On May 4, 1974, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the gym at Montclair State University. It was more than a year before they released their classic Born to Run album, and five days before critic Jon Landau, who later became Springsteen’s manager, saw them in Cambridge, Mass., and famously declared in a review that “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Even Landau couldn’t have predicted, though, that one day in the future, there would be a college course devoted to Springsteen’s work. “Springsteen: the Man and the Music” is currently being offered as a summer, online course at Montclair State. It explores, among other things, “the way his work reflects the American experience in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” according to its official description. Assigned readings include that career-boosting Landau review.
Prudence J. Jones, an associate professor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State, teaches the course. She also teaches Greek and Latin classes, and her other areas of interest include Augustan Rome and Cleopatra.
This will be her third time teaching the Springsteen course. She also did it the past two summers.
She describes herself as a “pretty big” Springsteen fan, and says she has been to about 50 of his concerts since first seeing him in 1999.
She first became a serious fan while writing her dissertation. “I sort of happened upon the River album,” she says, “probably in part because I wrote my dissertation about rivers in ancient Roman literature, and the idea of using a river in lyrics that way … ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I’ve got to get that album.’ So I listened to that a lot while I was writing. ”
One of the things that fascinated her about him, she says, is that “there was just something about the way he treated work that was very similar to the way I was experiencing the work of being a graduate student.”
She bought more of his albums, and after seeing that 1999 show, she says, “I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep doing that.’ And as I started seeing more concerts, and meeting other fans outside the venue. I got involved in online message boards, and found some other fans I enjoyed talking to. Then I started thinking a little more about it from the academic standpoint, that he had some interesting texts there.”
Jones, who lives in New Brunswick, participated in “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium” at Monmouth University in West Long Branch in 2009, presenting a paper titled “Tradition and Originality in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.”
She is interested, she says, in “the network of influences: both what is influencing Springsteen, and then what is Springsteen influencing. Getting at his interaction with, say, the folk tradition.”
For instance, she traces the origins of his “American Land” back to the Pete Seeger song, “He Lies in the American Land.”
” ”He Lies in the American Land’ is a very somber song, but Springsteen takes it and makes it more anthemic. You have some of the same elements, but the tone really changes.”
The song “The River,” she says, contains an allusion to Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” (see YouTube video below).
“In the Hank Williams song, it’s sort of dark humor: The guy is trying to drown himself in the river, but the river is dry, so he can’t even kill himself right. But then the Springsteen song sort of tweaks that a little bit. The river is dry, but the implication is that the narrator and his girl still go down to that river, not with the idea of ending their lives, but they remember what had been. It’s not upbeat, but it’s not suicidal either.
“It’s an interesting re-reading of that. It’s almost like, there’s still that potential for tragedy, but somehow going to that dry river is comforting now, as well as (having) the painful aspect of nostalgia.”
Springsteen, she says, “expects a lot of his listeners. He puts in some pretty subtle references to other creative works. And if the listener gets the reference, it may actually change how they look at the song a little bit, or even how they look at what Springsteen is referring to.”
She describes her Springsteen studies as a side academic interest, not one of her main ones. But she does currently have an article under review at the scholarly journal BOSS (Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies), whose current issue includes articles such as “Another Side of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’: Form, Paradox, and Rhetorical Indirection” and “Springsteen as Developmental Therapist: An Autoethnography.”
She has published several books on classical subjects, but has no plans to do one on Springsteen.
“But I’d never say never,” she adds. “I never thought I’d write an article on Springsteen.”