Bruce Springsteen’s arena shows are legendary, yet his songs can be pared all the way down to just a few voices and a ukulele – as heard on this rendition of “Backstreets” by folk duo The Weepies. The poignant track is a centerpiece of an upcoming compilation album, Born to Uke, which recreates the rock star’s iconic Born to Run album on ukulele. Proceeds from the project will benefit Little Kids Rock, funding music education in underprivileged public schools. Ahead of the album’s release date of January 18, 2019, The Weepies’ Steve Tannen spoke about the new track.
The decision to cover a Springsteen song isn’t to be taken lightly, especially one from Born to Run. What kind of emotion were you hoping to capture in your recording of “Backstreets”?
Obviously the reason songs are great is that you can’t quite express the emotion any other way but the song. I’ll do my best knowing I’ll come up short. The key line for me is: “After all this time we find we’re just like all the rest, stranded in the park and forced to confess / to hiding in the backstreets.” It’s not just sad–it’s romantic, hopeful, and stark, and revelatory. Early friendship and disappointment can be transcendent. I connected to this as a 17-year-old, and I feel the same now as a dad. I think our spared down version reflects that.
To me, Springsteen is one of the best songwriters about dreams that don’t work out. When you think about the lyrics of “Backstreets” in particular, what sort of imagery comes to you?
The end of the night when I was alone in my teens–I see me and my friends late at night at diners and in cars. Most of those friends are gone or we all moved into a different place in our lives, split off from a few singular moments as teens. I like that I can revisit those moments through songs.
To some people, ukulele appears easy to play — but I imagine it could be tricky, even for seasoned musicians. What has been your experience in getting comfortable with that instrument?
We were given a Mya-Moe ukulele a few years ago that is fantastic. I’ve played guitar for decades, so it’s pretty natural. I definitely play uke like a guitar player though!
I believe that music in public schools was a saving grace for a lot of the Americana, bluegrass and folk community. Why is an organization like Little Kids Rock important for you to support?
Programs like this are like rain in the desert for bringing something holistic to schooling. Beyond reading and writing, the experience you take from school is holistic no matter what–you learn how to be a person, and what you need to do be happy or survive in society. Music and art are essential to getting me through life with some enjoyment and grace. The more of that that is in education, the better chance for a positive connection.
Photo credit: Robert Sebree