Freedom Friday: James Henke

Constitution Daily sits down with James Henke, the chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and finds out how the Hall landed its Bruce Springsteen exhibit – and what makes Bruce tick.

Question: Tell us your name, title, and how you came to be at the Rock Hall?

Henke: Vice President of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and it’s my 19th year at the museum. I was music editor at Rolling Stone magazine during most of 80s and 90s.

Henke (right) with National Constitution Center President and CEO David Eisner.

Question: When was the first time you met Bruce Springsteen?

Henke: At the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now tour. I wrote a book about the tour, and spent six weeks on the road and got to know Bruce. Bruce’s manager, John Landau, was a writer and worked at Rolling Stone, his wife worked there, too.

Question: How did the Springsteen exhibition at the Rock Hall come to be?

Henke: In late 2008 they were looking for new exhibit…we got in touch with Landau and they took the idea to Bruce. Essentially Bruce was into it and agreed. Bruce got personally involved. He had saved a lot of stuff over the years, and basically had a warehouse. Bruce has a table where he wrote 90% of his songs and Bruce thought it should be in the exhibit. One day we got an email from Toby Scott, his recording engineer, letting us know that Bruce wanted us to have the Esquire guitar from Born to Run…Bruce took it from a good exhibit to a really great exhibit.

Question: Can you briefly describe the thought behind the thematic layout of the exhibit and why you made some of the choices you did?

Henke: It starts chronologically with family photos…pretty rare pictures of him as a child…for example, there’s a photo of his first communion from the Catholic church in New Jersey.

You can see the progression of bands that Bruce played in before the E Street Band was formed. He joined the Castilles when he was 14 years old and there is a set list from one of their shows, handbills, flyers, etc. He recorded two songs that were never released…there’s an acetate of what would of been the record had it come out. There are a lot of unreleased songs in this exhibit.

There are handwritten lyrics from the first two albums, lyric manuscripts. It is interesting to see how things change, track listings of songs you never heard of that didn’t make it on the album.

The second part is the tour section, includes outfits from various tours, different stage items, programs, ticket stubs.

In the songwriting section, you’ll see that as he progresses he’ll write the song from start to finish, then when you page through he’ll go back and re-write from top to bottom.

There are awards and personal items: the Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia,” Grammy Awards, a beautiful lips award from Blistex because he had the “bossest lips,” the Kennedy Center Arts Awards.

Bruce is very active in keeping the exhibit up to date.

The last section contains Bruce’s guitars, like the Fender Esquire, the two he played during the Seeger Sessions tour, and the guitar he played on “Nebraska.”

Question: It may seem a like a big switch to have this exhibit come from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the National Constitution Center; can you explain why you think Springsteen is a good fit here?

Henke: I thought it made sense on a few levels, geographically in the area where he grew up, where his roots are, and the music makes him an archetypal American…Springsteen says that he tries to sing about the American dream.

Question: Now, wearing your recording academy hat, I’m wondering what role you think music plays in affecting public opinion on current issues?

Henke: Rock and roll captured this huge audience…the music became a big part of people’s lives, and people like Springsteen can effect public opinion. He’s supported Presidential candidates. There is a poster from 1972 when Bruce played a benefit for [George] McGovern. He has always been politically active and you can see that from his actions as well as his music. It does ultimately have an impact…it brings issues to a broader audience.

Question: What is Bruce’s greatest contribution to recorded music?

Henke: He is one of the most dramatic live performers, few can match him on stage. But what makes the difference is his songwriting, his lyrics. He grew up in average working-class type family, and he didn’t have a lot of money, but he worked hard. He writes about the working class America, what it is to have dreams and try to live out those dreams. He does have an American touch and its very thoughtful songwriting, and touches on a lot of things related to life in America.

Every Friday throughout the run of From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, we will publish dedicated content inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the First Amendment. “Freedom of Expression Fridays” will feature unique and original posts by staff writers, musicians, visual artists, and more, with a focus on a range of issues including protest, dissent, and the role of art in politics and political campaigns.

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