Few figures stand over American music like Bruce Springsteen, so it’s unsurprising to find many independent artists covering his work. Recognized with 20 Grammys, 2 Golden Globes, an Oscar, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—he even has a planet named after him—his influence on U.S. arts and culture is hard to dispute.
Springsteen has always been a champion of blue-collar America. Politicians on the local and national level have co-opted his music in an attempt to identify with the working class. Ronald Reagan tried to use his mega-hit “Born In The U.S.A” as a campaign rallying cry in 1984, ignoring the anger of the verses in favor of the patriotic-sounding chorus. Springsteen was not vocally political before then, but after that, he began hinting at his dissatisfaction with the government: “It seems like something’s happening out there where there’s a lot of stuff being taken away from a lot of people that shouldn’t have it taken away from.”
His political activism and outspokenness have only increased in both passion and volume since. In April 2016, Springsteen cancelled a concert in Greensboro, North Carolina in protest of the controversial HB2 law (which the Department of Justice has since stated is in violation of the US Civil Rights Act). Several musical acts followed suit, refusing to bring their business to the state, while others donated concert proceeds to organizations supporting LGBTQIA rights in North Carolina. Springsteen doesn’t only sing of society’s underdogs: he sets an example by standing for what he believes in.
Inspiring other artists both socially and sonically, Bruce Springsteen’s wide-spread popularity has led to many tributes of his work over the years. Check out these these genre-spanning covers you can find here on Bandcamp.
Shakey Graves, “I’m On Fire”
Shakey Graves uses the gravelly bluegrass timbre of his voice to bring a faint darkness to this slow-burning song. He plays only the bass line, while lo-fi backing vocals purr along in harmony. The percussion lends itself easily into clapping along, making this version of I’m On Fire a communal listening experience.
Dessa, “I’m Goin’ Down”
Dessa spits fire as a member of the rap collective Doomtree, but in her solo work, her love of poetry and philosophy results in a startling thoughtfulness. Dessa approaches Bruce’s almost celebratory “a woman’s done me wrong” song from the opposite perspective. Melancholy and longing weigh heavy in each line, and the song becomes a reflection on a dying relationship.
Deletist, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
“The Ghost of Tom Joad” was inspired by the lead character of The Grapes of Wrath, and both its lyrics and its spare melody evoke a sense of 1930s Americana. Deletist’s cover honors that minimal spirit while amplifying the song’s ‘ghost’ factor with haunting piano and eerie vocals; this is a bleak, dark treatment of a song about hope in the face of hopelessness.
HUMANS, “Streets Of Philadelphia”
Written by Springsteen for the 1993 film Philadelphia, the original record’s contemplation of mortality endures in this haunting cover. Echoing vocals fade in and out over a near-frantic synth melody. Without changing a note, the song feels updated for the million crises of our modern era.
Jonah Matranga, “Born to Run”
Another of Springsteen’s iconic anthems, Born to Run is a song about outgrowing a hometown that feels too small, and also has the dubious honor of being the most overplayed campaign rally song of all time. But on his version, Matranga treats the lyrics as a fragile hope. His voice wavers, as if he could destroy his chance to escape simply by speaking his dream aloud.
Sexton Blake of STRFKR, “Hungry Heart”
Blake keeps Hungry Heart just as playful and lighthearted as the original, while slowing the tempo to a dawdle. This cover dumps some of the original’s dated early ‘80s elements, such as the sax and plinky piano, in favor of a ragged indie rock treatment.
Jody Mulgrew, “Dancing in the Dark”
The Boss’s highest appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 was at #2 with this track, an up-tempo, synth-heavy dance anthem. Dancing in the Dark was a pop hit when it was released in the heart of the Reagan era (and the last days of disco), and Springsteen sang for a population disenfranchised by ‘trickle-down’ economics and the temporary prosperity of the ‘80s. Mulgrew’s interpretation is a contemplative one, her voice low and warm. When she sings there’s a joke somewhere / and it’s on me, the realization of how political these lyrics are—and how immortal—becomes clear.
Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
Released in 1982, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was his first fully acoustic album. Although the songs were originally intended as demos to be re-recorded with the E Street Band, the raw, honest sound suited the material so well that the album was released as it was. Nebraska is an album of stories, exploring the lives of outcasts and blue-collar workers.
Arriving 30 years after the original, Long Distance Salvation gathered independent musicians to record their own takes on each of Nebraska’s 10 tracks, along with four bonus tracks. These covers all honor the source material with sparse vocals and minimal production. The Wooden Sky opens the album with the somber title track; Trampled By Turtles bring exuberant devil-may-care recklessness to “Open All Night.” The bonus track, “Downbound Train” closes the album with some of the most sorrowful lyrics in Springsteen’s repertoire, with Roadside Graves singing of the agony of heartache.