Springsteen and Human Rights: “Chimes of Freedom”

Bruce Springsteen singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”
live in Copenhagen in 1988, prior to his tour with Amnesty International.

Since the beginning of his career, Springsteen has been haunted by his label as “the next Dylan.” Though promoted by John Hammond at Columbia Records (as Dylan had been), and admiring Dylan greatly (as he recently articulated while reflecting on Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature), Springsteen consciously chose to distance himself from Dylan’s musical style and forge his own path as a songwriter, embracing instead a carefully orchestrated, hard-rocking sound. In a 1999 interview with Mark Hagen, Springsteen recounted that in his early twenties he began to avoid writing lyrics that relied on loosely strung-together images, a stylistic feature that was emblematic of Dylan’s music. However, from the late 1970s on, Springsteen covered songs written by Dylan, perpetuating—purposefully or not—the link between his work and that of Dylan. In particular, Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” was central to Springsteen’s political awakening in the years following the release of “Born in the U.S.A.” In 1988, two key performances of this song embody Springsteen’s quest for social justice: his concert in East Berlin and his participation in Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour. Springsteen suggested that “Chimes of Freedom” embodied his ideal of rock music as a vehicle for expression of community—rather than simply individual—autonomy, when he stated, “This is one of the greatest songs about human freedom ever written.”

Chimes of Freedom” is often considered one of Dylan’s masterpieces, and its sophisticated web of imagery demonstrates his masterful songwriting. Released on his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, the song is constructed in bisected verses. The first half of each verse sets a metaphorical scene; the narrator and a companion watch a storm. In a synesthetic moment, chimes flash and lightning tolls. The melody drops, resolving to a full cadence on the tonic. The second half of the verses names those whom the lightning bells are honoring and illuminating—refugees, rebels, poets, painters, prisoners, the disabled and the disenfranchised—hauntingly enumerating those who are misunderstood and downtrodden. The melody in the second half of the verse begins at a low register and moves to a higher one as it builds to the climactic final lines of the verse. As the song unfolds and the story reaches its pinnacle in the final verse, the two halves of the verses merge. The oppressed start crowding into the scene created in the first half of the verse until the bells toll for “every strung-out person in the whole wide universe.

Springsteen first performed “Chimes of Freedom” in 1978 at a live concert in Detroit. The performance is energetic, though it is clear that it has not been extensively rehearsed; his verbal introduction is a bit hesitant, and he sings from a lead sheet to remind him of the text. In this performance, Springsteen scales the song back to three verses (1, 5, and 6). (These are also the three verses used by The Byrds in their popular 1965 cover of the song, so they may have been familiar to Springsteen through radio play) He introduces some elements that he continues in later performances, such as the use of backup singers on harmony, and experiments with others that did not become routine, such as Clarence Clemons’s solo saxophone bridge.

Springsteen did not perform the song again until 1988, when he sang it in his Tunnel of Love Express concert tour. Here, he tapped into the potential of the song as an expression of universal human suffering, and as a call to organize for social change. Introducing the song with a plea on behalf Amnesty International, he framed the performance as a call to action: “So, I’d like to give, dedicate this next song to the people at Amnesty International and their idea. And so when we come to your town, come on out, support the tour, support human rights for everyone now, and let freedom reign.”

Springsteen’s live 1988 performance of “Chimes of Freedom.”

This recording includes Springsteen’s introduction: “Earlier today Amnesty International announced a world-wide tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration of Human Rights is a document that was signed by every government in the world forty years ago, recognizing the existence of certain inalienable human rights for everyone regardless of your race, your color, your sex, your religion, your political opinion, or the type of government that you’re living under.”

In this version, and other performances from 1988, Springsteen moves away from the heavier rock style of the 1978 version. The ensemble opens with a chime-like timbre on the keyboard and slowly accumulates other instruments, including back-up vocals. He now adds verse 2 to the set, whose outcast imagery certainly resonates with the ideals of Amnesty International—an organization that works to bring attention to political prisoners around the world. The tempo is gentle as the song slowly builds, momentarily clearing up the texture for the first part of the final verse, building up to the ending, and releasing the tension with a long postlude and “ahhhhs” in the background vocals.

Before going on the tour, however, Springsteen had another stop to make—East Berlin. He had visited East Berlin in 1981 with his guitar player Stevie Van Zandt and the political situation had moved him deeply. He later stated , “It was quite an eye-opening experience. You could feel the oppression and see it physically in the way people carried themselves, and in their faces.”1 In the 1980s, in order to reach out to the younger generation, the East Berlin government allowed more rock concerts to be performed than they had permitted during earlier periods; and in July, 1988, Springsteen was allowed to perform. Some estimate that over 300,000 people attended the concert. Springsteen was frustrated to learn that that the government had reframed his concert as a performance in support of Nicaragua. This was all the more frustrating because it was not the only time Springsteen’s music had been politically appropriated; Reagan had coopted “Born in the U.S.A” to bolster his 1984 presidential campaign.

Springsteen prefaced his performance of “Chimes of Freedom” with a disclaimer, delivered in German: “It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I want to tell you that I’m not here for or against any government; I have come to play rock ‘n’ roll for the East-Berliners, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” Erik Kirschbaum, author of Rocking the Wall, notes that originally Springsteen had intended to say “all walls will be torn down,” but was advised that such a statement would be too inflammatory. The message, however, was clear, and resonated with the call to freedom and justice explicit within “Chimes of Freedom.”

East Berlin, July 19, 1988. Springsteen’s performance of “Chimes of Freedom” with spoken introduction in German.

Many view this performance as the pinnacle of his nearly four-hour concert, and Kershbaum suggests that this concert and its eager reception may have triggered the cultural landslide that did indeed lead to the tearing down of the wall the following year.

Less than two months later, Springsteen began touring with Amnesty International. Their “Human Rights Now” tour, which consisted of twenty concerts around the world, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and aimed to draw attention to political injustice. The six-week tour took place from September 2, 1988 through October 15, 1988. Among the many other musicians involved in the tour were Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Sting, and Youssou N’Dour, to whom Amnesty referred collectively as “The Conspirators.” As he discusses in an interview produced for the Released: The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 DVD set, Springsteen brought “Chimes of Freedom” into the regular sequence of songs performed throughout the tour. The song became the penultimate number for every concert, after which all of the musicians would come together to perform Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Its prominent position in the concert lineup marks “Chimes of Freedom” as one of the most important songs in the tour.

In their performances, The Conspirators observed the bisection of the verses, assigning each half to a different musician and creating a call-and-response structure. While some of the singers—such as Tracey Chapman, Sting and Peter Gabriel—incorporate elements of Dylan’s nasally, speech-song style, Springsteen uses vocal gestures and physical movements that are distinctively his own—smiling, moving, interjecting. Ten years after his first performance of “Chimes of Freedom,” Springsteen had mastered the song and made it his own, transforming it into an expression of community freedom.

The Conspirators often incorporated local musicians into the performance of the song, as they did with other songs in their sets. For their performance in Barcelona, Spain on September 10, 1988, they were joined by Manolo García from the band El Último de la Fila, who sings his section in Spanish. The rendition also employs a gradual build towards the climactic end of the final verse, by which point all of the singers join together to represent the “whole wide universe” mentioned in the final lines of the song. Here, the universality of the song is represented both visually—through the diversity of performers onstage—and sonically, through the inclusion of the Spanish-language section sung by García. The chart below shows the division of the verses between the singers.

Verse 1a: Bruce Springsteen
Verse 2b: Tracy Chapman
Verse 2a: Sting
Verse 2b: Peter Gabriel
[verses three and four omitted]
Verse 5a: Youssou N’Dour
Verse 5b: Manolo Garcia, in Spanish
Verse 6a: Bruce Springsteen (two lines) // Tracy Chapman (following two lines)
Verse 6b: All performers

The Conspirators perform “Chimes of Freedom” on September 10, 1988 in Barcelona on the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now” tour. The ensemble of musicians alternate solo sections before joining together on the last half of the final verse.

Springsteen followed the tour by releasing an EP entitled “Chimes of Freedom” to support Amnesty International. Though the tour was short, it changed the way that Springsteen viewed his own power as a rock musician to work towards justice and peace. Reflecting upon his experience during the Amnesty tour, he summarized,

There’s a…primal thrust toward freedom that’s just always been a part of rock music. I suppose it’s been interpreted more individually, towards personal freedom, personal license, but I always interpret it a little more broadly…[I]t was also speaking to a community of people and to the world that we were inhabiting. And that basic impulse had political implications and social implications.2

 We can see a kind of mirror image between the trajectory of Dylan’s and Springsteen’s careers. Dylan’s body of work became less political over the years, though his early, highly politicized songs continue to be sung in protests to this day. Springsteen avoided overt political statements early in his career and became more political as time unfolded, using Dylan’s songs as a conduit for his expression of social justice and a model for his own songwriting. These international concerts in 1988 laid the foundation for Springsteen’s continued work with social justice issues and opened his eyes to injustice on a worldwide scale. Springsteen’s performances serve as a lasting reminder of the roles that music can play in relieving suffering and forging community.

1 Released!: The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998. Shout! Factory, Amnesty International
82666313562, 2013, 6 DVD set.

For Discussion

  1. Other performers on the Human Rights Now! tour continued to write protest songs following their tour (Tracey Chapman, Sting, etc.). Please choose one of these performers and find a protest song that they wrote or performed after the tour. Are there connections between this protest song and the values expressed by Amnesty? Are there any resonances between this song and songs such as “Chimes of Freedom” that were performed on the tour? 
  2. Please find a Dylan song other than “Chimes of Freedom” that Springsteen has performed. Discuss how Springsteen changes or adapts the song in regard to musical style, instrumentation, vocal inflections, and omission or adaptation of lyrics.

Joanna Smolko teaches in the musicology department at the University of Georgia and in the humanities department of Athens Technical College. You can follow her on Twitter @smolkoly.

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