they hear Frank Sinatra, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Bach's "Mass in B Minor".

Luke --I think there's a big difference between Springsteen and the latter three. I'd say they were non-political, and the value of the music was largely formal or intrinsiceto the sound patterns, to use some aesthetic terminology. With The Boss the was/is his message(s) that count as much as the formal aspects. Or do they? And do you think the messages are still true? Of course, the communal feeling he produced was a huge value (though you can have a similar feeling when singing great choral music such as Bach's). (Nothing communal about Sinatra:-)Anyway, I hope you'll give it more thought :-)

@Ann Olivier (8/24, 10:40 pm) I agree there are big differences between Springsteen, Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Bach.Springsteen's clearly trying on this latest tour to do something that is "small p" political, and it's rare among musicians/artists. On the other hand, it's worth recalling that long before he wanted to be Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, Springsteen wanted to be Elvis---famous and rich, with girls screaming and throwing themselves at him. That's part of this latest tour too. There's nothing "political" about songs like "Two Hearts" or "Glory Days", or about John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" or Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" (to name two of the songs Bruce covered in Boston).

Luke --I realize that S. did many sorts of music. I"ve only seen him on TV, and rather recently I actually watched a whole concer -- he was fascinating). Fortunately, I can read lyrics on closed captioned TV, so a lot came through. I also read the lyrics of the young musicians who perform at the ends of talk shows, so I do know their current themes too. I'd say that he and most young musicians are quite political. But that's a whole other thread, and I don't jot the lyrics down so as to discuss them. I'm constantly aware of how different the themes of contemporary lyrics are from pre-60 ones, not to mention the lyrics of popular songs of my grandmother's generation -- except for the folk lyrics, of course. Again, that's another thread. But I'm convinced that popular music, especially that of icons like S., reveal a culture better than anything, so they're quite worthy of study.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment