Because Bruce Springsteen covered Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline” a number of times before writing and recording his own “Across the Border,” it’s tempting to view the song as his answer to Cooder. But listen to the two songs back to back, and it seems like it should be the other way around: Cooder seems to be answering Springsteen.
Springsteen’s is the more primal song. He sings about a Mexican immigrant’s dream of a better life, in America.
Sweet blossoms fill the air
Pastures of gold and green roll down into cool, clear waters
And in your arms ‘neath open skies, I’ll kiss the sorrow from your eyes
There, across the border.
The music is sweet and earnest, too, with Danny Federici’s accordion, Soozie Tyrell’s violin and Marty Rifkin’s pedal steel guitar creating wave after wave of billowing emotion, and backing vocals by Tyrell, Patti Scialfa and Lisa Lowell adding welcoming warmth.
Performing “Across the Border” in concert for the first time, at the State Theatre in New Brunswick in November 1995, Springsteen mentioned the Joad family’s perseverance in the movie “The Grapes of Wrath,” and said the song was “about the mystery of human nature … how people just keep going.”
Cooder’s “Across the Borderline” (co-written with John Hiatt and James Dickinson), on the other hand, is more thorny, and more realistic. The immigrant, once in America, discovers that the roads are not really paved with gold, and “every dream slips through your hands.”
It’s beautiful in its own way, too, and it’s also about perseverance, to some extent. “Hope remains when pride is gone/And it keeps you moving on,” Cooder sings. But these songs are really more like distant cousins than brother-and-sister.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Across the Border” on his 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad album.
Springsteen performed it 145 times between 1995 and 2005, according to Brucebase. This includes a 1998 performance at Sony Music Studios in New York that was taped for the TV special, “Where It’s At: The Rolling Stone State of the Union” (see below), and a performance of it at Federici’s funeral, in 2008.
Among the cover versions of “Across the Border” is one by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris (with Neil Young on harmonica), on Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, their 1999 duets album (see below).
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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