Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town: An International Symposium was held at Monmouth University and began on Thursday, April 12th spanning across four days. On Sunday, April 15th, the conference concluded with closing remarks from Kenneth Womack, Ph.D., Dean of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
The University website notes that the conference celebrated the 40th anniversary of Springsteen’s 1978 classic album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
“The event was a tremendous success, drawing in students, faculty, and fans from across the world!” Womack said. “We are honored that the symposium has found a home at Monmouth University.”
Womack continued, “When I co-founded this event in 2005 with Mark Bernhard and Jerry Zolten, I could never have imagined that it would lead to the conference’s vaunted place in Springsteen studies. Our Monmouth University team has given wonderful life to this superb symposium. The papers and performances were uniformly excellent, establishing an atmosphere at Monmouth that made for an incredible learning community on our campus.”
The activities offered over the four days included Rock & Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore which consisted of two guided walking tours through Asbury Park, and musical events at locations such as the Wonder Bar and the Pompeii Room of Wilson Hall which featured songwriters influenced by Springsteen and bluegrass renditions of songs from the album.
Steven Bachrach, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Science, was the moderator for the Springsteen on Political and Social Impact panel.
“The most notable component of the session I moderated concerned the talk presented by Dr. Richard Lee,” Bachrach said. “He surveyed 35 political insiders in New Jersey about how Bruce Springsteen might fair as a political candidate. He asked about Springsteen’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.”
“The upshot was that Springsteen could be a viable candidate, with great name recognition, appeal to the working class, and knowledge of the media. His long time presence as a celebrity poses both advantages (name recognition, lots of time for negative publicity to have played out) and disadvantages (he would not be in control of the media, his lack of policy experience). The audience at the session overwhelmingly felt that Springsteen would be more effective advocate for progressive change continuing to do what he’s doing, rather than pursuing a political career,” Bachrach continued.
Frank Fury, Ph.D, a lecturer of English, moderated another panel.
“The panel treated the question of how we as fans reconcile the “darkness”–in other words, the bleakness–of one of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest albums,” Fury said.
“One of the presenters, Graley Herren, read a paper that explored what he felt was the presence of the heroic quest in the implied narrative of the songs,” Fury continued. “Springsteen’s ‘narrators’ on Darkness could be viewed as one collective narrator who, Herren argued, through the “journey” implicit in narrative arc of the songs, wrestles with profound personal problems related to ambition, belonging, faith, love and responsibility.”
Fury continued, “The other panel presenter, Shawn Driscoll, viewed the Darkness on the Edge of Town album as a response to the Vietnam War. Released in 1978, the album–Driscoll claimed–was Springsteen’s way of treating a fraught moment in our nation’s history and explained that the “dark” themes in the songs on the album were a result of Springsteen imagining the emotional return of the Vietnam soldier to a world that was no longer recognizable to him because of the psychological traumas of war.”
Following the presenters was a 45 minute discussion where attendees were able to take part in. Fury noted because of what he estimated to be about 15 to 20 attendees they were able “to make a number of astute observations and to ask the presenters a range of provocative questions.”
Fury expanded on a specific question directed toward Driscoll.
“The attendee noted that he was living in England in 1978 when the album was released so from his perspective the album had nothing at all to do with the Vietnam War, as it was America’s–not Britain’s–war. To his credit, Driscoll responded that he thinks perspective and paradigm are two integral elements of one’s interpretations of a work of art. Though that particular British individual did not see any Vietnam connections in Darkness that does not mean that Springsteen did not intend them or that another person listening to the album could not make that association based on the nature of the lyrics.”
Walter Greason, Ph.D., Dean of the Honors School said, “The ‘Darkness at the Edge of Town’ conference was a major landmark for Monmouth University. In the ‘Springsteen and the Human Condition’ panel, we discussed the importance of the Boss’ art in terms of its politics, its psychology, and its values. The expertise of the panelists and the deep connections to Springsteen among the international audience in attendance made it one of the best academic conversations I’ve seen.”
“One other thing I’d like to comment on was the outstanding performance by the Blue Hawk String Band after dinner on Saturday. Their “roots” covers of some Springsteen tunes were amazing and totally captivated the audience of Bruce fans. It was certainly a highlight of the weekend for many of us,” Bachrach noted.