Moments in Time

Songwriters—and writers in general—recognize the value of letters in capturing history.

by Vince Farinaccio

Letter writing has become a lost art over the past half-century, largely due to technological advancements and the immediacy of texts, e-mails and messaging. Classified as a part of the literary genre belles lettres, correspondence can be a reflective style of writing similar to the essay but always the result of an exchange between two individuals.

Today, letters have transcended parchment and quill, paper and pen, to embrace new designs of expression. The new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You, is the latest example of how epistolary writing has adapted, in this case, to a musical experience. And what Springsteen shares lyrically with his listeners is, like all correspondence, much more than simply an imparting of ideas. It is also a snapshot of a moment in the writer’s outlook when what he/she thinks or considers is captured in words before any of it can be modified or abandoned with time.

Three of the album’s songs date back to the early 1970s before Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records. Their rendering might belong to this era, but their style and outlook belong to another time and to a songwriter much younger than the 71-year-old troubadour Springsteen is today.

The same was true of Neil Young’s A Letter Home, his 2014 collection of cover songs, many of which date back to the 1960s and helped influence Young’s early years as a musician. The rough sound of this aural letter, which also contains spoken word moments Young addresses to his mother, exhibits the wear and tear one might expect from an old piece of correspondence stuffed away for half a century.

If A Letter Home is an anomaly in Young’s catalogue, Letter to You is an extension of Springsteen’s recent projects like his autobiography and Broadway show, projects he told the New York Times last month were “summational.” But they are the inevitable result of looking back on the multitude of “letters” our younger selves “write” to our older selves in the course of a lifetime.

Each one of these bits of “correspondence” exist as photographs, home movies, diaries, greeting cards, ornaments and even actual letters. Each can serve as a reminder, clarify moments from our youth and measure how similar or different our earlier selves are from who we’ve become. As Springsteen explained in the New York Times about the assessment that accompanied his recent projects, “It’s sort of just stopping for a moment and taking stock of what you’ve done and where you are at a critical point in your life.”

Throughout our lives, our younger selves seem to fulfill an unconscious need to constantly communicate with who we will become. Artists may publicly examine this, but we’re free to do it privately at any time. Like artists, however, we tend to undertake this in older age, when work and other distractions have receded. And what we might discover is that, as with an old friendship that has amicably drifted apart, it’s pleasant to renew a relationship with those earlier stages of our lives that helped shape and direct things.

Like Letter to You, this column addresses history, but its audience is of today and the articles usually contain a relevance to what is currently happening around us. For those in the future who might one day happen upon these pieces, they will probably discover a mixture of time capsule and history lesson that hopefully offer either a better understanding or a new perspective of events.

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