Editor’s Note: This is the fifth issue in Sightings’ continuing series of essays on religion and popular music. For the previous installments, see “The Broken Grace of Leonard Cohen” by Paul DeCamp; “Being Hip-Hop, Being Job, and Being” by Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier; “‘No One Was Saved’: The Beatles and Organized Religion” by Kenneth Womack; and “Of Music and Martyrdom” by Zola Jesus.
The first time the words “Bruce Springsteen” and “good Catholic boy from New Jersey” are known to have appeared together in print was on February 8, 1973, in the Commonwealth Times, the student-run newspaper of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The report is a 300-word preview of a show that was set for February 18 at Richmond’s Mosque Theater, where Springsteen and the not-quite-yet E Street Band were opening for Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. That date was one month after the release of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen’s first album, where the first recorded evidence can be found for the recurring role that his Catholic upbringing would play in his lyrics. There are mentions of Jesus and Mary, nuns and priests, angels and devils, sinners and saints, and even the Vatican.
Evident throughout Springsteen’s recording career is a searcher’s discourse on “religion” versus “faith.” In his songs, he is a representative lost soul seeking, and finding, authentic things of the spirit not wholly defined, or contained, by the Catholic Church.
Lost, perhaps, to the flood of time (at least for now) are who that young Commonwealth Times reporter was and what press release he or she lifted that “good Catholic boy” phrase from: in the article, those words do appear in quotes.
This decades-old student newspaper article, referring to a soon-to-be stratospherically famous showman/songwriter, can today still be scrutinized and provide a spark for inquiry and investigation into the complex relationship Springsteen has long had with Catholicism as well as his initially inchoate but now more solid relationship with faith.
That something as seemingly small as the Commonwealth Times article, and other similar pieces, can still be retrieved, held in your hands, and used as primary source material is due to the combined efforts of two fan groups who carefully saved these historical artifacts. Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey—minutes away from where Springsteen wrote the anthemic song “Born to Run”—has, in collaboration with the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, absorbed those collections and continues to accumulate artifacts.
In January, the newly established Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music, merging the fan-based material with Springsteen’s personal artifacts and papers, was announced. Based at Monmouth University, the Center is now the official archival repository for Springsteen’s written works, photographs, periodicals, and artifacts. It contains some 35,000 holdings dating from 1927 to the present, and is in the process of recording and cataloging the personal artifacts that Springsteen recently donated to the collection, including Born to Run tour materials and much, much more. The Center aims to preserve and promote Springsteen’s legacy and his role in American music while also honoring and celebrating icons of American music including Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Frank Sinatra.
Author Peter Ames Carlin used the Monmouth archive when writing his well-received 2012 biography Bruce. Carlin called the archive “a fantastic collection… so well taken care of. It is a huge resource for writers and historians.”
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Eileen Chapman & Eileen Reinhard