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Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska

Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska

by David Burke

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From the nature of the material itself and the history of American folk music which foretold it, to the legacy and influence on later generations of musicians, an exploration of the classic 20th century album that sees its 30th anniversary in 2012

In January 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded a set of demos in his New Jersey


From the nature of the material itself and the history of American folk music which foretold it, to the legacy and influence on later generations of musicians, an exploration of the classic 20th century album that sees its 30th anniversary in 2012

In January 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded a set of demos in his New Jersey bedroom—a follow up to The River, the double album issued in 1980 which had reached the top of the Billboard charts. Expectations were grand, and these demo recordings promised an impressive album. However, after a series of sessions with the E Street Band spent working on the material, Springsteen felt these new recordings failed to capture the intimacy of the home demos and made the incredible decision to eschew the expensive, state of the art productions, and release the crude, home recorded version of the album. Almost 30 years later, Nebraska is considered a classic, not only among Springsteen's canon but among the entire body of work recorded during the 20th century. The album captured the public's imagination, reached #3 on the Billboard, and added a new, darker side to Springsteen's public persona. Springsteen's fanbase is awash with rumors that an anniversary edition of Nebraska will include the elusive studio recordings and tracks not included on the original album—to which the author has had access and has discussed here.

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"[A] thorough and incisive new book...If you love a good history lesson pick up David Burke’s new book." —popmatters.com

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Cherry Red Books
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Heart of Darkness

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska

By David Burke

Cherry Red Books

Copyright © 2012 David Burke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-901447-98-9



"I like narrative storytelling as being part of a tradition, a folk tradition."


"Logically, when you talkin' about folk music and blues, you find out it's music of just plain people."


The debate on what constitutes folk music is one dominated by two opposing factions – let's call them the purists and the progressives. Put simply (and rather simplistically), the purists want to preserve folk music as a kind of artefact, while the progressives' objective is to remake it in the evolving image of modernity.

The purists eschew the very idea of contemporary folk music. Theirs is an argument that pivots primarily on the grubby issue of commercialisation – or, to place it in a quasi-spiritual perspective, a transaction in which the soul is bartered for ambition or wealth.

The progressives, meanwhile, subscribe to an interpretation of folk music as that which reflects what goes on in the lives of folk, the little narratives that comprise the bigger story of life on earth.

Undoubtedly the purists would baulk at the suggestion that Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska fulfils many of the criteria for folk music. But Nebraska is pure folk from the compositional nature of the songs – songs populated by characters who speak in the vernacular, songs telling of hard times and of what hard times will force desperate people to do, songs in which the mundane becomes a medium for a more profound message about humanity – right down to the manner in which they are delivered using only voice, guitar, harmonica and glockenspiel, and the most basic recording technology. And Nebraska is uniquely an American folk album, forming part of a lineage that, in terms of its existence, is as old as the American nation itself.

So what is folk music? A cursory internet search will tell you that it is either "the traditionally and typically anonymous music that is the expression of the life of people in a community", "music transmitted by word of mouth, music of the lower classes, music with no known composer" or "any genre of music originating from the ethnic community of a specific region, often not recorded but passed down orally." For Pete Seeger, the link between Woody Guthrie and Springsteen, it's "a way of life", though he admits hardly using the term 'folk music' "because it means different things to different people".

Judy Collins, a stalwart of the Sixties folk revival, finds it impossible to define. "In order to define it, you must be inclusive of musical history and how it has developed in the past seventy years. It's a very fluid thing. It reflects a political/personal combination of the ability to write and perform personal history. That differs from the great American songbook, although people like EY Harburg, who wrote 'Over The Rainbow', was being very political – he wanted 'Over The Rainbow' and The Wizard Of Oz to be a political statement. He wanted Dorothy's role in the film to be the icon-smashing young voice, in the same way that Bob Dylan was performing and singing songs that were icon-smashing.

"Folk music is a strange phenomenon, but it is combined with politics and personal expression. Personal expression trumps left, right, etcetera. Personal expression is everything. The politics of the time, left or right, is what gets talked about. Personal experience has no political grounding, left or right. Personal experience drenches the music of what we call the folk era. People take politics out of personal experience. But what politics is about is how you treat your dog, how you treat your wife, whether you want to be giving back to the culture, whether you want to be sapping it dry."

Novelist and African-American cultural commentator Cecil Brown, whose book Stagolee Shot Billy is a biography of the song, 'Stagolee', thinks of folk music as "black music". He explains, "It was the music of the people who were oral and did not have access to literacy and did not have access to any of the means of expression except what they could come up with themselves. It was the original music of the enslaved Africans when they came to the United States because they had no other form of expression."

Actor and occasional folksinger Theodore Bikel lauds the folk song for its myriad functions. "It tells a multitude of stories, fables, legends and jokes. It admonishes, lulls to sleep, calls to cattle, rings with hope for the prisoner, with threat for the jailer, with joy for the lovers, with bitterness for him who might have had but didn't. It heralds birth, boyhood, wedlock. It soothes the weary, the sick and the aged, and it mourns the dead."

I prefer the Louis Armstrong version of folk music: "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."

Okay, so Armstrong's remark contains an element of mischief, but only an elitist would deny its veracity. And elitism is, in a sense, what the purists espouse by insisting on authenticity in both form and framework. What they fail to acknowledge is that form and framework are transformative, not static, that they move, like all things, in concert with the movement of humanity. And besides, music – yes, even folk music – is expression, and expression isn't governed by criteria.

Although that's not how Norm Cohen, author of Folk Music: A Regional Exploration, sees it. "To me, what distinguishes folk music is not necessarily style or content but how it is preserved and transmitted – not via commercial media.

"So I don't label any new song a folk song until we've had a chance to see what becomes of it. 'Barbara Allen' was probably written by a professional songwriter in the 17th Century and survived in print for a long time, then disappeared from commercial media for a while but continued to be sung in rural communities and learned aurally. At that point it was a folk song. When it came to be recorded by Art Garfunkel or Joan Baez, then it ceased being a folk song in that particular context. So it's the context and nature of transmission that is the key, rather than source, contents, style, attitude etc."

This is exactly why the purists give folk music a bad name. They thumb their academic noses at anything that falls outside the parameters delineated in a whole other time. They want to curate the music, antiquate it, put it behind a glass case and intellectualise it. They don't want to listen to its heartbeat, or feel its sorrow or hear its laughter. There is a particular irony in such remoteness given that one of the strengths of folk music is its social conscience. No wonder Bob Dylan went electric.

And so to the history bit. History, of course, is made as much by those who chronicle it as by those who play an active role in it. Or at least it was back in the day when the chroniclers of American folk music were the collectors, men like Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, Howard Odum, John Lomax and his son Alan.

Folk music was one aspect of folk heritage, a phenomenon that had its roots in late 18th-Century Europe, where chin-stroking types considered the indigenous culture of peasants, farmers and craftspeople – what historian Peter Burke, described as "the discovery of the people". Chief among these chin strokers was German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who declared, "Unless our literature is founded on our volk, we, writers, shall write eternally for closet sages and disgusting critics, out of whose mouths and stomachs we shall get back what we have given." For him, folk culture represented a very real riposte to the artificiality that pervaded then contemporary culture.

In 1778, Herder published a set of lyrics collated and transcribed in the German border region of Riga, now the capital of Latvia, applying to them the handle volkslieder, or folk song. Mind you, he wasn't the first to assemble and compile traditional music. In 17thCentury England, old ballads featured in numerous collections, satisfying middle class and aristocratic curiosity of things 'country'.

More than a century before folk revivalism took hold in America, the pursuit of folk culture involved a complex series of ideological decisions, writes Benjamin Filene in his book,Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. Not just anyone counted as 'folk'.

"Herder distinguished between the true volk, primarily rural peasants, and the urban rabble in the streets who 'never sing and rhyme, but scream and mutilate'. To Herder and other early collectors, true peasants were pure and artless and usually exotic," says Filene.

For Herder and the Grimm brothers, alias Jacob and Wilhelm, tellers of folk tales such as Rumplestiltskin, Snow White and Cinderella, unearthing folk cultures involved re-imagining, romanticising and transforming them.

Filene again: "Because of these transformations as much as in spite of them, their vision of the 'folk' had extraordinary reach, extending well beyond their borders and exerting influence long after their deaths. The work of these early philosophers and collectors showed that the idea of folk culture had power and plasticity. Scholars and intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs, and the folk themselves, have been shaping and re-shaping the idea ever since."

The forebear of American folk music was Harvard professor Francis James Child. A Shakespeare scholar, his forte was British ballads, "a subject he pursued with the persistence of a bloodhound and the precision of a detective", and indeed his five-volume work, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads(1882-1898), is widely heralded as canonical by students of the folk music idiom. For Child, America, with its relatively recent traditions, was of minimal interest, particularly as he preferred archival sources when retrieving old songs. Essentially he saw American folk music as British in origin.

Norm Cohen disagrees, positing that all immigrants to America "brought their own folk music with them and it became the basis of American folk music. As time went on, Americans created new songs and tunes based on their lives here in the New World. Gradually this became more distinct from the music of their ancestors."

The British theme was also pursued by Englishman Cecil Sharp, renowned as a founding father of the folklore revival in England during the early years of the 20th Century. Sharp journeyed to the Appalachian Mountains in 1916 and identified a cultural symbiosis with a long-gone England.

According to Filene, "Like Child, Sharp felt that the England he cherished had disappeared several hundred years ago, leaving only fragments behind. He found a way to revisit the British past he had never known. He created it in America. The key to Sharp's attraction to the Appalachian mountaineers' culture was that they fit, or could be sculpted to fit, his conception of old-time England. In his depiction of the mountaineers he encountered, he reinforced myths about the Britishness of American folk song heritage."

What Sharp was seeking to preserve – or perhaps, more accurately, to recover – was a culture that was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Race was a core component in his celebration of mountain culture. If you want confirmation of such a claim, look no further than his own conclusion that the reason "these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of the culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage".

Filene believes Sharp's emphasis on racial determination compounds the early ballad enthusiasts' insistence that the mountaineers were 100% British, adding, "... the collectors asserted that mountain culture was America's authentic folk inheritance and, at the same time, stressed that the mountaineers were British. In effect, therefore, the collectors established their heritage as the true American culture."

This notion of racial supremacy – for what else can it be called? – was challenged by the emergence of an African American sub-culture in the first flush of the 20th Century, embodied in the so-called Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, both of which enforced historian Kathy J Ogren's view that "black culture, like black people, cannot be kept on the margins of American society". But sadly, that's exactly what happened as, apart from African American spirituals (which African Americans themselves rejected because of their association with slavery – their lyrical tenor implied acceptance of rather than refutation of this appalling crime, with the promise of redemption after death), the collectors paid little interest to African American music. Howard Odum, for example, "depicted them as the manifestations of a bizarre alien culture".

The British-centric advocacy of American folk music was challenged by a young Mississippian who grew up in Texas. John Lomax's family home was on the Chisholm Trail, used in the 19th Century to drive cattle from ranches in the Lone Star State to Kansas railheads, and he became captivated by the songs cowboys sang as they travelled. In 1910, as a Sheldon Fellow for the investigation of American ballads at Harvard, Lomax published Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads, featuring more than 100 songs from scrapbooks, newspapers and responses to a circular he himself had mailed out. Filene cites Lomax as the principal agent in changing "the face of the folk, replacing the sturdy British peasant with the mystical cowboy who lived hard, shot quick and true and died with his face to his foe".

Yet even within this elevation of the cowboy to folk (and folk song) hero, Lomax tipped his Stetson to the British folk tradition. "Out in the wild, far away place of the big, unpeopled west ... yet survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit that was absent in the secluded districts of England and Scotland," he mused, connecting the cowboy to the mythology of medieval England, with his "spirit and hospitality as primitive and heart as that found in the mead-halls of Beowulf."

Later, in 1933, Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan embarked on a trip across the American South to find and record folk musicians like Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter, promoting him to leftist audiences in New York as the personification of American folk song, and thus redefining the genre by bringing significant attention to the until then under-represented and misrepresented role of African Americans. The son continued the crusading work of the father when, between 1937 and 1942, he made hundreds of field recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the American Library of Congress.

Whatever the criticism levelled at the Lomaxes, particularly when it came to Alan Lomax's registration of joint copyright with his contributors, arguably they were central to the establishment of a true American folk music that acknowledged a diversity of influences. This was a vision shared by two other collectors, contemporaries of John Lomax, Carl Sandburg and Robert Winslow Gordon, who "spread the word that America had indigenous musical tradition, that American music was more than British music recycled". Sandburg, especially, "brought to attention banjo tunes, outlaw ballads, lumberjack songs and fiddle tunes, prison songs, hobo songs, Mexican border songs and bandit biographies", many strands of which can be found in the Springsteen oeuvre.



"Woody Guthrie was the songwriter as advocate. He saw the song as a righteous sword and that inspired me."


"It's as close as people are going to come to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger."

STEVE VAN ZANDT on Springsteen

Here's a curious thing. Bruce Springsteen apparently got turned onto Woody Guthrie by, of all people, Ronald Reagan. The election of the 40th President of the United States in November 1980 horrified Springsteen; it was, he recalled, "a critical event to me and I started to address it on stage immediately". The story goes that someone had presented him with a copy of Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, and that after Reagan's victory over Jimmy Carter, he immersed himself in what is properly regarded as the quintessential biography of the American folk hero.

"He was funny and entertaining," Springsteen said of Guthrie. "He knew you can't get on a soap box, you can't tell anybody anything. I remember at the time a far-left political group approached me and showed me some of their material and I said, 'The ideas are good but it isn't any fun'. You have to feel human. You can't just harangue."

American folk music earned its stripes in the Thirties when hard times hit. No more the minority pursuit of the learned, the interior monologue of native communities, it became the medium through which the struggles of all the people were articulated, banging the drum for the advancement of social justice and hollering in protest at iniquity. This was the time of the Great Depression, an unprecedented global economic slump that began in 1929 and ended 10 years later.


Excerpted from Heart of Darkness by David Burke. Copyright © 2012 David Burke. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Red Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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