Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and The Circles Where We Belong
I don’t even quite remember the context, although I’m hoping that writing about it will help me get to it, but one of the last things Dave Marsh said to Bruce Springsteen Sunday in the Sirius broadcast of their Seeger Sessions interview was, “That’s the circle on the beach where you belong, Bruce,” and that rang out to me, brought me full circle in a sense.
Ever since I started puzzling over The Rising's “My City in Ruins” and that “blood red circle” on the ground Bruce describes, I’ve felt a piece of Bruce’s surrealism I couldn’t quite fill in. Admittedly, maybe I’m not supposed to, maybe he can’t. That’s one of the most redemptive qualities in his music, the counterbalance to the thoughtful meticulousness in his approach. Bruce’s music is always at its best in its open-endedness, that surrealism that made those first couple of albums so wild-eyed with possibility, that sense that no matter how much Bruce planned and strategized and tactically orchestrated what he was up to, intuition filled in the gaps. And that’s one reason I so loved Human Touch while it seemed to leave so many Springsteen fans scratching their heads—the gypsy sojourner burst out of the American icon, and it began to reconcile or weave together all of the threads of Bruce’s career to date, starting with the defiant loser I first responded to who was now all but obscured by the troubled winner.
Daniel Woolf, in his Counterpunch essay about the album Devils and Dust helped me figure out something about that circle when he focused on the circle on the ground drawn by the boxer in “The Hitter,” that circle where the guy fought, the only thing he knew how to do, which had come to isolate him, in this case outside his wary mother’s door.
But what Dave was referring back to at the end of the interview was a circle Bruce described much earlier in the interview. Bruce told a story that filled in a missing piece of his own early history about his cousin, Frank, who, in the folk music days before the Beatles, would sit on the beach with a bunch of friends and sing folk songs with a bunch of friends. Bruce would listen to them play and watch the pretty girls in their swimsuits listening, and he began to long to play the guitar just well enough to keep up with the others, to strum along and be a part of that circle. I believe Bruce said that his cousin Frank showed him the E minor chord on the guitar (the chord most of us fall in love with first because it is so simple and so haunting), and Bruce started off playing the guitar by alternating between that and the A chord right next to it. Most guitarists must know exactly what he’s talking about because I certainly do—my very first songs were built around E minor, A and D--such simple chords but so full of mystery when played together (after all, throw in a G and you’ve got “House of the Rising Sun”).
This talk of circles and Bruce’s need to fit into one got me thinking about my friend Herpreet Kaur Grewal, whom I met at the Springsteen conference last September. She read a paper trying to answer the question of just what so intimately connects a 26- year-old Sikh Londoner to a 55-year-old American male from New Jersey, and she came up with their common search for a home that doesn’t quite exist in any concrete way in the world but that does exist in the music. She put up a slide of Bruce from Nebraska, where he is standing in a doorway, outside looking in, and compared it to John Wayne in The Searchers, at the end of the movie, walking away from the wedding party, the community he has helped to restore although he is inevitably shut out of its circle.
Herpreet pointed out to me that that was the theme of Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home as well, and I thought of that again when Bruce said in the Marsh interview that Bob Dylan was “the father of my country.” Dave responded with “the old weird America?” And Bruce said, “yeah, the one I recognize.”
When my friends from New Jersey talk about recognizing the sights, sounds, the unspoken impressions of their home that they recognize in Bruce’s music, I almost always want to chime in that I know just what they mean, though I hadn’t visited any of those places until about 8 years go. What I mean is that’s what I always heard in Bruce’s music—the world I know, the details of the place where I grew up, the main drags and winding section roads where I drove my car in endless circles listening to an 8 track of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Just as I knew that’s what my friend Steve Perry was talking about when he reviewed Steve Earle’s first album and talked about his own Iowa hometown in “Someday,” and something tells me Steve P. in the upper Midwest and Steve E. in San Antonio and myself in an Oklahoma oil town could all hear ourselves together, on our own hometown streets, prowling like caged animals in “Something in the Night.”
I first understood how the Seeger Sessions were bringing me home when I heard “My Oklahoma Home." That song’s most Guthrie-ish comic absurdities are also some of its most painfully real moments. Any Oklahoman knows “as I bent to kiss her, she was picked up by a twister” is hardly hyberbole compared to the real horror stories associated with tornadoes—one of the most absurd weather events imaginable. I can never forget one story where a young girl hiding from a tornado under a bridge reached out to take a woman’s hand and watched that woman fly backwards into the air up and away from her, or so many other stories of children taken from their parents’ arms and, sometimes, found unharmed, swaddled in debris 100 yards away.
Anyway, "My Oklahoma Home" moved me to tears--more than that. In general, I have such a hard time crying at life. The terrible things that have happened in my life have often sent me into shock, but just as often the tears are hard to come by, and I feel like I need them often when I can’t summon them. Music can make me cry when nothing else will, and when music moves me to tears, not just to wet eyes but to want to break out into a sore throat makin’, snot pouring bawl, well, I take note.
“My Oklahoma Home” did that, well before the New Orleans brass kicks in and makes it clear that this is the Katrina survivors’ story just as well as it’s the story of the Dust Bowl Okies, and that of the Latin American immigrants and their families and friends and supporters marching to hold on to the circles they’ve carved out in the U.S., and that of so many I love displaced and lost in the oil industry downsizing that started in the 80s and therefore my story, Bruce’s story and the story of the American people as a whole at one time or another--certainly in the alienated, broken times we are living in and the days ahead of us.
And on Dave Marsh's Sirius show, Kick Out the Jams, when I heard the song’s writer, Sis Cunningham, sing the song, I felt those tears well again, particularly when I heard that odd pronunciation of Cimmarron (Simarown) that both she and Bruce and presumably Okies of another time share. When I went to school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the Cimmarron River and the red dirt of central Oklahoma became the landmarks of my home, and finding community there in college--around music, around human rights struggle, around our need to carve out a circle of our own—I found the first community I ever really felt a part of. And I think that’s exactly why that one word hit so deep. My red dirt home has blown away. My first home being a college home, my brothers and sisters in that community have scattered in every direction imaginable, but they’re also always with me, central to who I am. Like that guy in the song, I won’t say I’m never homesick, but the only place my Oklahoma home exists is in the sky, and I hear so many of my loved one’s voices there—people who I may never talk to again in reality, but we’re always talkin’ anyway.
And that’s another way this all comes full circle because that guy in the song is any character on The Rising, anyone in America who lost the home (the country?) they once lived in (and in many cases, literally the people they once loved) on 9/11. We all have 9/11, and we all have our own 9/11s, and we all are trying to learn how to live brokenhearted, and we are all trying to grow up to become someone who can dream again.
Which is where this thing I’m trying to write really comes full circle. The last thing I wrote of any length to a music writer's listserve I am on was about my disappointment over hearing Bruce’s strangely muffled “We Shall Overcome.” I wanted to hear Dave's Sirius interview with Bruce, in part, to hear how Bruce explained it. He didn’t, but I think he answered all my immediate questions in various other ways, particularly in his description of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a song he describes, as he describes all the freedom songs on the record, as “surreptitious.” The voice he found for those songs is the voice of someone who’s heard of a secret chance and is talking conspiratorially to someone else he can trust about that possibility. Explicitly, to me, that’s the voice of someone who has heard he might just have a shot at dreaming again, of rolling the dice with some hope again, and he’s afraid to say it too loud because it might jinx the whole thing or land him in prison. This reminds me of a similar insight Daniel had into Devil’s and Dust which helped to unlock that album for me, and I get it emotionally, and it seems very much like America today to me.
The other day at work, one of my co-workers was questioning why one of us was so quiet about her activism, and I had this outburst, saying I was just like that, that most people at work had no idea what I was up to because of the climate and the culture and the way I feel I need to choose my battles carefully. In the day-to-day world most of us live in, I think dreams of possibility can be hard to voice in anything louder than a whisper.
One of the most interesting moments in Dave’s interview is when he points out that part of what’s so surprising about The Seeger Sessions is that it comes after three albums that have been tragedies. Although the singer’s revved to talk—he talks more animatedly and uninhibitedly in these interviews with Dave than I’ve ever heard him before, and it suits him well—Bruce pauses, says “I never thought about it that way,” and sounds like he’s dying to argue with that but wonders if it’s not true. It’s funny because that was my first response to Dave saying that as well. In particular, I didn’t want to think of The Rising as a tragedy because of its defiant hope, particularly in the title track and “My City in Ruins.”
But the classical definition of a tragedy is that the order at the end is only partially restored with significant pieces missing, and that guy in The Rising seems to be dead, and the one in “My City in Ruins” is calling, but he’s really dreaming of a response.
So, in this context, the couple whispering over their own chances in this new “We Shall Overcome” makes a little more sense. I wrote this on Sunday, after the interview, and I decided not to rush out online and play it again. That being the most disappointing thing I’d heard off of the new album, I decided to wait until today, the album fresh from the store, to hear it all as a whole, my Tuesday ritual whenever he has a new album. I wanted to hear that song in its context. Bruce is such a dramatist that the most fragile pieces of his work tend to work best when they are in place as movements in a larger whole, scenes in a longer movie. And I do experience him most fully as both an album artist and as a concert artist, weaving all of these varied pieces of what he does into a larger whole, ultimately his story that, for many reasons cited above and more, feels like our own.
I want to just flat out say it is our own, at least those of us lucky enough to hear it. That’s what I think Bruce has done that’s been most important, and I think it’s the thing that really links him to Pete Seeger. As incredibly talented as Bruce is, he always made music that said to me, “you can do this.” And, ultimately not proving to be much of a musician myself, I knew that the music had to mean more than this—it’s not that you can make music in just this way, but you can make your own music in the life you lead that keeps this vision of the promised land alive and the life we lead in trying to get there… worthwhile.
I can’t seem to write anything anymore without referring to “Sonny’s Blues,” so why fight the temptation… Probably my favorite line because it is most haunting and mysterious (like the key to the universe) is that line near the end—“Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.” Similarly, in both the metaphor’s mystery and its strong sense of direction, I think both Bruce and Pete have left that circle on the beach wide open--so the rest of us can find our place in the sand, knowing full well that they don’t really have a circle at all until we do.