Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday on September 23 provides a perfect opportunity to mark his enormous contribution to Americana Music!
Americana music? You bet!
The Boss has recorded a wealth of material which criss-crosses all sorts of musical genres and from each you can add to the Americana mix.
The obvious examples are the sparse and stripped-down sensational albums Nebraska (1982), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005). Add to these, his wonderful folk covers with The Sessions Band - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) & Live In Dublin (2007). And for good measure, toss into the equation his recently-released country album Western Stars (2019).
And if there are still any doubts, the greatest Americana interpretations of his work did not come from any of the albums listed above. Emmylou Harris, as only she could, found it easy to transport “Born to Run,” “Tougher than the Rest,” “My Father’s House” and “Racing in the Streets” from Rock ‘n Roll to Alt Country (Americana).
In fact, Emmylou - as only she is entitled to - is on record as describing Bruce “as one of my favourite country singer and songwriters.” Further proof is provided by Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Across the Border.”
There is no doubt that Springsteen is very proud of Nebraska. In 2016, when promoting his biography Born to Run on The Late Show he had little hesitation in naming “Nebraska” as among his “top five” songs. In fact, the making of this album - one of the greatest in acoustic music - is documented in the biography. He wrote: “I wanted black bedtime stories. I tapped into white gospel, early Appalachian music and the blues.”
A definition of Americana music in itself.
And the title track is the epitome of the genre with an opening stanza among the most haunting in modern music: I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton/ Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.
More than a decade after Nebraska, Bruce returned to documenting those travelling the Lost Highway of Life with The Ghost of Tom Joad. By now he had moved from the Midwest of America to the troubled borderland of the Southwest.
And there is no sadder Americana tale than “Sinaloa Cowboys,” the story of Mexican brothers Miguel and Louis Rosales who cross the border looking for a better life and end up cooking methamphetamine.
It costs Louis his life:
Miguel lifted Louis’ body into his truck and then he drove
To where the morning sunlight fell on a eucalyptus grove
There in the dirt he dug up ten thousand dollars all that they’d saved
Kissed his brother’s lips and placed him in his grave
If that is enough to make one weep, listen to “The New Timer”, also from The Ghost of Tom Joad:
We split up come the springtime
I never seen Frank again
'Cept one rainy night he blew by me on grainer
Shouted my name and disappeared in the rain and the wind
They found him shot dead outside Stockton
His body lyin' on a muddy hill
Nothin' taken, nothin' stolen
Somebody killed him just to kill
Pure folk music!
Speaking of which, The Boss further demonstrated his musical versatility in 2006 when he produced his first – and only - album of entirely non-Springsteen material. In it, he interpreted, in a way only Bruce could, songs made popular by folk legend Pete Seeger.
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is the work of Bruce and a group of musicians, including wife Patti Scialfa, from New Jersey and New York City. They would become known as The Sessions Band and would tour as such. The album received critical acclaim and went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
And if there is any proof that Bruce can be placed on the same pedestal as Elvis when it comes to a live performer, just watch the Live from Dublin DVD Bruce and The Sessions Band produced in 2007. Here are more than a dozen musicians onstage belting out everything from “My Oklahoma Home” to “When the Saints Go Marching In” with almost every musical instrument imaginable.
Now that has to be a living definition of Americana music!
So mark the date of September 23 1949 as the day the world greeted a musical legend.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation