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Bruce Springsteen takes a stand

by Keith Purtell

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

Late Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe often described the tone he was trying to achieve as “high lonesome.” His musical concept revolved around that sound and an image of people troubled by life, yet determined to walk with dignity and find something good in each day.

Songwriter and balladeer Woody Guthrie spent his whole life composing similar anthems for everyday human nobility in folk music. Once again, this was music for ordinary people and could be reproduced by anyone with the time and patience to learn how to sing or play a simple instrument.

Bluegrass never captured a big audience, and folk music faded from the mainstream after the 60s.

So, it came as a shock in 1982 when popular rocker Bruce Springsteen released “Nebraska;” a recording that not only epitomized high lonesome but catapulted it forward. Everything Monroe and Guthrie imagined was there: the struggle of people to control their lives, the desire to be respected despite one’s status, the deep rivers of emotion in families, the conflict between the law and those who break it, and the hunger between men and women. And it’s not just songwriting; Springsteen uses a guitar, a harmonica and his voice to powerful effect.*

The landscape Springsteen paints is bleak and often empty, illuminated only by faith. People travel through life trying to capture happiness despite their failings and those of their family and neighbors. In the final analysis, “Nebraska” is a deeply spiritual recording.

Inclined as we are to bring our expectations each time we listen to a certain kind of music, it can be startling when the artist delivers something completely different. I suppose I could attribute the poor sales of “Nebraska” to the record company’s inability to present an important statement. However, it is also true that the public often has an inexplicably limited willingness to accept compelling music.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to describe Springsteen as the Woody Guthrie of our time. “Nebraska” is a statement framed in deep introspection about our direction in life.

Here are samples from “Nebraska”:

*It’s worth noting here that much of the emotional power of “Nebraska” can probably be traced to the artistic legacy of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. If you ever get a chance to listen to Elliott’s “Night Herding Song,” (hear sample below) you will probably be surprised at the similarity in vocal styling between that song and all of “Nebraska.” Elliott’s recording was made in 1965, 17 years before Springsteen’s. It’s sounds to be like an obvious creative influence demonstrating Springsteen is wise enough to learn from the best. Elliott’s recordings are still available.

Here’s Jack:

Link to Elliott purchase site: (new window)