What, Exactly, Is Bruce Springsteen Singing on “Thunder Road”?

Inside the "sways" versus "waves" debate

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen performs during reopening night of "Springsteen on Broadway" for a full-capacity, vaccinated audience at St. James Theatre on June 26, 2021 in New York City.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

One of the most iconic songs in a catalog abounding with them is Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which opens his 1975 album Born to Run and is very much in the running for the greatest opening song on an album of all time. (I’m also partial to Tortoise and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s cover of it.) But enthusiasts of the song have long wondered: what exactly are the lyrics to the song?

As Rob Tannenbaum writes at the Los Angeles Times, this is a more existential question than it might seem. It began earlier this month, when Maggie Haberman of The New York Times tweeted the phrase “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways” and an image of the Broadway theater where Springsteen was set to perform that night.

This, in turn, prompted many on Twitter to criticize her for getting the lyrics wrong — which led to a larger debate about what the second verb in the song’s first line actually is. What, exactly, is Mary’s dress doing? As Tannenbaum noted, some argued that “sways” is correct, while others have made the case for “waves.”

Adding to the confusion? Springsteen used “sways” in his memoir, but “waves” features on the album’s liner notes and on Springsteen’s website. Tannenbaum goes on to speak with a host of Springsteen experts, including journalists and musicians who have themselves covered the song, only to find that there is no universal answer. Springsteen himself did not comment on the matter.

Perhaps the most elegant solution comes from musician Frank Turner, who has covered the song in concert. “I’ve been known to pointedly sing ‘swaves,’” Turner told the Times. “It’s a middle ground.” And it seems as good an answer as any.

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