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Review Wild Billy's Circs Story, Bruce Springsteen

Review Wild Billy’s Circus Story, Bruce Springsteen

Aggiornato il 18 Set, 2023 | Words and Music |

Recorded in 1973 and included in The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Wild Billy’s Circus Story stands out for being perhaps the only folk-inspired song in a purely soul-rock album. From this point of view Wild Billy’s Circus Story is more a coda to the first disc, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., than an integral part of the album in which it is included. It is as if Bruce Springsteen, while feeling the need to free himself from the image of the New Dylan, did not want to give up this folk piece, considering it qualitatively superior to any marketing strategy and choice of coherence. The first two albums, which were launched ten months apart from each other, were the offspring of the “artistic conflict” between CBS and Springsteen. The record company first insisted on a pure folk album, played by Springsteen himself and a few seasoned session-men. Then, having taken note of the singer’s insistence to arrange the songs in a more rock genre and, above all, to have the musicians-friends of the first embryo of the E Street Band by his side, it asked Bruce to write more captivating songs that could conquer radios. However, Wild Billy’s Circus Story is very Dylanian, also due to the dragged way in which it is interpreted vocally by Springsteen.


With Wild Billy’s Circus Story Springsteen comes across a singer-songwriter song, one of the most beautiful of his first folk approach, and sings about a losing but fascinating entity like a traveling and ramshackle circus. Wild Billy’s circus, never mentioned in the lyrics, is not exactly a forge of dollars: this can be understood from the details described in the first verses, in which one perceives how the circus artists work in anything but easy conditions. Among them emerge tiredness and resignation. There seems to be a lack of harmony, while quarrels, envies, petty teasing, even sloth prevail. Among the workers of this run-down circus, the figure of the clown stands out in particular, who abandons the bandwagon and walks home to Ohio with his broken suitcase in his hand. The lines used by Springsteen are poignant: “A ragged suitcase in his hand, he steals silently away from the circus grounds… A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin, runnin’ home to some small Ohio town“. But, since the show must go on, Wild Billy calls a little boy to him, asking him if he wants to get on board the bandwagon to chase his luck. Springsteen immediately becomes the new cantor of the last, the derelict, the marginalized.


Reading the lyrics, it seems as you’re watching films like Fellini‘s I Clowns and La Strada, directed in those very years. The places and the inspiration are so far from each other, but the same sadness and the same fate of marginalization appear. Although Bruce was inspired by a passing circus in his native Freehold, Wild Billy’s Circus Story also stands out for being one of only two songs on the first three albums (the other is Mary Queen Of Arkansas), which strays from the Atlantic Ocean and travels westward. Something inspired by the first trip that Springsteen made at that time, when his family decided to move to California to seek a more decent economic situation. The search for the West will be a theme that will often return to Springsteen‘s lyrics, especially in his more sober and acoustic works. But this search will never lead to situations of well-being. Even there his characters will find loneliness and difficulty. In this sense Wild Billy’s Circus Story is also linked to the characters of the very recent Western Stars. Wild Billy and his miserable bit players are still there, aged but always on the fringes, hauling the circus bandwagon around the western States.


Even if there are no direct references, it is fascinating to interpret Wild Billy’s Circus Story as an allegory of the E Street Band itself. A band in perpetual movement from one city to another, a stage instead of a big top. Springsteen came from a first album of little commercial success. The second could already be the last chance. The contract with manager Mike Appel was a noose, there wasn’t even the shadow of money. Thus Wild Billy’s circus takes the form of an E Street Band that risks penury. Even in the band the first internal quarrels began. David Sancious didn’t approve of some musical choices and will be leaving soon. Vini Lopez was artistically and temperamentally uncontrollable by Springsteen and will soon be removed. Even Bruce‘s relationship with Danny Federici wasn’t always easy, especially due to the latter’s excesses. But, even with all that, “All aboard, Nebraska is our next stop.”


Wild Billy’s Circus Story is the quintessential folk song. The acoustic guitar leads the harmonic theme on which the classic folk instruments emerge: the harmonica and the mandolin, played by Springsteen himself, and the accordion played by Danny Federici. The choice of inserting the tuba simulates the trumpet of the circus elephant. Unusually the part is not credited to Clarence Clemons, but to Garry Tallent in substitution of the bass line. Early Springsteen‘s vocal style is certainly influenced by Dylan‘s inspiration, but Bruce gives his interpretation an incisive voice and even a recitative verve which gives greater timbre to a piece which, in its simplicity, presents an anything but flat dynamic.


Wild Billy’s Circus Story has only been performed live about forty times over almost fifty years, but more than half of these executions date back to the period 1972-1974. Apart from a sporadic soloist appearance in 1990, it returned to be occasionally heard from 1996 onwards. In the new millennium it was played when Bruce returned sometimes to a complete live re-proposition of the entire The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.


Read Also: The E Street Shuffle, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)


Next Review: 25 September 2023 – Incident On 57th Street


Dario Migliorini


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