What Bruce Springsteen Learned From Flannery O’Connor

Tonight we’ll sing the songs
And I’ll dream of you, my corazón
And tomorrow my heart will be strong;

And may the saints’ blessings and grace
Carry me safely into your arms
There across the border.

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we’ll drink from God’s blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vines,
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border
— Bruce Springsteen, “Across the Border”

It is surprising when Bruce Springsteen becomes relevant yet again. Some of you will remember that Fr Andrew Greeley, as only Andrew Greeley could, pronounced in 1988 that Springsteen was a “major religious prophet.” Fr Greeley was right, I think, to point out a “Catholic imagination” in Springsteen’s work, characterized by an attention to the sacramentality of the material world and the close relationship between salvation and communion.

More recently, after the release of his 2002 album The Rising, Springsteen told an inquisitive Ted Koppel of Nightline, “Yeah, well, I’m a good. … Well, I was a good Catholic boy when I was little, so those images for me are always very close, and they explain a lot about life.” And he told the New York Times last year, “I realized as time passed, that my music is filled with Catholic imagery.” This religious aspect to Bruce Springsteen has received more scholarly attention since Greeley’s article. But I was most fascinated to read an article in America a few years ago by Patrick Kelly, SJ, that explained that, after reading Greeley’s description of him as a Catholic, the late Walker Percy wrote Springsteen, saying:

If this is true, and I am too, it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.

Percy then passed away, but Springsteen wrote a response to his widow:

The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.

Regarding O’Connor, Springsteen would subsequently tell Percy’s nephew, “She knew original sin—knew how to give it the flesh of a story.” I recently read a short book on Born in the USA published last year by the Washington Post’s music critic, Geoffrey Himes. Unfortunately, as you will see, he doesn’t do anything at all with a religious aspect to Bruce Springsteen, although Himes will remind you that the chorus melody for “Born in the USA” comes from the old black spiritual “Wade in the Water” (Bob Dylan recently said in an interview that some of his own melodies have come from Protestant church music). But Himes can tell us much more about Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor:

Fascinated by director John Huston’s 1979 movie, Wise Blood, recommended by [manager John] Landau, Springsteen read the Flannery O’Connor novel that it was based on and then many of her short stories as well. He took the titles of two of her stories, “The River,” and “A Good Man is Hard Find,” and turned them into song titles. Soon he was employing not just her titles but her techniques as well.

One of the great devices employed by O’Connor and such fellow Southern writers as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty was to tell stories through the eyes of a child. Because youngsters don’t always understand what they’re witnessing, they can describe things with a wide-eyed innocence and leave it to us, the readers or listeners, to fill in the missing information. This makes us participants in the story, and, with that kind of investment, we’re more likely to appreciate the gap between reality and the narrator’s innocence.

Springsteen used this device brilliantly on five songs he wrote during the 1981-84 period. “Mansion on the Hill” describes a young boy and his sister hiding out in a cornfield, watching the rich people, who are laughing at a party in a mansion that sits above the town’s factories and fields. For the youngsters, it looks like Disneyland, but to us, the locked iron gates represent the kind of class divisions that have spoiled the American dream. In “Used Cars,” the same narrator and the same sister resent their father for buying a boring used car instead of an exciting new convertible. The youngsters think it’s a failure of imagination, but we know the financial realities that dictate the choice.

In “My Father’s House,” the narrator dreams that he’s a child again, running through the trees and brambles till he collapses in his father’s sheltering arms. But when he awakes and visits the house in real life, the woman who answers says, “I’m sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore.” “My Hometown” opens with an eight-year-old boy rushing with a dime to buy a newspaper at the bus stop, giddy to be running the streets of the only home he’s known. Only in the later verses, when he becomes an adult, does he discover the town’s dark side. “The Klansman” [unreleased – ed] is sung by a young boy in his daddy’s kitchen who finds the recruitment pitch by a Ku Klux Klansman very seductive, because he has no context. But we have that context, and that makes the seduction very creepy indeed.

From O’Connor, Springsteen also learned the value of plainspoken language. The best literary effects came not from showing off your vocabulary but from making your characters so believable and their problems so suspenseful that your audience is absorbed into every line. It was better to describe young men out on the weekend in language they themselves might use – “Some heading to their families, some looking to get hurt, some going down to Stovell wearing trouble on their shirts,” as Springsteen does in “Working on the Highway” – than to describe them in kind of high-falutin’ language never heard in a barroom – as he does on “Born to Run,” “In the day we sweat it out on the streets on a runaway American dream; at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.”

O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925; she died of lupus at age thirty-nine after finishing just two novels and twenty-eight short stories. As part of the Catholic minority in the Bible Belt, she was enough of an outsider to have some perspective on the rural Southerners around her, but enough of an insider to get their eccentricities just right. Her northern education gave her the tools to tell her stories well, but her subjects were always Southern. She retained an unwavering faith in Christian redemption, but nearly every story she wrote tested that faith against examples of crime, cruelty, delusion and failure of every kind. The examples were vivid, but faith always prevailed.

Springsteen’s faith was not so much Christian as it was Rooseveltian and Presleyian; he believed in an American dream and a rock n’ roll promise that could be realized on this earth in this lifetime. But he followed O’Connor’s example by testing that faith in the form of characters who had every reason to be alienated from such belief – unemployed Vietnam veterans, small-time criminals, rootless transients, abandoned women and storytelling barflies.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to What Bruce Springsteen Learned From Flannery O’Connor

  1. Pingback: Bruce Springsteen on youtube

  2. Felipe says:

    Hei, I’m not a believer but I really appreciated your text! I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think the ‘catholic imagery’ of his music, as he called it himself, is very deep and beautiful, and although I don’t believe in a god, I appreciate and agree with some of the Christian ethical values. Sorry about my awkward way of paying compliments.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Felipe,

    Thank you for writing and there is no reason for any awkwardness. I’ve actually wondered if Springsteen’s music would make an interesting subject of conversation between Christians and agnostics or atheists.

    Springsteen constantly uses “Catholic imagery.” It might seem that he uses the language because only religious language can convey the intensity of, say, the experience of love. Does this mean that the experience of love is a sign of God’s love?

    Or, perhaps, does Springsteen mean that the real purpose of religion is to point us to the importance and meaningfulness of secular life?(For instance, in “Human Touch” – “Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood / It’s just you and me tonight.”) That would mean that the point of religious language is to be redirected – a “Catholic childhood” is just that.

    So, perhaps, a good conversation can be had …


  4. Pau; says:

    I like your essay, Neil, and plan to cite it in a talk I’m giving this weekend at Fordham. How can I give you a complete citation?

  5. Laura says:

    Excellent article. Is it possible to cite the page numbers from Himes’s book? I ask for reference purposes.



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