David Brooks interviews Bruce Springsteen

bruce-springsteen-on-broadway-photo-by-rob-demartin

In February 2018, I spoke to New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. We were both there to see “Springsteen on Broadway.” You can read about our very, very brief encounter here.

I thought about that moment as I read Brooks’s interview with Bruce Springsteen, published today at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

Brooks: There is a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. You’ve spent so much of your life writing about working-class men and, in particular, working-class men who were victims of deindustrialization, who used to work in the factories and mills that were closed, whether in Asbury Park or Freehold or Youngstown or throughout the Midwest. But a lot of those guys didn’t turn out to share your politics. They became Donald Trump supporters. What’s your explanation for that?

Springsteen: There’s a long history of working people being misled by a long list of demagogues, from George Wallace and Jesse Helms to fake religious leaders like Jerry Falwell to our president.

The Democrats haven’t really made the preservation of the middle and working class enough of a priority. And they’ve been stymied in bringing more change by the Republican Party. In the age of Roosevelt, Republicans represented business; Democrats represented labor. And when I was a kid, the first and only political question ever asked in my house was “Mom, what are we, Democrats or Republicans?” And she answered, “We are Democrats because they’re for the working people.” (I have a sneaking suspicion my mom went Republican towards the end of her cognizant life, but she never said anything about it!)

In addition, there is a core and often true sense of victimization that has been brought on by the lightning pace of deindustrialization and technological advancement that’s been incredibly traumatic for an enormous amount of working people across the nation. The feeling of being tossed aside, left behind by history, is something our president naturally tapped into.

There is resentment of elites, of specialists, of cosmopolitan coast dwellers, some of it merited. It is due to attitudes among some that discount the value and sacrifice so many working people have made for their country. When the wars are being fought, they are there.  When the job is dirty and rough, they are there. But the president cynically taps into primal resentments and plays on patriotism for purely his political gain.

There is a desire for a figure who will once again turn back the clock to full factories, high wages, and for some, the social status that comes with being white—that is a difficult elixir, prejudices and all, for folks who are in dire straits to resist. Our president didn’t deliver on the factories or the jobs returning from overseas or much else for our working class. The only thing he delivered on was resentment, division, and the talent for getting our countrymen at each other’s throats. He made good on that, and that is how he thrives.  

Read the entire interview here.

Springsteen Course at Monmouth University

springsteen

Check out Steve Strunsky’s NJ.com piece on historian Kenneth Campbell‘s Monmouth University course “Bruce Springsteen’s America: Land of Hope and Dreams.”

A taste:

The class, as the syllabus states, “explores the history of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the lens of the life, music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen.”

Campbell and his 21 students meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons in a nondescript classroom in Rechnitz Hall bereft of any signs of Springsteen-mania but equipped with an overhead sound system that Campbell uses to play snippets of the songs, like the sparse piano and harmonica intro to “Thunder Road,” the opening track to his critically-acclaimed commercial breakthrough album from 1975, “Born to Run.”

The main textbook is Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, also titled “Born to Run,” which Campbell used to validate the course itself and his academic discipline.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Laura Lohman

Hail ColumbiaLaura Lohman is Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence and Professor of Music at Queens University of Charlotte. This interview is based on her new book, Hail Columbia!: American Music and Politics in the Early Nation (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Hail Columbia!?

LL: When I was a doctoral student I had come across some early sheet music for songs and a piano sonata commemorating naval battles and the capture of sailors from the Tripolitan War of the early 1800s. I was intrigued by how a songwriter or a composer sought to tell a story about a battle and war for audiences through music. I looked further into songs in this time period and was surprised to find hundreds of songs distributed in weekly and daily newspapers. These songs often had a political focus. They were full of sharp humor, effective propaganda, and a surprising vulgarity of expression. Music scholars hadn’t focused on these songs or on newspapers as a medium of circulating music. I thought this was an important phenomenon to share with other audiences. Because so many of these songs were written to melodies that we still sing or recognize today, like “Anacreon in Heaven” (the melody of our national anthem), “God Save the King,” and “Yankee Doodle,” it’s a topic that non-musicians can relate to as well.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hail Columbia!?

LL: Music was an essential form of political expression from the nation’s founding. Americans used music to debate crucial political questions, laud and demonize their fellow citizens based on their political beliefs and actions, and construct powerful narratives about the nation’s history, values, and institutions.

JF: Why do we need to read Hail Columbia!?

LL: It shows how much early Americans used music to make sense of the contemporary political landscape and how they used music to persuade others of their partisan vision. It brings to light hundreds of additional songs that can be used when teaching about this historical period. At the same time, I’ve intentionally written it in a way that non-musicians can understand. Much of the power of this music stems from song lyrics and from intertextual relationships, as a songwriter often deliberately invoked older lyrics to make a political point when writing new lyrics. So even if you don’t consider yourself “musically trained,” you’ll be able to understand and benefit from the book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

LL: Honestly, it was when I was a graduate student focusing on music performance. I was spending four to eight hours alone in a practice room every day and at a certain point I realized I needed something intellectual to focus on instead. That was when I decided to focus on music history full-time and pursued doctoral study in this area. Fortunately, I had a strong grounding in research and writing about music history from my undergraduate education! I consider myself lucky to be able to continue this research today.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: This year I’m editing a book that will provide a practical introduction to working with relevant sources in music and dance from this time period for scholars in music and other disciplines, such as history and literary studies. It’s titled Researching Secular Music and Dance in the Early United States: Extending the Legacy of Kate Van Winkle Keller, and it will be published by Routledge. It offers an accessible introduction to essential research tools, approaches, and issues for those new to researching music and dance from the revolutionary era through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Keller was an exceptionally prolific and dedicated scholar who focused on this time period when many music scholars overlooked it. My hope is that this book spurs a new generation of scholars to delve into this fascinating period.

JF: Thanks, Laura!

Eric Alterman on Springsteen: “World-famous rock stars don’t come any menschier”

Long Walk HomeEric Alterman, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, is a contributor to the recently released collection Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen (Rutgers University Press, 2019).  His essay in the book is titled “Growing Up With Bruce Springsteen: A Fan’s Notes.”  Here is a taste of an excerpt of that essay published in today’s New York Times:

Bruce Springsteen is the son of Catholic parents and grandparents. There is no ambiguity on this point. And yet, in much the same way that New York football fans have casually annexed the stadium across the river to root for what they like to pretend is their “home” team, some Jewish Springsteen fans are devoted to proving that New Jersey’s favorite Irish Italian son is, if not actually Jewish, nevertheless somehow Jew-ish. Perhaps you thought young Bruce was mostly singing about cars, girls, and getting the hell out of town before he switched gears to focus on the dignity of working folk, the broken promises of the American dream, and more cars and girls. But amid the empty factories, crowded barstools, and swimming holes that constitute the foundation of the Springsteen oeuvre, some detect a whiff of the Chosen.

Read the rest here.

Historian Louis Masur on Teaching Springsteen

a3af1-masurMasur teaches history at Rutgers University and is the author of Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision.  This Fall he is teaching a course titled “Springsteen’s American Vision.”  In this short interview, Masur talks about the course:

What can students learn in your course about why Springsteen’s music is so important?

“I begin the course with Elvis Presley, then go into Bob Dylan, and then most importantly, Springsteen. I want students to understand how each musical icon was directly inspired by the greats before them. I also want them to see how music plays a vital part in protest and activism as each of these musicians have inspired and created change. I have to push against the idea that this course will be easy, so I assign lots of reading and writing assignments that force students to engage the work and make critical arguments about its meaning.

“Great musicians are always in conversation with what’s going on in the culture and in individual lives. Springsteen once said his life’s work was “judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.” Springteen’s album “Wrecking Ball,” for example, was about the recession of 2008, and it told the stories of people who lost their homes and their path on the American dream. His album “The Rising” offered a reflection on the 9/11 attacks. His music helps us answer questions like “how do we survive?” and “how do we go on?” Good music inhabits the lives of others and tells moving stories like great fiction. Every generation will go through a deep hardship where they search for meaning, and great music will help them get there.

“There is also the other side of Springsteen I want students to know and that is what rock n’ roll is all about. Rock n’ roll offers release and works as a catharsis during tough times. It brings people together and it forms a community. That’s the side of him that explains why he has so many fans who return to his work time and again. At live shows, they feel transformed.  I want my students to understand that and to experience it.”

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 53: When Musicians Study American History

PodcastHere at the podcast, we have often engaged with our collective love of popular music and the history embedded within that love. Host John Fea regularly cites New Jersey state treasure Bruce Springsteen and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling channels his experience in garage bands every time he produces an episode. It is therefore fitting that they close out the season with guest Bob Crawford (@BobCrawfordBass) of the wildly popular The Avett Brothers (@TheAvettBros).

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

The Author’s Corner with James Davis

maryland, my maryland

James Davis is Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Music History Area at the School of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia. This interview is based on his new book, Maryland, My Maryland: Music and Patriotism during the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

JF: What caused you to write Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Curiosity, at first. For years I had wondered how a song dedicated to a state that never joined the Confederacy could be considered – then and now – a Confederate anthem. Once I began digging deeper, I realized that “Maryland, My Maryland” was in many ways the ideal case study of the life cycle of a war song. As I pulled together the story, I also came to realize how changing concepts of patriotism were entwined with the song’s use and reception. By this point I thought I had a book-length study on my hands, and, to my good fortune, the University of Nebraska Press agreed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland demonstrates how popular music simultaneously reflects and shapes events both large and small; that an anthem is an indispensable tool for gauging the depth and definition of patriotism; and that musical taste often triumphs over social class, politics, religion, and other social elements

JF: Why do we need to read Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland serves as reminder that there is a human factor behind everything we study about the Civil War. Aesthetics, or music taste and popularity, may seem tangential to great battles or ground-breaking legislation, but these are the issues that speak to the emotional foundation upon which everything else resides. By singing a song a person can express something that is impossible to convey in any other way. If we truly hope to understand what that person was experiencing, we should do our best to know that song and to understand what that performance meant.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

JD: I moved into American history about 3 years after graduate school. My dissertation dealt with the intersection of philosophy and music theory – a very esoteric subject. After publishing a few articles, I realized that I had little desire to pursue this line. I spent about 2 years doing a great deal of reading and thinking, and finally decided to dive into work that combined three of my passions – musicology, American history, and military studies. A friend of mine mentioned having seen a collection of letters from a Civil War band leader in an archive, so I ordered a microfilm, began reading, and I was hooked.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have a few small Civil War projects underway, such as veterans and late-century music criticism, humor and music, and musical nostalgia. There is also a book possibility that would examine the notion of “proximity” (geographic, temporal, emotional) and musical meaning during the war. However, having spent over 20 years on the Civil War, I am anxious to expand my horizons. I hope to investigate similar topics (musical nationalism and patriotism, military music) in the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. I am also fascinated by bandsmen stationed in western forts from 1870-1900.

JF: Thanks, James!

American Lonesome

Lonesome BruceI just learned about Gavin Cologne-Brookes new study of Bruce Springsteen’s music, American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen.  LSU Press will publish it in November.

Here is a description from the LSU Press website:

American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen begins with a visit to the Jersey Shore and ends with a meditation on the international legacy of Springsteen’s writing, music, and performances. Gavin Cologne-Brookes’s innovative study of this popular musician and his position in American culture blends scholarship with personal reflection, providing both an academic examination of Springsteen’s work and a moving account of how it offers a way out of emotional solitude and the potential lonesomeness of modern life.

Cologne-Brookes proposes that the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, which assesses the value of ideas and arguments based on their practical applications, provides a lens for understanding the diversity of perspectives and emotions encountered in Springsteen’s songs and performances. Drawing on pragmatist philosophy from William James to Richard Rorty, Cologne-Brookes examines Springsteen’s formative environment and outsider psychology, arguing that the artist’s confessed tendency toward a self-reliant isolation creates a tension in his work between lonesomeness and community. He considers Springsteen’s portrayals of solitude in relation to classic and contemporary American writers, from Frederick Doug-lass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson to Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. As part of this critique, he discusses the difference between escapist and pragmatic romanticism, the notion of multiple selves as played out both in Springsteen’s work and in our perception of him, and the impact of performances both recorded and live. By drawing on his own experiences seeing Springsteen perform—including on tours showcasing the album The River in 1981 and 2016—Cologne-Brookes creates a book about the intimate relationship between art and everyday life.

Blending research, cultural knowledge, and creative thinking, American Lonesome dissolves any imagined barriers between the study of a songwriter, literary criticism, and personal testimony.

*The Rising* at Fifteen

1573c-bruce-springsteen-the-rising

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the The Rising, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s 9-11 album several times on my recent drive from Mechanicsburg to Princeton and back.

I have written about The Rising several times here at the blog.  Here are some of those pieces:

Rise Up: Springsteen in Pittsburgh” (September 13, 2016)

Why September 11 is About Vocation” (September 10, 2011 and September 11, 2014)

Bruce Springsteen’s Spiritual Vision for America” (March 6, 2012)

Many of themes I wrote about–vocation, calling, courage, faith, hope, community, loss and tragedy–continued to resonate with me as a drove down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope.

May your love give us love.”

Over at Salon, David Masciotra reflects on the 15th anniversary.

Here is a taste:

“The Rising” demonstrated that Springsteen, already an uncontested legend, and his band, already one of the best in rock history, were not merely a classic rock expression of nostalgia. They could adapt to a rapidly changing world and musical landscape, even in the worst of circumstances and with the most brutal of muses, and provide music that sounded and felt built for the present.

Springsteen has often explained that he aspires to write songs with “blues verses and gospel choruses.” “The Rising” maximized that formula. “Lonesome Day” — one of Springsteen’s best songs — rocks with abandon, even while integrating country elements into its introduction and musical break, to describe a scene of devastation. “House is one fire / Viper’s in the grass . . . ” Springsteen sings. The chorus offers a secular prayer of revivification: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, yeah!”

The simplicity of Springsteen’s faith claim that somehow, even if it is hard to imagine, everything will turn out alright is another force allowing the record to transcend its historical inspiration. “The Rising,” an anthem of life, death and love giving an awe-filled depiction of how firefighters moved through what Springsteen calls “secular stations of the cross,” soon became the campaign theme for Barack Obama’s campaign. “My City of Ruins,” making great use of music similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” describes communal destruction and individual despair before a chorus of “Come on, rise up!” Its message of social uplift caused it to resonate in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Christchurch, New Zealand, after the city suffered an earthquake in 2011.

Before playing “My City of Ruins” at a benefit for 9/11 survivors and family members in Red Bank, New Jersey, Springsteen said, “This is a song I originally wrote for Asbury Park. You write songs, and you hope that they end up where people need them. So, this is a gift from Asbury Park to New York City.”

The man in the parking lot was right. It seems that people will always need the songs of “The Rising.” When a friend takes her last breath, when a spouse slips away, when a natural disaster leaves a city in ruins, or when the victory of an unqualified, bigoted demagogue turns a national election into a lonesome day, Springsteen’s exploration of human tragedy and triumph — from the funeral of a lover to the house party of a friend — will inspire those in need to drop the needle and pray.

After Springsteen sings “I drop the needle and pray,” near the end of “Mary’s Place,” the Alliance Singers, a New Jersey gospel choir formed in the wake of 9/11 and personally recruited by Springsteen for “The Rising,” shout with church fervor and ecstasy, “Turn it up!”

That’s as good advice as any.

Read the entire piece here.

Take a History Course on Dolly Parton

Dolly_Parton_with_Larry_Mathis_and_Bud_BrewsterJacey Fortin of The New York Times reports on a history course at the University of Tennessee focused on the life and times of country singer Dolly Parton.  The course is taught by historian Lynn Sacco, author of Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History.

Check out Sacco’s course website here.

Here is a taste of the course description:

History honors students look at how a “hillbilly” girl from Appalachia grew up to become an international one-word sensation. The course pulls students in to study someone they thought they already knew and familiarizes them with analyzing popular culture as a historical source. Reading about how hillbillies and feuds began as made-up characters and tropes in novels and cartoons to the rise of hillbilly music to Christian entertainment and the thread of tourism, students see the processes by which fiction often becomes fact, and how heritage is a blend of the real and the imagined.

Here is a taste of Fortin’s article:

According to Dr. Sacco’s syllabus, the seminar looks at a history of the 20th century not from the vantage point of elites, but through the eyes of Ms. Parton, “a poor white girl born in midcentury Appalachia.”

It has a wealth of reading materials, including Ms. Parton’s own 1994 book, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” and a slew of contemporary articles from periodicals such as The Tennessee Magazine, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The New York Times. Their topics range from child labor in the early 20th century to the Kennedy-era Appalachian Regional Commission and modern economic anxiety in the region.

Read the rest here.