Christopher Plummer, RIP:
Bruce on the evening of the 2021 presidential inauguration:
I’ve always been a Jimmy Carter fan, so I was eager to watch Mary Wharton‘s documentary “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” last Sunday night. On one level, it did not disappoint. I knew very little about Carter’s relationship with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, and Jimmy Buffett. For example, the part of the documentary that covered the 1976 Democratic primary was fascinating. The Allmans, Cash, Nelson, and Buffett backed Carter. The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt backed California governor Jerry Brown. It was no contest. Carter and his southern rockers crushed Brown and helped the Georgia peanut farmer win the presidency against Gerald Ford in November.
As you see above, the documentary includes interviews with some heavy hitters, including Carter and his son Chip. The former president tells some hilarious stories about his relationship with some of these artists, including one about Chip smoking pot on the roof of the White House with Willie Nelson.
This is a great documentary, but I wish Wharton would have said more about how Carter thought about the connections between his love of popular music and his evangelical faith. Wharton includes footage of Carter teaching Sunday School. She occasionally shows the interior and exterior of Carter’s church in Plains, Georgia. She includes a clip of Carter talking about how he explained his Christian faith to Bob Dylan when the folk hero visited the Georgia governor’s mansion. Carter also seems to have had an influence on the faith-based music and activism of Bono. But the faith angle is too peripheral to the story Wharton tells. For example, what did Carter and Dylan talk about? Did Carter have a theology of popular culture that allowed him to reconcile rock music with his Christian faith? How did he respond to his evangelical critics, the kind of critics who would eventually rally against him to form the Christian Right and boost Ronald Reagan’s victory over Carter in the 1980 election? Christianity shaped Carter’s moral core, but Wharton doesn’t seem interested in how his Christianity informed his love of Dylan, Nelson, Cash, etc. This was a missed opportunity.
“We Take Care of Our Own”:
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about this song at my old Patheos column:
What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?
For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.
While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”
In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”
On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”
Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.
But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.
At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.
Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.
“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?
“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”
“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?
“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”
Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.
Letter to You drops tomorrow. The reviews are rolling in:
Alex McLevy at The A.V. Club
Kory Grow at Rolling Stone
David Bauder at the Associated Press
David Erhlich at IndieWire
Stephanie Zacharekt at Time
Alexis Petridis at The Guardian
Sam Sodomsky at Pitchfork
Dan DeLuca at The Philadelphia Inquirer
Musanna Ahmed at The UpComing
Eddie Van Halen, RIP:
Genesis, “Land of Confusion”:
Some of you may remember our interview with Melissa Ziobro, the Monmouth University history professor who curated a recent exhibit on Bruce Springsteen’s relationship with his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey.
This week New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal published my short review of the “Springsteen: His Hometown” exhibit. Read it here.
Home by the Sea:
I was reminded of this song after I re-watched The Two Popes:
Note: “Blackbird” was on the White Album, not Abbey Road.
RIP Bill Withers
Compliments of the Joe Biden campaign:
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.
Read the entire list at Rolling Stone:
A friend of mine just posted Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Green Onions” on Facebook with the comment: “Sometime you just need a song that says everything. I am hard-pressed to think of a better song for that purpose than this one.”
Nice work, Dan!
Vote at the Asbury Park Press. The ballot includes song by Bon Jovi, Count Basie, The Four Seasons, Gloria Gaynor, Connie Francis, Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, The Misfits, and Patty Smith.
Check out Ashley Layne‘s Substream Magazine interview with Bob Crawford, bass player for the Avett Brothers. Then go to Episode 53 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and listen to our interview with Crawford.
Here is a taste of Layne’s interview:
So the band definitely has southern roots and deep ties to an historically conservative state, was there hesitation at all to include songs like “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” on the album? Were you scared of being too pointed and divisive?
Well, no. There was a conversation about “Bang Bang” with Scott and Seth. You know what’s great about it is, it’s a conversation starter. So, I think that needs to be pointed out. I think it also needs to be pointed out that the song is written from a personal viewpoint of a real-world situation. So, I think that is important to recognize, as well. This is a song that was good for us as a group, mainly Scott and Seth, because it allowed them to engage in a difficult conversation.
I look at “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” differently. I fell in love with American History in 2004, and I began just reading. I started with the David McCullough books. I had a curiosity about American history that I still have to this day. I have a history podcast called The Road to Now; it’s something I am very serious about. I am getting my masters in history, so when I heard “We Americans” that Seth wrote, I knew Seth was reading Henry Adams so I was like, ’Oh, this is the natural result of Seth reading Henry Adams.’ Henry Adams has the greatest prose of any historian on the face of the planet. To read his historical text is to read literature it’s so beautifully written. Seth also writes beautiful prose and he’s a wordsmith, so, yeah, of course (Seth) nailed the content.
When you read history there were narratives that were, until the past 50 years, not told, but were real narratives. “We Americans” checks out. I often said to Seth, I hope you have a bibliography for this song because historians are gonna want to see it.
I put “We Americans” in the bucket with “This Land is Your Land.” And I think what’s great about “We Americans” is it goes from the idea of patriotism to paying tribute and respect. So the saying I always have is: the good, the bad, the ugly of American History. Being an American, you need to be able to recognize and somehow deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly of American history. I think what “We Americans” does, it recognizes that we need to have a certain love of our country and patriotism, but the song ends with recognizing love of God as being greater than love of country and love of one another as being greater. That’s what it means to me. I think it’s a great song. And, I think it’s a lot different than “Bang Bang” in terms of what’s controversial about it. I don’t think the subject matter of “We Americans” is controversial at all, I don’t think it should be.
Read the entire interview here.