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Lessons from Bruce Springsteen – Matamoros Banks

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I had the pleasure of teaching a songwriting seminar with Dr Graeme Downes in Gore last Thursday as part of the 2013 New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards . Graeme, who is lead singer of legendary Dunedin indie rock band The Verlaines and a professor of music at the University of Otago, comes from quite a different part of the musical spectrum from me, so I was really interested to hear what he had to say. The big surprise for me was to discover on arrival that we had both brought Bruce Springsteen songs to play to the students.


I was approaching the seminar from a storytelling perspective and to this end had chosen Springsteen’s “Matamoros Banks,” off the Devils and Dust album, as an example of how narrative structure can be played with for increased effect. In this song, Springsteen tells the story of an illegal Mexican immigrant’s doomed attempt to cross the Rio Grande river and start a new life in America with his sweetheart.

Springsteen starts the story at the end, describing in gruesome detail the demise of his character…

For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars

Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
‘Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same

He then goes back to the start of the story and in two verses describes the migrant’s journey across the desert at night to stand on the banks of the Rio Grande, before diving in to meet his fate…
Over rivers of stone and ancient ocean beds
I walk on sandals of twine and tire tread
My pockets full of dust, my mouth filled with cool stone
The pale moon opens the earth to its bones

Your sweet memory comes on the evenin’ wind
I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine
A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive

By changing around the structure of the story, Springsteen has given himself a couple of very powerful weapons. Firstly, it means he can start his song with the confrontingly visceral image of his protagonist’s body being eaten by turtles as it floats down the river. Secondly, because we have already seen the tragic end of the story in the first couple of stanzas, the third and fouth verses now carry profound pathos….we know that we are witnessing this person’s last journey in life.

The chorus therefore carries a weight that becomes more tragic as the song progresses….
I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks
The touch of your loving fingertips
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

Graeme had brought the song “Walk Like a Man,” from Tunnel of Love – another of my personal favourite Springsteen songs (from, in my opinion, one of his finest albums.) Graeme showed us how Springsteen uses chord patterns for impact in this song – mapping out where each chord will best fit the lyric. According to Graeme, Springsteen has mastered the use of quite basic chord progressions and gives his lyrics musical power simply by knowing exactly where to put the minor chord, when to go to the IV chord, or the V and so on…

I found it interesting that two songwriters with very different approaches would both be drawn to this particular artist – even if only from an academic point of view. As Graeme noted in the seminar, with as big a following as he has, Bruce must be doing something right!