In 1815 in Dublin a ballad was collected that told the life of a soldier. Enlisting to fight in the Napoleonic wars, he had been maimed in action, his leg blown off, and the song tells the story of his mother’s reaction in powerfully moving ways. The song has various titles but it’s usually known by that mother’s name – Mrs McGrath. That’s all we know of her.
I thought of that mother recently, when the blue-collar Baudelaire – Bruce Springsteen – The Boss – came back to town. Irish audiences have always given Springsteen ecstatic receptions, claiming this son of New Jersey as an honorary fellow citizen. It’s clearly an induction he’s happy to have, as anyone who saw him in Dublin will know. Combining the wolfish howl of a natural-born showman with the gritty commitment of a rebel balladeer, this is Springsteen as stadium idol, at the age of 58, doing air-punching, sixteen-wheeler rock and roll with all the wild belief of a teenager. He is clearly relaxed, feels at home in Dublin. As well he would – for in one sense he is. The 19th century songs of Ireland are part of his music’s DNA, as his recording of the story of Mrs McGrath made clear. It’s a song he’s made new once again.
If folk music is America’s Ulysses, its Chaucerian saga, enriched by the darkness and desire of the blues, Springsteen’s modes of reinvention have charged it with power and given it back its authority. Standing at a microphone, alone in the spotlight, a battered acoustic guitar in his notably clumsy hands, is the last great embodiment of the American troubadour who sings an entire society into being. Archivist, lamenter, teller of stories, this is a writer of scrupulous beauty and precision, whose first-person miniatures of American life bring news not always easy to hear. His tales of star-crossed lovers, soldiers in the night, hard burdens shouldered and promises forgotten transmit the kind of magnetism encountered in traditional Irish song – that body of great art created by geniuses whose names we will never know. They are the American cousins of the Rocks of Bawn and I Wish I Was in Carrickfergus, -- the songs that crossed an ocean only to be rescued in America, their broken culture saved from extinction. In Springsteen’s loving care they are reinvented; but still sung by a voice that has lost a few battles and knows it is far from home.
His characters shimmer up at you -- you can almost see them, touch them. The girls who combed their hair in rear view mirrors, the boys who raced their cars through the dusk-lit streets. They came into an inheritance of foreclosures, repossessions, a patrimony of faraway battles. They are the people whose children do the dying in America’s wars, while the privileged wring their hands, or look the other way. There are still Mrs McGraths, in many broken countries, in the frightened Napoleonic empires of our world.
Springsteen, the laureate of American anxieties, has remained a relevant artist not by musical giftedness – there were always better singers and his voice has grown weaker – but by having what John McGahern said every writer needs most: a way of seeing the world. The people who live in his scrupulously realised songs are his Leopold Blooms, his Bull McCabes, his Judith Hearnes with their lonely passions; it is only that they don’t know it, have no language to say it, and nobody would be listening if they did. ‘The real war will never get in the books,’ wrote Walt Whitman, but it seeps into Springsteen’s uneasy reflections. A man who was Born in the USA – and no other country on earth could have produced him -- but in another sense he could be the Irish writer we never had, the inheritor of that Dublin balladeer. For through the power of his art, its openness to the world, the waifs and strays of Irish song came home, dressed in their American clothes.