Mary Queen Of Arkansas is one of the songs that Bruce Springsteen brought in the famous audition of May 2, 1972 in front of John Hammond, legendary CBS talent scout. Although Hammond was more impressed with other songs (particularly It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City), Mary Queen Of Arkansas, with its distinctly Dylanesque sound and vocalizations, helped bring Springsteen to the signing of his first record deal. John Hammond strengthened the belief that that surprising boy from the province of New Jersey could be the folk heir of Bob Dylan, discovered by him just ten years earlier. After all, in Mary Queen Of Arkansas the Dylan influence is evident both on a musical level (which refers to the first acoustic albums of the Duluth minstrel) and on a lyrical level, as the story is rendered with a series of images and metaphors. The lyrics, therefore, are all to be interpreted.
THE QUEEN OF TWISTED HEARTS
In Mary Queen Of Arkansas Springsteen dresses the protagonist Mary as a queen, but she has nothing to do with blue blood. His realm has no castles and borders; in the Springsteenian metaphor that kingdom is none other than the love relationship that she lives with the desperate protagonist and narrator. A tormented story, in which she represents the discontinuous and tumultuous element and he the romantic one, supported by the dream of an escape. If on the one hand Mary has an imperious and dominant character, on the other hand, like queens often, she is freakish and fickle. One line is essential: “I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so damn loose”. Mary needs the solidity of his love, but at the same time she wants their relationship to be free from too close ties.
THE BASTARD ACROBAT CIRCUS
Mary Queen Of Arkansas‘ narrator calls himself a bastard acrobat, but whose love is strong and can help their relationship stand on its feet. For the first time Bruce Springsteen uses the circus metaphor (he will do it other times in his career) to represent the absence of roots and the need for endless movement. The protagonist is a solitary acrobat, despising danger. The inevitable reference is to the ups and downs she forces him into in the relationship, which lead him to live in balance on the wire. The circus (their love) can only continue to work if the romantic dream is kept high. Hence the need to escape.
MARY IN THE KINGDOM OF METAPHORS
The ability of the young Springsteen is surprising, in Mary Queen Of Arkansas as in other songs of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., in the use of rhetorical figures. The narration leads us to imagine large actions and open places, but in reality it is telling what happens in the narrow spaces of a couple. So the sky full of clouds is a metaphor for a problematic love, the servants who are rising up and then leaving represent the boy’s drying-up availability to be patient with Mary. Eventually the servants were seen in Mexico: he wants to start over, fleeing with her to a distant place. There is more: Mary does not have the foresight of those who want to maintain command of that kingdom, i.e. of their relationship (“you were not born to govern”). He has been a “golden boy to his offspring and a gutter rat to his state”, meaning that he humbly served their love as the least of their realm’s subjects. But he figured out the trick: he risked falling for her deceitful bait and now “can see the shadow of a noose” hanging over their bed.
MARY: A QUEEN, A WHORE OR SOMETHING ELSE?
In Mary Queen Of Arkansas‘ game of metaphors, the inconclusive and capricious girl could simply be a woman with a strong inner contrast. But, in the different interpretations, other implications appear. Mary could be a whore, torn between the power of love and the need to let loose the reins to the relationship in order to sell her body. Likewise the line “you are not man enough for me to hate you, nor woman enough to kiss you” could mean that Mary has the impetus of a masculine character, but loses the femininity that makes her sweet and lovable. Some have even seen in this verse the possibility that Mary is a drag queen. It seems that Springsteen himself admitted this possibility.
ESCAPE TO THE WEST
With Mary Queen Of Arkansas for the first time Springsteen sets one of his songs in the American West. Arkansas is the State of the protagonist and the starting point towards the West, even towards Mexico. No longer the province of New Jersey, therefore, nor New York alleys and suburbs. This gives Springsteen the opportunity to embrace larger spaces, which better represent the boundless limits of a love relationship in metaphor. The need to escape emerges as the beginning of a redemption. Under this angle Mary Queen Of Arkansas can represent the prologue of all those songs, from 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) to Born To Run, from Thunder Road to The Promised Land, which express the intention of leaving in search of redemption (the use of the verb “redeeming” is explicit in the lyrics).
LOOKING FOR WOODY GUTHRIE
Mary Queen Of Arkansas takes us back to the most classic folk, back to the roots of Woodie Guthrie, who was an inspiration for Bob Dylan himself. The song is known in only two versions. The one brought to CBS, which will then be released on Tracks in 1998, sees Springsteen on acoustic guitar and vocals only. Despite the instrumental poverty Bruce looks for a musical dynamic, abandoning a ballad-like monochord rhythm or a folk arpeggio and opting for a frequent change of dynamics between sweet, barely perceptible passages and much more energetic pickings. The version that appears in Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. shows new features. Meanwhile it is much slower, to the point of lasting almost a minute longer. Even the singing is more dragged and suffering: Springsteen interprets the song in a theatrical way, with strong variations in vocal intensity, reciting the lament and even touching tears in some passages. Then the second version brings the insertion of the harmonica. Overdubbing is needed as the harmonica is not used as a solo instrument, but performs a part of the melody, accompanying the singing.
Mary Queen Of Arkansas is still one of the least played songs live. Springsteen played it very little even around the time of the album’s release. Then he forgot about it for at least a quarter of a century, except for it to reappear in the new millennium, on the occasion of live re-propositions of entire records in the precise sequence of the original tracklist.
Next review: Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? – 3 july 2023
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