Springsteen on Hank Williams

David Browder quotes from a keynote speech Bruce Springsteen made at the SXSW shindig in Austin in which he gives his reflections on the great Hank Williams and the music of his tradition:

I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to Hank Williams Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. It just sounded cranky and old-fashioned…with that hard country voice. With that austere instrumentation. But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late ’70s.

One thing it rarely was…it was rarely politically angry, it was rarely politically critical. And I realized that fatalism had a toxic element. If rock ‘n roll was a seven-day weekend, country was Saturday night hell-raising, followed by heavy Sunday coming down. Guilt, guilt, guilt. I [fracked] up, oh my God. But, as the song says, would you take another chance on me? That was country. Country seemed not to question why, it seemed like it was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country, said, “I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down.”

via Who Put That Hole in My Bucket? The Difference Between Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams | Mockingbird.

Yes!  Exactly!  Bruce didn’t quite understand it, but Browder does, going on to name what it is about Hank Williams that is so compelling:  The backdrop of Christianity and the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    I’ve never been a big Springsteen guy. To me, he has been on the rather sizable heap of shallow thinking celebrities who think they have wisdom because they have popularity. There is an air of pretentious political moralism in his work that pops my mind right out of his music. This analysis of Hank reinforces that for me. Sort of a, “Hank was great, but he should have expunged his guilt through political anger rather than personal remorse.”

    (But then, what do I know? The guy sells out stadiums. He is obviously tapping into something that I do not see. For the record, I do love “Glory Days,” but again it has no pretense.)

    I do think Hank is a much more honest artist. He was great because people related to his music, and they related because he wrote about his own personal struggle. And it was a struggle that he lost, so I’d be a little cautious about baptizing it into a struggle between sin and grace. Still, anyone who is genuinely in that struggle can find articulation for their failure in Hank’s music.

    Yet Bruce Springsteen does identify the problem in Hank’s music, though he has no idea what to do with it: Moping about in guilt is not grace.

  • Dan Kempin

    I’ve never been a big Springsteen guy. To me, he has been on the rather sizable heap of shallow thinking celebrities who think they have wisdom because they have popularity. There is an air of pretentious political moralism in his work that pops my mind right out of his music. This analysis of Hank reinforces that for me. Sort of a, “Hank was great, but he should have expunged his guilt through political anger rather than personal remorse.”

    (But then, what do I know? The guy sells out stadiums. He is obviously tapping into something that I do not see. For the record, I do love “Glory Days,” but again it has no pretense.)

    I do think Hank is a much more honest artist. He was great because people related to his music, and they related because he wrote about his own personal struggle. And it was a struggle that he lost, so I’d be a little cautious about baptizing it into a struggle between sin and grace. Still, anyone who is genuinely in that struggle can find articulation for their failure in Hank’s music.

    Yet Bruce Springsteen does identify the problem in Hank’s music, though he has no idea what to do with it: Moping about in guilt is not grace.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    An interesting observation, but there is a difference between guilt spurring one on for need of a Savior vs. guilt because I don’t want to let go of my sin. I suspect that Springsteen (along with most of the world) is the latter part. I believe this is what Paul addresses when he talks about godly sorrow vs. worldly sorrow in 2 Corinthians.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    An interesting observation, but there is a difference between guilt spurring one on for need of a Savior vs. guilt because I don’t want to let go of my sin. I suspect that Springsteen (along with most of the world) is the latter part. I believe this is what Paul addresses when he talks about godly sorrow vs. worldly sorrow in 2 Corinthians.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Don’t forget Hank’s gospel songs that he wrote and that make up probably the biggest part of his canon, including masterpieces like “I Saw the Light.” Then there are the remarkable songs and narrations that he did under his completely different Luke the Drifter persona. He sings those songs with utter sincerity and desperation.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Don’t forget Hank’s gospel songs that he wrote and that make up probably the biggest part of his canon, including masterpieces like “I Saw the Light.” Then there are the remarkable songs and narrations that he did under his completely different Luke the Drifter persona. He sings those songs with utter sincerity and desperation.

  • Lee Cullen

    Interesting comments. I am a big Springsteen fan but also critical of his liberal political philosophy and liberation theology which permeate his music. The Boss knows the world is broken, just as Hank, the problem is: wherein is the answer to the brokenness? The Boss sees the answer, I would submit, not in the Gospel but in governmental intervention, in political activism, and societal reformation. The problem isn’t with man but with the society in the eyes of the Boss. It’s a hard life both the Boss and Hank will admit but one sees hope and an answer in the Christian Gospel while the other views the church suspiciously (perhaps because of the lack of the Gospel?). Springsteen’s Roman Catholic upbringing has left a sour taste in his mouth even though his music is laced with Biblical allusions and comparisons even as his experience with supporting politicians has left him wanting as well. One has said that only the Boss can have such somber lyrics with such upbeat music. For him it still is what it always has been – music is carthartic even if you are still standing where you began.

  • Lee Cullen

    Interesting comments. I am a big Springsteen fan but also critical of his liberal political philosophy and liberation theology which permeate his music. The Boss knows the world is broken, just as Hank, the problem is: wherein is the answer to the brokenness? The Boss sees the answer, I would submit, not in the Gospel but in governmental intervention, in political activism, and societal reformation. The problem isn’t with man but with the society in the eyes of the Boss. It’s a hard life both the Boss and Hank will admit but one sees hope and an answer in the Christian Gospel while the other views the church suspiciously (perhaps because of the lack of the Gospel?). Springsteen’s Roman Catholic upbringing has left a sour taste in his mouth even though his music is laced with Biblical allusions and comparisons even as his experience with supporting politicians has left him wanting as well. One has said that only the Boss can have such somber lyrics with such upbeat music. For him it still is what it always has been – music is carthartic even if you are still standing where you began.

  • Dan Kempin

    Lee Cullen, as in the guy who used to do latin over coffee in Monroe?

  • Dan Kempin

    Lee Cullen, as in the guy who used to do latin over coffee in Monroe?

  • Lee Cullen

    Yes, Dan, the same. Actually, it was Earl Gray Tea and Bagels. Fond memories.

  • Lee Cullen

    Yes, Dan, the same. Actually, it was Earl Gray Tea and Bagels. Fond memories.

  • Barry Arrington

    Yes, there is an “agonizing struggle between sin and grace.”

    Which is why tears streamed down my face this morning as I sang this:

    I stand amazed in the presence
    of Jesus the Nazarene,
    and wonder how he could love me,
    a sinner, condemned, unclean.
    How marvelous! How wonderful!
    And my song shall ever be:
    How marvelous! How wonderful
    is my Savior’s love for me!

  • Barry Arrington

    Yes, there is an “agonizing struggle between sin and grace.”

    Which is why tears streamed down my face this morning as I sang this:

    I stand amazed in the presence
    of Jesus the Nazarene,
    and wonder how he could love me,
    a sinner, condemned, unclean.
    How marvelous! How wonderful!
    And my song shall ever be:
    How marvelous! How wonderful
    is my Savior’s love for me!


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