Springsteen’s Religious Roots

I was a high school junior when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA came out and I didn’t like it at the time. I never understood when older people would talk about him in such reverent tones. I simply wasn’t old enough to appreciate his music, which has grown on me in my middle age. In an NPR interview, he talks about his religious upbringing and how it influenced his songwriting:

The thought of an in-between space makes me want to talk about gospel music. And I know that you had an idea of doing a whole gospel project. We heard some of it on Wrecking Ball and we hear some of it on this album with “Heaven’s Wall.” I’m a great student of gospel music and I can see where that kind of call-response thing [is] really like the preacher leading a choir.

Well, sure. That was where James Brown came from. The preacher, he’s the original frontman. It’s the shaman. If you go back, that was the original unit that functioned like that, whether it was in church or whether it was tribal. So the frontman kind of grew out of that thing and so it all gets thrown back to roots in blues and gospel music in church.

But what was your idea for a gospel project? Because I know you’ve talked in the past about getting this religious impulse to work in a way that it’s not restrictive or judgmental, you know. We talked about U2. They do a similar thing. And I hear that in songs like “Heaven’s Wall” and even in some of your protest music, the version of “41 Shots” that’s on the album, there’s a lament quality to it, you know, and a trying-to-transcend quality.

Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.

And it isn’t just the religious imagery in his music, it’s the role he plays on stage at times. Watch this live performance of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, my favorite Springsteen song. He’s a preacher on stage during this song, in the best possible way. It was this exact DVD that really turned me into a fan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV8fyTDLoSQ

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  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Off topic, but are there technical problems behind the scenes or is everyone else on FTB taking a day off?

  • keithb

    When I saw him live it was amazing how he played the audience. He could get us to stand and dance or sit and be contemplative, he was in total control.

    And Tabby, I guess everyone is sitting waiting for the Nye-Ham debacle.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Considering the wide social and esthetic gap between Catholic school religion lessons and gospel music, Springsteen’s account seems somewhat of a non sequitur, or even a missing link…

  • brucegee1962

    Oh Ed, I normally agree with you, but clearly Thunder Road is his best song. That’s also one of the ones where the ripped-off bandaid of religion is the most clearly there:

    Waste your summer praying in vain

    For a savior to rise from these streets

    Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood

    All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood…

    We got one last chance to make it real

    To trade in these wings on some wheels

    Climb in back: Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

  • kevinalexander

    Pierce,

    It would depend on the particular school and the teachers that they have. There is a charismatic strain in catholicism.

    They say that there are a billion RCs in the world but I would say that there are a billion people who are called catholic. I doubt that any two worship the same god.

  • kevinalexander

    Thunder Road is my favourite but it always makes me sad. It’s like religion because it’s full of passionate hope but you still know it leads to a dead end.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I remember the first time I heard Springsteen, when I went off to college. I was musically unsophisticated. The girls in the dorm were swooning for Bruce. My reaction was something like, “I can’t understand a word he’s singing. He needs to learn to enunciate.” And of course

    1) They were right and I was wrong.

    2) Springsteen did improve his enunciation.

  • Synfandel

    Springsteen’s tortured idiosyncratic singing style makes for some of the more hilarious misheard lyrics. I once heard someone say that his roommate thought that Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was Dead Devil in the Freezer. Now when I hear the song, that’s all I can hear. Go on. Try it.

  • scienceavenger

    Oh brother, we’re going to do best Springsteen song now? Get ready for a long thread. For my money its “Racing in the Streets”, where his desperation and auto imagery was at its best. Still gets me all verklempt.

    As for his stage performance, well, anyone who never saw him missed out on a one-of-a-kind experience, and this coming from a guy who spent decades in Austin. “Concert” is too crude a term, perhaps “musical theatre” better suits what he did. No one was better. He had a transition from an angry Nam song who’s name escapes me at the moment into Born in the USA that was the best concert experience I ever had.

  • leonardschneider

    Hmmm…. Kyle Toucher from the band Dr. Know was raised Catholic, too. He wrote and performed an entirely different kind of music.

    (If you’re at work right now and have speakers, I double-dog dare you to click that link.)

  • sc_72717b0d8dc4053e632b6512091cef73

    “someone say that his roommate thought that Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was Dead Devil in the Freezer.”

    I wrote that on a music forum back in the 90s…or maybe my friend wasn’t the only one who misheard that lyric that way.

    Oh, and I couldn’t begin to judge is best song, but his best album is Darkness on the Edge of Town!

  • poose

    I grew up alongside Bruce, but never really got into his music. Didn’t hate it, but equally didn’t care for it either.

    To me, I always considered it sorta like the classic line from “Blues Brothers”: “We play both Country and Western here!”

    I never really considered it Rock (my favorite) nor Pop, but “Dancing in the Dark” is unquestionably a pop song.

    The fact of Gospel influences doesn’t surprise me at all. Not that I feel it really shows in either the tunes or the lyrics, but that many rock musicians from that era usually had strong gospel roots or upbringings.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “It was this exact DVD that really turned me into a fan.”

    Ed, can you say, “disciple”, sure you can.

    I missed a couple of chances to see Bruce Springsteen in small venues in the Boston area back in the early to mid 70’s. By the time I started to get into his music (at the time I was a big fan of 10cc, Horselips, Thin Lizzie, Zappa, Mott the Hoople, Bad Company, Groundhogs, Iggy Pop, Bowie and a few others) he had become WAY too expensive for my meager budget.

    I now have a fair amount of his music and one of my favorite albums is “Nebraska”–as dark as it is, it’s just a “Woodie Guthrie” sorta vibe, to me–and my favorite song is prolly, “My hometown”–I have no idea why.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    @KavineAlexander:

    It would depend on the particular school and the teachers that they have. There is a charismatic strain in catholicism.”

    The charismatic strain in Catholicism is tiny and it didn’t even exist until long after Springsteen attended Catholic school. He was born in 1949, so he attended a Catholic school and church when the liturgy was in Latin. There was occasionally, a solemn high mass(sung) in some parishes, which isn’t remotely similar to what Springsteen is doing in this video and the more frequent version of the mass which wasn’t sung. The latter was as formal and dry as a bone as a service can get. Both types of liturgy were rigidly regulated both in style and content. There is zero possibility Springsteen encountered anything like charismatic or gospel style in his Catholic school.

  • Ryan

    I am more than slightly biased – I’m a huge Springsteen fan, but I have never had a problem with his religious imagery in his songs. Like any good writer he uses vivid, evocative descriptions in his songs, and even as an atheist you can still understand what he is trying to say. It’s kinda like his songs about cars and roads, you don’t need to be a car fan to get his songs, it’s just a metaphor for something greater. I might also add that for a better understanding of his approach to religion you should listen to “Part man, part monkey.”

    Ultimately he may play the part of a preacher on stage but he sure doesn’t seem to like them much.

    “They prosecuted some poor sucker in these united states

    For teachin’ that man descended from the apes

    They coulda settles that case without a fuss or fight

    If they’d seen me chasin’ you sugar

    Thru the jungle last night

    They’d a called in that jury and a one two three said

    ‘part man part monkey, definitely.

    Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire

    Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire

    Well the man on the street

    Believes what the Bible tells him so

    But you can ask me mister because I know

    Tell them soul-suckin’ preachers to come on down and see

    Part man part monkey, baby that’s me”

  • estraven

    My favorite Springsteen album is Nebraska, followed by The Seeger Sessions. Nebraska is just plain haunting.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    Dr. X;

    Did you serve as an altar boy when in school? I did for a few years until they finally decided that I was NOT going to be one of their success stories. When we still did the entire mass in latin (except for the gospel readings and the homily/shakedown) us altar boys used to race through the “Suscipiat”:

    “Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis ad laudern et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae”

    According to this site:

    http://www.catholicforum.com/

    the prayer was the people’s response. That was never the case in any church I ever attended–it was all on us angels with dirty minds.

  • http://flewellyn.livejournal.com Flewellyn

    Springsteen’s tortured idiosyncratic singing style makes for some of the more hilarious misheard lyrics. I once heard someone say that his roommate thought that Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was Dead Devil in the Freezer. Now when I hear the song, that’s all I can hear. Go on. Try it.

    OH MY GOURD. THIS is the song that I thought was “The Devil Ain’t Freeze-Dried” for YEARS. YEARS.

    I wondered who the hell sang it, and what it was supposed to mean, and how on Earth it made sense to even wonder whether or not the devil was freeze-dried.

    WOW.