Kevin Russell recently bought me Allen Toussaint’s album Southern Nights. Although I was aware of Toussaint, I’d be lying if I said I was much more than that. A lot of Southern soul, blues, country, and rock made its way into my formative years in the North East, but for whatever reason not a lot of stuff out of New Orleans did. It took moving to Texas, and especially Russell himself, to make me understand what I was missing.
Southern Nights is an absolutely stunning soul album with great songs and arrangements to die for. It’s lush and ornamental and almost seems like a grand street in New Orleans turned into sound.
For a bass player who spends a lot of time listening to bass lines, the record a treasure trove of riches. Every bass line is simple enough where it is memorable, but at the same time played with a impeccable feel.
While I was playing the record, my brother walked in while the song Back in Baby’s Arms was playing. He said right away, “that’s exactly like Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town.” Now Toussaint’s album came out three years prior to Darkness. Both songs start with an intro that is eerily similar. They both start the same, and just deviate in the second half of the figure. It’s not just a melodic thing, they both feature a bass and piano playing roughly the same line. I don’t know how this came about. Either Springsteen stole it, or they both arrived at a similar place independently. They are both possible. Given that Springsteen is a huge soul music fan, it is entirely possible that he heard it and coopted it for his purposes. (I’ve never read specifically of the connection between these two pieces.) However, the line is also simple enough that two people could think it up in two different places in time.
It doesn’t really matter. Musicians have been stealing all throughout musical history. Also, there are only so many notes that one is bound to stumble upon the same idea independently at times.
I think what is interesting is how really similar pieces chave totally different emotional landscapes created through lyrics and singing. Toussaint’s song has a warm feeling to it mirrored by his voice. Springsteen is singing in his dramatic Roy Orbison inspired voice. Along with the rest of the album there is a certain bleakness to the song, where people are coming to terms with adulthood.
I think even if Springsteen flat out stole the idea, it is still artistically valid. Creating something new is nothing more than assembling old pieces in a new combination. Springsteen has always been someone that took different elements of rock n roll history, soul music, and folk music, and used it to create his own language. Here he is combining soul music, the drama of Roy Orbison, with a cinematic and literate sense of language. Although I’m not as educated on Toussaint’s history, there is no doubt one could trace his music backwards to different building blocks. Although the two pieces start similarly, they end up in dramatically different emotional universes.