Mary Queen of Arkansas (Springsteen Track-by-Track #3)

Bruce Springsteen Early 1970s

Mary Queen of Arkansas, it’s not too early for dreamin’
The sky is grown with cloud seed sown and a bastard’s love can be redeeming
Mary, my queen, your soft hulk is reviving
No, you’re not too late to desecrate, the servants are just rising

Bruce Springsteen Early 1970s

Bruce Springsteen played Mary Queen of Arkansas for John Hammond on May 2, 1972. Later, Hammond recalled: “I thought that [song] was a little pretentious… [But] I knew that he had that whole natural gift that you can’t learn… [And] he could only be a Catholic.”

The lyrics are opaque but suggest a young man’s ambivalent crush on a transgender woman.

You’re not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing

The tempo is almost painfully slow. Springsteen’s voice is turgid but we should consider his method as intended to distinguish himself from Bob Dylan; whereas Dylan might have approached the song with a hipster’s ironic remove, Springsteen presents a kind of striving slacker who dives in and holds the long notes with surprising grace (and accuracy). Underneath is just an acoustic guitar, which becomes frenetic during the bridge – the singer remains composed, creating an interesting mix of rhythms that contrasts nicely with the song’s generally austere setting.

But I was not born to live to die, and you were not born for queenin’

Springsteen’s harmonica work on the song is beautiful. He plays mostly single, pristine notes, high above the melody. These create an air of wistful loneliness during the beginning and ending; in the middle passages the harp bounces around the voice as if batted by the guitar.

Mary Queen of Arkansas is about two dreamers who want to be someplace else – maybe where freaks are accepted (circus iconography is featured.) Ultimately, their dreams aren’t in sync. Near the end, Springsteen unleashes a great line – best in the song – that wonderfully encapsulates a certain kind of unrequited longing.

I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so damn loose

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