A chance encounter with Asheville bluegrass quintet Town Mountain and their twangy, countrified cover of I’m On Fire at this weekend’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – a dark and yet surprisingly charming version of the Bruce Springsteen classic song that chugs along like a train through the psyche – reminded me how deeply this particular classic is embedded in our national songbook. And a check back at our own archives confirms it: in the last twelve months alone, we’ve posted no less than four separate covers of the song, from Shakey Graves‘ bedraggled grungefolk cover, found last week despite a nominal 1987 release, to Coty Hogue‘s live, sweetly yet hauntingly resonant banjo-driven take, which made our Best of 2012 mixtape for its rootsy, raw Americana, with rich and stellar bounce and harmony from contemporary folk trio Coyote Grace and a gentle late-night YouTube rip from singer-songwriter Robby Hecht along the way.
Add in four other, earlier favorites from our first few years on the web – Swati‘s aching, ringing suspension and wail, which we featured in our first Valentine’s mix back in 2008; Alex Cornell‘s home-recorded sentimentalism; Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule‘s relative faithfulness; a frozen, fragile gypsyfolk take from Brooklyn-based indie quintet The Snow – and we’ve practically proven its relevance without touching on the song itself. And, as always in our Single Song Sunday surveyances, such a common thread begs the question of why the song is so well beloved, and so often taken on by others.
I’m On Fire has a good backstory: according to reliable sources, its original recording was the accidental result of an improvisational studio session during the first wave of Born in the U.S.A. sessions in February of 1982, in which Springsteen, playing around with a few stray lyrics and an impromptu melody, was joined by drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist Roy Bittan for what turned out to be a song for the ages. Subsequently released amidst stadium rockers on what would become Springsteen’s best-selling album ever, the song would nonetheless climb its way to the top ten of several charts; a generation later, the continued presence of the original on late-night radio and in Springsteen setlists validates any claim that it is, undeniably, a staple, from one of the most recognizable canons of the modern era.
But there’s much more in and about today’s feature subject to recommend it to other artists than sheer availability. As Aquarium Drunkard notes in their 2011 song analysis, I’m On Fire “is the first song in [Springsteen's] catalog to express the anxiety of unrequited love as a kind of suffering, rather than a kind of freedom”, making it especially attractive to younger musicians looking to dig back towards the prototypical origin of that which makes Springsteen’s last several decades of work so stunning, and so folk.
Even more significant is the song’s merit as an object of coverage on the structural level. From the openness of its slight and fragmented lyrics and easily sung melody to the universality of the mood and madness it contains, the sparseness of the two and a half minute song allows for surprisingly broad variance, making our stream of recent coverage but the tip of a vast iceberg that chills and cools the soul in its various guises.
And so, today, we flesh out our study of the single song in coverage both new and old, offering a broad set of diverse and favorite covers alongside each other, that we might once again see the breadth of possibility in the single song.
Popfolk hipster charmer Sara Bareilles deconstructs, repeating and losing lyrics until live piano and vox become a ricochet of mental health; Bat For Lashes breaks the song down musically, building it up again with pulsing shards of plucked strings, hammered dulcimer, and hollow bass notes. AA Bondy‘s 2009 version is smoothly note-bent and curiously Dylanesque alongside Kate Tucker‘s haunted, lingering take, a version of which would appear on that same year’s Starbucks Valentine’s Day love song sampler. The playful little girl harmonies and the start-and-stop loops of Swedish solo singer-songwriter (and wonderful cover artist) Sea Lion collapse the mystery of the lyrics, while Scottish folk-rockers Big Country trade the mystery altogether for an urgent, almost Zydeco feel, with bright mandolin and fiddle nuances.
Though the band trends indie rock in their typical fare, Dubliners The Dirty 9s offer a plucky ballad take which is easily sparse enough for folk. The Airborne Toxic Event bring in a stuttering, raucous acoustic session with high-energy fiddle and Appalachian living room aplomb. Harry Manx adds sitar and Indian drums, creating a world-beat immigrant’s angst. John Mayer mostly plays it straight, though as Aquarium Drunkard notes, the combination of his own stamp and song make for something quite akin to the Paul Simon songbook in the end. And like Alex Cornell and Robby Hecht above, singer-songwriters Catherine Feeny and Luke Doucet bring passion and pain to guitar-and-voice-driven solo takes and subtleties.
Listen, as yet another American classic wends its way through the folkstream, offering nuance and substance to the lives it speaks of, for, and to even as it pays tribute to the softer side of Springsteen himself. Seek out others where you find them, too, even if they pass the genre line; versions from elder statesman Johnny Cash, pop-rockers The Morning Birds, alt-rock hipster Octoberman, and dream-pop band The Chromatics, for example, are well worth the pursuit, though none are truly folk enough for our usual fare. And, as always, if you’ve got a favorite cover we didn’t mention, feel free to add your voice in the comments below.
Cover Lay Down features new coverfolk recordings and new-found folkversions twice weekly, with bonus tracks and extras throughout the week on Facebook and extra karma to all who donate to support our ongoing work connecting artists and fans through the comfort of coverage. Stay tuned later this week for exclusive pre-release tracks from a brand new J. Tillman tribute!