Bruce Springsteen: The Last Civil War Widow and the Happy Death of Minstrelsy

Is the latest Boss album the final straw for a certain kind of cultural appropriation in rock?

Bruce Springsteen (Image: Danny Clinch)

There is one very interesting thing about Only the Strong Survive, Bruce Springsteen’s recent, stupendously underwhelming albums of covers: I believe Only The Strong Survive signals the bitter end of a kind of minstrelsy that has been prevalent in Anglo-American rock and pop for over 60 years. 

Ever since The Beatles and the Stones made it appear not merely forgivable but natural (!) for white musical acts to record lesser renditions of songs first released by Black Americans, this has been, bizarrely, a totally acceptable venue for rock and pop. Even when done with honor, energy and good intentions, it was — plain and simple — minstrelsy: white entertainers adopting the accents and alleged musical and rhythmic traits of another race for the entertainment of other white people. 

This quirk was so prevalent that it often seemed like an essential appendage of pop/rock itself. Mind you, it also resulted in some seriously great music (especially in the hands of those artists who did not treat the texts as holy but rather endeavored to explore, deconstruct, or trash them a bit, like the Pretty Things, Captain Beefheart or early Fleetwood Mac). More significantly, these covers provided an entry point for multiple generations to discover the original artists who were sourced. They were an education, a road sign. 

I get all that, I really do. What I cannot understand is why people are still doing it, or at least doing it in such an old fashioned, innocuously polite manner as Bruce Springsteen did on his new album. 

When you cover a song without catharsis or a point of view, there is no bloody point. And when you cover a song originally recorded by a Black American without catharsis or point of view, you have minstrelsy. Got it, sports fan? For example, what is the point of view of The Beatles’ “Devil in Her Heart” or Springsteen’s “I Wish It Would Rain” (from Only the Strong Survive)?  Why do these exist? The Beatles were probably just filling out album tracks, true, but what’s Bruce’s excuse? He consciously decided that he needed to spend the time and money to record a cover that no one, not one single person, will prefer to the original. A chalk outline around a body does not honor the body. It reminds us of what is not there. A chalk outline is never, ever superior to or a replacement for the body. On the other hand, please note the Trashman’s total reduction and re-think of “Papa Oom Mow Mow” or the Who’s de/reconstruction of “Fortune Teller.” Each are master classes in Point of Effing View. 

I’ll say it again: For millions, The Beatles and the Stones were a gateway to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, et al, and that is something of deep value. And in the right hands, covers of Black American music could be so powerful, expressive, unhinged and originally conjured as to become the basis of an entirely new form of music. This is evident in “Beautiful Delilah” by The Kinks, “Diddy Wah Diddy” by Captain Beefheart, or “I Like It Like That” by the Dave Clark Five (of course this is just the tip of an enormous iceberg). These three covers take advantage of their very whiteness to come up with something so extreme and almost obscenely raucous that they reproduce and honor the intent of the originals by stomping all over them. They recreated the moment, but not the object. By contrast, I would say that the Beatles and the Stones never quite overcame their awe for the originals. 

Only the Strong Survive – by the way, that sounds like the title of a Frank Stallone film and/or the accompanying soundtrack — is chock full of covers that are so non-cathartic, so pointless and so polite that they are genuinely insulting to the heritage(s) that were the conception, causes, and conditions of the original versions. We should also note that Only the Strong Survive applies the same mousey treatment to non-R&B songs.

Bruce Springsteen Only The Strong Survive, Columbia Records 2022

Take a listen (or rather, please don’t) to Springsteen’s skim-milk sipping take on “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” Springsteen’s version has the same relationship to the Walker Brothers mighty, sky-filling 1966 recording that an Alarm cover band has to The Clash. Because of its’ total lack of a point of view, it’s profound distance from the power and glory of the recording its’ based on, and its complete lack of any reason to exist, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” may be the worst, though probably not the most offensive, track on Only the Strong Survive. (And yes, I know the Walker Brothers version was actually a cover of a Four Seasons song, but Springsteen’s sad, moose-y, Chamomile tea-sipping rendition is clearly based on the Walker Brothers.) 

It is fascinating that some of the most effective, memorable and cathartic garage rock covers (“Leaving Here” by Ronnie Wood’s Birds, Motörhead’s cover of the same song, or the versions of “Farmer John” recorded by Neil Young or the Delmonas) abandon any pretense of imitation or homage, and just use the original versions as text and suggestion of intent; i.e., Neil’s “Farmer John” is as wound up and ludicrous as the original, while sounding nothing remotely like it. You honor something not by imitation or by xeroxing, but by creating something that may be completely different yet is capable of the same shock, power, beauty. To put it a different way, you don’t become the “next” Temptations by sounding just like the Temptations; you become the next Temptations by recording something that has the same effect on the soul, spirit and heart that “I Wish It Would Rain” had when it was first released. Not a bloody thing on Only the Strong Survive makes anyone in the world feel the same thing they felt when the originals of these songs first cracked the earth. 

This kind of minstrelsy in pop/rock has been dying for close to 60 years; the sheer length of its’ death throes is one of the only things that makes the existence of an album as uninteresting as Only the Strong Survive, well, interesting. It’s an artefact, only note-worthy because it shouldn’t still exist, yet it does. It is the Last Civil War Widow. As early as Revolver and The Kinks’ Face to Face (both 1966), bands bred in the R&B/blues derived hothouse were aggressively asserting that the future of small combo electroacoustic rock and pop would lie (and thrive) in forms that may have been informed by Black American music, but were essentially disconnected from it. Honestly — and I know this is a shade of a leap — once Revolver and Face to Face had been created, by and large all subsequent minstrelsy in rock was either nostalgia or old habits (and sometimes these old habits were executed with power and grace, i.e., Led Zeppelin or early Fleetwood Mac). By the mid-1970s, rock/pop was taking the next step, and making an absolute distinct separation from its’ roots in minstrelsy: Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” (1975), not to mention a distinct number of acts from the initial punk explosion (though far from all), were virtually detached from roots in r’n’b or the blues, and therefore, a complete renunciation of minstrelsy. And if “Autobahn” or the first Ramones album was an aggressive affirmation that vastly original, engaging, and powerful music could be made without any whiff of minstrelsy, I believe this movement – let’s call it the anti-minstrelsy vein in rock and pop – reached another vital plateau twenty or twenty five years later with the emergence of extreme stoner metal bands like Sunn O))) or Bongripper, who made music with zero connection to any extant blues or R&B-based rock ‘n’ roll. (I deliberately omit two of the key bands in this movement, Sleep and Neurosis, because their work still had elements rooted in blues-based metal). Like their artier or more obscure forefathers – say, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, or Neu! — Sunn O))), Bongripper et al represented a new launch pad for a future mass-market guitar/bass/drum music with no connection to minstrelsy. 

(To state the obvious, this article is intentionally omitting any discussion of all forms of electronic dance music — except for the nod to Kraftwerk — and rap music and any of the fascinating appropriations thereof; I am dealing purely with the vein of minstrelsy/post-minstrelsy visible/audible in small-combo electroacoustic rock ‘n’ roll. Likewise, the influence of hillbilly and early rockabilly on rock and pop is a separate avenue, though I will note that some of the most furiously brilliant recent bands – say, The Mudd Club, from Bristol – are rooted in that genre, which we can file under DPSM, derived primitivism sans minstrelsy; then again DPSM often involves class/cultural appropriation, but like I said, that’s another damn subject.) 

By the way, I am not saying any of this is all “good” or “bad.” I really am not. I am not even saying that Only the Strong Survive is a “bad” album; just apoplectically unnecessary and pervaded with a trace of conceptual ickiness that is somewhat masked by the overwhelming dullness of the whole enterprise. And I am quite certain Mr. Springsteen had absolutely no bad intentions, not remotely; he just comes from a generation that thinks doing a cover version of a song made famous by a Black American that has no point of view and does not improve on the original is somehow a good or important gesture. That may have been true when The Beatles’ cut “Long Tall Sally,” but that was a very, very long time ago.

Bruce Springsteen could have just listened to these songs, maybe even wrote a book about them, but he most decidedly did not need to record them. He is just stuck in an archaic loop. 

 

VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Nightshift”

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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