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Colleen Sheehy, Published February 20 2013

Sheehy: Springsteen turns darkness into hopes and dreams

‘There’s a Darkness on the Edge…” read the title on the gallery wall that I stood looking at with Bruce Springsteen. It was 2002, and I was taking him through “Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway” at Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

Before heading to his concert, he had stopped to see this first museum exhibition on his music, which I had curated. He didn’t say much. This section recognized the darker themes of his songs, taking a phrase from his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Little did I realize then how true those words were for the musician.

This dark streak in Springsteen’s life and psyche are more fully revealed in Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography, “Bruce.” Carlin discusses the untreated manic-depression of Springsteen’s father and its impact on the boy. The musician told Carlin about his own bouts and battles with depression, something his art – and medical treatment – have helped to alleviate.

Springsteen’s ability to give voice to somber emotions threads throughout his 40-year body of work and gives it serious depth. At the same time, the redemptive side of his music expresses a joyousness that balances out the darker strains: “No Surrender” compared to “Wreck on the Highway.”

An energetic, jubilant performer, Springsteen is a thoughtful, reflective artist musing not only on American life in our times but also on our political roots and values. He is a voracious reader of American fiction, history and political philosophy. He reads books about the lives and ideas of America’s founders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. His songs can be regarded as an ongoing meditation on our civic life – what binds us and what divides us.

His latest album, “Wrecking Ball,” includes the song “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen overturns the ideas expressed in a 1925 gospel song, made popular by Woody Guthrie. “This train,” Guthrie admonished, “don’t carry no gamblers” – nor liars, thieves, smokers, or midnight ramblers. Woody’s train is “bound for glory.” Springsteen sings, “Well this train carries saints and sinners; this train carries losers and winners.” He creates a capacious vision of a society that includes everyone – the victorious and the defeated or downhearted – in a journey to a “land of hope and dreams.”

Springsteen grew up in Freehold, N.J., an area steeped in Revolutionary War history, embedded in historical monuments and markers of battlefields and birthplaces. Springsteen’s hometown was the site of an important Revolutionary War battle, led by George Washington, and also the place where a legendary woman – later nicknamed Molly Pitcher – carried water to the troops.

Springsteen took more than his father’s troubles from his childhood. He also took an awareness of our early history and the ideals upon which battles were fought and forged.

This month, Springsteen received an award from MusiCares, recognizing his long commitment to feeding the hungry. Springsteen’s darkness has given him insight into lives of people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Through his life and art, he has found a means to turn darkness into hope and dreams, and he invites us to join him.

Colleen Sheehy is the director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.