Critical Essays in Jersey Devil Studies Vol. VII: in which we consider the song A Night With the Jersey Devil, by Bruce Springsteen, October 31, 2008
I like this song. Is it a folk song? Probably not. Is it pop culture? Maybe that’s a tougher question. It was produced by a very professional musician — probably the most professional pop rock and roller of his generation — one Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, the poet laureate of my home state from now through all eternity — but Bruce didn’t put the song out on an album or anything. He released it on his website gratis as a Halloween “gift” for fans, meaning it wasn’t exactly salable merchandise. On the other other hand, in showbiz of this magnitude, there can be no such thing as a gift anymore, which is maybe too bad for Bruce. If he cares about academic distinctions. Which I can’t imagine he does.
Springsteen of course grew up in Freehold and got his career going, famously, in Asbury Park. To an Atlantic County boy like me, these settings were emphatically not South Jersey. They were well within that part of the state defined by its proximity to New York City — sted Philadelphia — and therefore maybe outside the traditional Jersey Devil ambit. But when Bruce says, “If you grew up in Central or South Jersey, you grew up with the ‘Jersey Devil,’” he is speaking an eternal truth about our collective childhoods.
Traditionalists may object that “Central Jersey” is a geographic fiction, invented by the phone company, but to me this statement by Springsteen felt like one of those Somewhere-Out-There epiphanies: the moment I realized Bruce effing Springsteen, global international music star and rock icon, actually grew up not that far from me and was the product of some of the same weird little local forces.
Anyway Bruce was never entirely convincing as a North Jerseyan, even a peripheral one, even in those early kind of Summer-of-Sam scenes from albums like Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, or at times on Born to Run. I saw Bruce in concert both at the Meadowlands (North Jersey) and in Philadelphia (a more South Jersey crowd), and maybe it’s because some critic said it, but he seemed notably more at home at the old Spectrum in Philly on his fiftieth birthday, where he delighted weirdo fans, me included, by doing a Greetings-from-Asbury-Park set one night, then a Wild,-The-Innocent set the next. He opened the second night (at the new Spectrum) with “Incident on 57th Street” and I nearly shat my pants. As, I believe, did others.
Anyway, the story goes that Bruce and Patti Scialfa used to decorate their property in Rumson every year with an elaborate Halloween display, a charming image that you can imagine drew entirely too many visitors to the Springsteen neighborhood. Citing the “catastrophic success” of the event (the Springsteen Administration’s term) and their concern for the safety of nearby children, the Springsteens discontinued the decorating in 2008 and released a Halloween song (“A Night With the Jersey Devil”) instead.
“Dear Friends and Fans,” Bruce wrote.
“If you grew up in central or south Jersey you grew up with the ‘Jersey Devil.’ Here’s a little musical Halloween treat. Have fun!”
Bruce begins with a recitation of the Jersey Devil’s backstory: Stormy night, Pine Barrens, 1735, Mother Leeds gives birth, etc.
Dressed in period costume (1800s I’d say, not 1700s) Bruce is shown in various attitudes around what is presumably the Rumson estate: riding a pony, splashing around in the water, holding a bible over his head, chopping wood etc. He has several crucifixes from his crucifix collection for the occasion, and he seems to be reprising his preacher persona from the Tom Joad years.
Using a bullet mic, he sings in the first person of the Leeds’ offspring. “Born the 13th child, ‘neath the thirteenth moon.” Etc.
Springsteen fans who monitor the Boss’s “neath” usages (I can’t be the only one) may now update their spreadsheets.
In Springsteen’s version, the Leeds father — in a kind of inverted baptismal scene — attempts to drown the future Jersey Devil in the river, a nice feminist touch that lets the long-suffering Mother Leeds off the hook. But the child escapes, returns home and kills the family, an act that — while a bit heavy for my tastes — does have a basis in the oral tradition. In the second verse, there’s some suggestion — kerosene, burning… eek — that the family abused the poor thirteenth child, which, of course, also has antecedents. By the end the song has kind of wound down into an old blues stomp, like the one by Robert Jones and Gene Vincent, whose 1958 “Baby Blue” Bruce samples.
At times Bruce seems to be speaking as if he were the Jersey Devil itself. Other times he’s maybe channeling the preacher who — in one famous version— was called in to exorcise the Jersey Devil from the Pine Barrens in the 1840s. Or maybe the Jersey Devil and the preacher were one and the same all along. You can have fun with it.
It’s not the most memorable song in the Springsteen catalogue. You get the feeling Bruce cranked it out in an afternoon with nothing more than a handy camera crew, his musical genius and whatever farm equipment happened to be laying around his plantation. Lyrically, it’s a reminder that even for a professional songsmith of Bruce’s caliber it’s seldom a good idea to simply throw random numbers at the listener (“Sixteen witches cast sixteen spells” etc.) and expect them to do the emotional heavy-lifting that non-numeric words are capable of. Even as far as ad hoc gag numbers go, I’d put “In Freehold” well ahead of “A Night with the Jersey Devil.” But it’s still a totally wonderful Halloween gift.
And he makes a convincing preacher man. If I were alive in the nineteenth century and the Boss rolled through town with his Holy Ghost tent revival, I’m pretty sure I’d be moved to throw my hands in the air. And wave them (uncaringly).
Best of all, Bruce captures the essential humor beneath what is at times an otherwise grim story. There are moments — Bruce’s head slowly rising from the surface of the waters, his twitchy eyelid in various closeups — when you can’t believe he’s keeping a straight face. Which I think is the key to understanding the locals’ perspective on our beloved folk story, but is something missed in so many contemporary renditions. The Jersey Devil is a private joke that’s gotten into the water supply. And this is maybe nice evidence that Bruce — despite forty years as an international recording superstar — is still a local at heart. In this respect anyway.
It’s my weird fate to have not one but two Springsteen songs that deal with staples of my childhood, the other being the 1982 single “Atlantic City,” which is about my hometown at the time I was living there. The Jersey Devil — through my Leeds grandmother — was a part of my childhood, but those salt marshes, those airplanes and bus depots on the Black Horse Pike, that goddamn Paul Anka billboard, those were my childhood. “Atlantic City” of course is an actual song.
If you wanted to understand the cultural habitat that’s fostered the Jersey Devil story for the last forty years — the strip of suburbia between the eastern edge of Pine Barrens and the ocean — you could do worse than watching that video again too.