Raw to the Bone: Transported Toward Truth and Memory by Springsteen’s River Songs
by Beth Kephart
Might as well start with “Shenandoah,” the old pioneer song that Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band transformed into sweet bitters in the living room of Springsteen’s fabled New Jersey farmhouse. “Shenandoah,” the tenth song on the We Shall Overcome/Seeger Sessions album, is music being made, as Springsteen himself has said. Music created in the moment, held between teeth, conducted with the frayed bracelet strings of an uplifted hand. It’s music hummed, hymned, and high in the shoulder blades, deep in the blue pulse of a straining vein. Patti’s lighting candles in the darkening farmhouse, as the band tunes in. The antique clock ticks. The thickly framed mirror doubles the volumes of sound and space. And now the Sessions Band is elaborating, confabulating, and the Shenandoah roves.
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away,
'cross the wide Missouri.
“Shenandoah” is a song without a known history. It is silt and residue, and it may not wash us clean, but it will wash us new. It is a river song, and if nobody knows who wrote it, that doesn’t matter now. Springsteen and the Sessions Band have played it, they have made it, and so we live it true. We long to see that river, wide. We’re bound, and bound away.
“Most of my songs are on the near banks of a river,” Springsteen once said. In my own too-many-decades appreciation of Springsteen music, it is the explicit river that regenerates, restores, and blessedly unmoors me. It’s Mary, the union card, and the wedding in “The River.” It’s “the groom standing alone beneath a weepin’ willow tree,” watching “the river rush so effortlessly” in “Reason to Believe.” It’s the “cry of the river” in “Valentine’s Day,” and the river growing wider in “Soul Driver” and the “whispering tide” of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It is as well the river that “narrows to a creek, that turns shallow and sandy” in “Long Time Coming.”
It’s also the river of “If I Should Fall Behind”—an unrighteous holy ask of forgiveness song, a some time in the evening song. The river, for Springsteen, signifies. Catholic and practically steepled, it is the place where people lie down to dream. It is where black feathers float and the moon rests and trouble runs wide beneath bird song. Springsteen’s rivers are catalytic, confessional, a crawl and a hurry, weatherized and alive between the banks of assonance and disrepair. They will or they will not be crossed, but they will take us to the edge of things, to fractured landscapes and underground springs. Breaking, renewing, unmasking, abrading, Springsteen’s rivers leave us raw to the bone.
Raw to the bone. I’m talking about vulnerability and exposure. I’m talking about reckoning, and so I am talking about that place where truth is found and memory thrives. Bruce Springsteen’s personal truths and memories, of course. But also, I would like to make the claim, ours.
“Most of my music is emotionally autobiographical,” Springsteen has said. “That’s how they know I’m not kidding.”
Exactly. He’s not kidding, and we do know it, and in the company of Springsteen’s own liturgical honesty—those lyrics he first scrawls across his journals with those high, looping h’s, t’s, and d’s; those orchestrations that emerge with time and erode with time—we are, at least while the music plays, more honest, too. We allow ourselves to feel. We allow ourselves to move. We yield to time, to ache, to regret, to story, and also, because this is Springsteen, hope. In making room for Springsteen’s mythic characters and worn-down crevasses—in allowing them in—we make room for our own authentic selves.
Let me explain:
I have stood and will stand, many a time, in my family room—different family rooms, different houses—with other people’s stories on the embanking shelves, a 200-year-old spinning wheel against one wall, and Springsteen music on. It will be dark, and I will be alone. Beyond the windows, sometimes, if the moon is full, I’ll see the lit eyes of a deer or, once, a fox. I’ll see the twitch of a rabbit stopped, for that split instant, by the throbbing of a Springsteen river song.
The music will rise through the soles of my feet. It will scour, channel, silt, and further rise. In the dark cavern of my hips it will catch and swish. Outside, perhaps, the stars have come up, and probably the deer have vanished, and maybe the cicadas are rumbling around in their own mangled souls. But inside, a river churns, widens, roars, and steeps, and I am dancing Springsteen.
It is in this fierce and freeing place that I have, time and again, found memory and staked truth. Within this church, beneath this weather, beside the tapped roots and the floated feather. The first inklings of my poems have erupted here. The saturated hues of the characters that eventually amble their way to my novels. The ties that finally bind the remembered things that constitute my memoirs. I wrote my own river book—Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River—while keeping company with Springsteen songs. I gave my river her own voice so that she could gloat and lament and suffer and, finally, sing. Springsteen, twanging and rasping, taught my river how to sing.
Much has been said about the community that Bruce Springsteen has both sought and forged. Much, too, has been said about the ranging democracy of his music—the folk, rock, country, jazz, blues; the symphonies and the solos. And while some of the great critics and commentators of our time—Jon Landau, Neil Strauss, Bobbie Ann Mason, Andrew Greeley, A.O. Scott, Nick Hornby, David Remmick—have pondered Springsteen, perhaps even nearly understood him, it is Springsteen himself whom we trust to explain Springsteen and to explicate the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
“I was interested in becoming part of people’s lives, and hopefully, growing up with them—growing up together,” he has written.
And: “… music is primarily an emotional language; whatever you’ve written lyrically almost always comes in second to what the listener is feeling.”
And: “I’m a romantic. To me the idea of a romantic is someone who sees the reality, lives the reality everyday, but knows about the possibilities, too. You can’t lose sight of the dream.”
And, famously: “I wanted to invent a dance with no exact steps.”
Springsteen has said all that and then, speaking to us in a language that bears no interpretation, he has sung: Oh down to the river we ride.
We don’t need perfection from our rock-and-roll heroes. We don’t want authority. We want, most of all, to believe. That he has thought about how he has lived. That he has noticed and empathized with those living around him. That he has driven this country and walked these landscapes and surrendered to the mighty minds, passions, yearnings of rivers. Springsteen makes the search for truth seem plausible, noble, even. And in doing so he inspires our own muddy, messy, necessary questing.
We learn, in the process, how right it feels to get out in front of our pretending and to be just who we are, our native, undecorated, unrighteous holy selves.
Beth Kephart is the author of fourteen books, including the National Book Award finalist, A Slant of Sun, Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, and, most recently, the critically acclaimed Small Damages. In 2013, Gotham will release Handling the Truth: on the writing of memoir.