Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Gospel and Blues of Rocky Ground

by Gregg Chadwick

(Song by Song Review of Bruce Springsteen's New Album - Wrecking Ball)

 ''The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel."
- Bruce Springsteen in Conversation With Jon Pareles in The New York Times July 14, 2002

Gregg Chadwick
The Luminist
12"x12" oil on linen 2010 

As if reaching out from the past into the present, Bruce Springsteen's song Rocky Ground (Listen Here) opens with a  ghostly voice calling out the refrain "I'm a soldier."
This verbal fragment was culled from a historical performance of the Church of God in Christ Congregation's rendition of  I'm A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord,  recorded by musical historian Alan Lomax in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1942*. 

The song then shifts to the chorus, sung by the gospel singer Michelle Moore:

We've been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground
We've been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground

Only after this spiritual initiation does Springsteen sing the first verse:

Rise up shepherd, rise up
Your flock has roamed far from the hills
The stars have faded, the sky is still
The angels are shouting "Glory Hallelujah"

Springsteen's voice is yearning, soulful, bluesy. The music behind the singer brings to mind Springsteen's mournful song Streets of Philadelphia. Understated piano, a looped, patterned drum rhythm and atmospheric guitar wash across Rocky Ground. Mournful horns set a Van Morrison vibe.

Jacob Lawrence's magnificent Migration Series comes to mind. These paintings documented the African American movement from the rural south to the urban north between the World Wars. From his small studio in Harlem, Jacob Lawrence let loose with a flurry of deeply resonant and poignant words and images that encapsulated the hopes, fears, and dreams of a community moving into the unknown; often bolstered only by faith. The promise of a new day was coming, but the road was hard.

Jacob Lawrence
The Migration Series, Panel no. 3:
From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.

12"x18" tempera on gesso on composition board 1940-41 
The Phillips Collection, Washington DC

As if to mark in music the history of this Great Migration, Springsteen's Rocky Ground moves from a folk recording from 1940's rural Mississippi, to Michelle Moore and the Victorious Gospel Choir to a more contemporary musical style: rap.  

Jacob Lawrence
The Migration Series, Panel no. 58:
In the North the Negro had Better Educational Facilities

12"x18" tempera on gesso on composition board 1940-41 
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Moore's rap flows smoothly into the structure of the song setting us up for a powerful dose of spoken word blues:

You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach 'them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more

The lyrics turn from hope to fear and doubt:

You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom's dropping out
Where you once had faith now there's only doubt
You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers
The morning breaks, you awake but no one's there

The intoning voice from the 1940's attempts to give strength. The choir provides a chorus of resilience.  Springsteen returns and sings, "There's a new day coming." But as this morning breaks we are alone in our struggles. This existential moment at the abyss is chilling. No one's there. 

Gregg Chadwick
Under the Copper Sky
30"x22" monotype on paper 2011 

In 2002 Springsteen explained to Jon Pareles in The New York Times that in his music he has to "come to grips with the real horrors that are out there. And that all people have is hope. That's what brings the next day and whatever that day may bring. "

Springsteen goes on to explain that "hope is grounded in the real world of living, friendship, work, family, Saturday night. And that's where it resides. That's where I always found faith and spirit. I found them down in those things, not some place intangible or some place abstract. And I've really tried to write about that basic idea my whole life.''

Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959
photo by Alan Lomax

In Rocky Ground Springsteen adopts the traditional sounds and imagery of gospel, but for Springsteen faith and spirit are not found in the realm of angels but instead in the doggedness of daily life. Rocky Ground poignantly reminds us that hope is found in the courage to live each day to its fullest, in the sacrifices that parents make so that their children perhaps will have a more fulfilling life, and in the loving community of friends and family that brings meaning to our shared existence.


 Alan Lomax was one of the great field collectors of folk music of the twentieth century, recording thousands of songs in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Lomax recorded in the plantations, levee camps, prisons and railroad yards where the men and women of the blues came from and the music was born. 

All lyrics from Rocky Ground -  Copyright © Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP)

More Song by Song Reviews of Wrecking Ball:

More at:

"Bruce Springsteen's widescreen vision of America on Wrecking Ball is filled with terror, tension, tenacity and above all else, triumph which may not replenish your bank account, but it will replenish your soul."
-Anthony Kuzminski, Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball, antiMusic
All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
The Working Man's Voice - The Wall Street Journal
Parsing the Samples and Quotes on Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen, Théatre Marigny press conferenceParis, February 2012

Don't Miss This Upcoming Event on NPR:
NPR Music will broadcast Bruce Springsteen's keynote speech from the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. The live webcast of that address will take place on NPR Music on March 15 at noon Central time.

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