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ARTS / American tune: Three songwriters pieced it together for a movie; it has never been a hit. So what is it about Ry Cooder's ballad 'Across the Borderline' that inspires Springsteen and Dylan to sing it, and people to cry when they hear it?

Ry Cooder was into the chorus of 'Across the Borderline' when I glanced along row D of the Hammersmith Odeon stalls and saw a girl crying quietly to herself. She didn't look in distress, exactly, but these weren't tears of joy either. It seemed like a complicated set of emotions going on, and I thought: this must be some kind of song.

When you reached the broken promised land

And every dream slips through your hand

Then you'll know it's too late to change your mind

Because you've paid the price to come this far

Just to wind up where you are

And you're still just across the borderline

Listening to Cooder's warm, artless voice, his sweetly gliding bottleneck guitar and the band's swaying Tex-Mex rhythm, it certainly wasn't hard to share some of the same emotions. And since that night last March, when Cooder and Little Village performed it at the first of their London concerts, the song has kept turning up. First there was Bob Dylan singing it on television, at the 'Guitar Legends' festival in Seville. Then, picked up from a market stall, there was a pounds 5 bootleg cassette of Bruce Springsteen using it to finish his set at a 1990 charity concert in Los Angeles.

Dylan and Springsteen: here are two fellows you'd trust to know a good tune when they hear it. Between them, they've composed many of the most significant songs of the last 30 years. So what drew them to a song that neither of them wrote, that wasn't written with any very profound purpose in mind, and that has never been a hit in any shape or form? And what is it that can make people cry when they hear it?

'HE JUST said, 'I want a song that tells the story of the film.' ' Ry Cooder is thinking back to 1981, to when the British director Tony Richardson was briefing him on the soundtrack assignment for a movie called The Border, starring Jack Nicholson as a frontier guard fending off the wetbacks down El Paso way.

Cooder is a veteran soundtrack composer; it's how he's made his living since it became obvious to him that touring the world with a band was neither financially viable nor a civilised way for a grown man to spend his time. Southern Comfort, The Long Riders and Paris, Texas are among his credits. He has a reputation for capturing and enhancing the moods of the southern states, thanks to his knowledge of blues, gospel, country and Tex-Mex music. So Richardson's request wasn't a surprise; but it was, in its way, a challenge.

'It's a very good film,' Cooder remembers, 'but a bleak and nasty one. There was Jack Nicholson with a bad haircut and a worse attitude, portraying the corruption of the immigration service. People didn't want that then, but Tony was a very uncompromising guy.'

Richardson, says Cooder, wanted a song to start the film off. 'You have the opening sequence of a girl and her brother trying to get across. It's about 3 1/2 minutes long, and I had to fit the tune into that space. I thought, what can I do? Woody Guthrie already wrote the anthem of those people when he came up with 'Deportees'. It's easy to fit a piece of instrumental music into a space like that, but it's hard to fit a song with lyrics.

'Well, I got lucky. I was watching the piece of film over and over again, and a little chord progression came into my mind. Then I found a little rhythm, and a tempo, and I found I had the chord structure of a melodic ballad. From what I'd already done, I knew I had a good thing. So the next job was to get a chorus. A chorus can pull people in, and I liked the little melodic thing I came up with. Then one day I was out jogging and I thought of the words for the first verse - that yellow-brick-road thing, 'There's a land, so I've been told / Every street is paved with gold . . .' Well, you've heard that a million times in gospel and pop songs, but it's still a great idea - this need that people have to feel that where they're going is better than where they've been. Little do they know] But they're driven by hope, otherwise they wouldn't go through it. Once I had that scoped out, I knew I had something I could take to John Hiatt.'

Now a fellow member of Little Village, Hiatt is a singer and songwriter who had first gone on the road with Cooder in the mid- Seventies. 'I drove up to his place in Topanga Canyon with a guitar and an amplifier,' Cooder says. 'He was asleep. But Tony was coming back from France and he needed the song. So I set up in Hiatt's yard, plugged in and played. I said, 'John, I'm in a hurry.' He said, 'Play the chorus again.' By this time he was brushing his teeth. And he stuck his head out the window and sang: 'When you reach the broken promised land . . .' The whole chorus. And I said, 'That's it, I'm outta here.' '

'WHICH BIT did I write?' says John Hiatt. 'The good bit, of course]' He's right, in the sense that his line about 'the broken promised land' is the key to the song, the idea that unlocks the emotions. It has its own specific and metaphoric meanings within the lyric, but it also resonates with rock'n'roll history.

Chuck Berry was sitting in jail in Springfield, Missouri in 1962, serving part of a three-year sentence for transporting an under-age girl across a state line, when he wrote a song called 'The Promised Land'. Aged 32, Berry had already written 'Johnny B Goode', 'Roll Over, Beethoven', 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and a dozen other classics of early rock'n'roll. To help him write this one, though, he needed a road atlas of the United States - something that the penal authorities were reluctant to provide to a potential escapee. But he got it, and with it he wrote a song that embodies more vividly than any other the geographical and emotional reality of moving west across the USA.

On 25 February 1964, fresh out of jail, Berry recorded the song at the Chess Studios in Chicago. It gets its momentum not just from his guitar, which whines like a jet engine, but from the fact that the words don't repeat: like the journey it describes, it takes the listener from A to B, no detours.

On 15 December 1973, in one of the last genuinely creative acts of his life, Elvis Presley entered the Stax Studio on East McLemore Avenue, Memphis and cut his version of 'The Promised Land'. The notion of Presley, the King of Rock'n'Roll, singing this poor-boy's song of liberation is poignant enough; the spontaneous intensity with which he delivers it, snarling back at the dirty guitars of James Burton and Johnny Christopher on the sloping floor of the old cinema where Otis Redding had made his masterpieces, turns it into something else: the ultimate statement of the Tennessee truck driver who took the world, a tragic tale of desires fulfilled.

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia

California on my mind

I straddled that Greyhound

And rode him into Raleigh

And on across Carolin'

No doubt Bruce Springsteen, who could play guitar like Chuck Berry and was fixated by the destiny of Elvis Presley, knew both versions when, in 1977, he wrote his own song called 'The Promised Land'. Like many of the songs he composed for Darkness on the Edge of Town, it dealt with the frustrations caused by lawsuits between him and his former manager, which had stalled his career just when it seemed ready to take off.

These songs were about life and work, about broken promises and the ties that bind. On stage he mixed 'Badlands' and 'Racing in the Street' with Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land', creating lengthy sequences that burned with a bitter, sullen rage.

There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor

I've packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm

Gonna be a twister to blow everything down

That ain't got the faith to stand its ground

Whatever may have happened to him since then, the shadowy, fearful Promised Land that Springsteen created out of his own tribulations remains an unforgettably disturbing vision.

'SO NOW,' Cooder resumes, 'I needed a second verse, which had to take the story a little further. So I called Jim Dickinson in Memphis and played the song to him over the phone. He gave me the poetic heart of the song, the sub- text. I was very appreciative.'

Up and down the Rio Grande

A thousand footprints in the sand

Reveal a secret no one can define

The river flows on like a breath

In between our life and death

Tell me who is next to cross the borderline

'I wrote it in a hotel room in New Orleans,' says Dickinson, once the pianist with the Dixie Flyers, who has worked on many of Cooder's projects. 'When I heard that Dylan had done it, that was the the thrill of a lifetime for me. He changes the tune and the chords a little bit. And he's the only one who really gets the meaning of that last line. Now I sing his version. I figured, who's right, me or Bob Dylan?'

In fact the first person to record the song was the singer Freddy Fender, brought in by Cooder for the soundtrack session. Fender sang it with beautiful delicacy, despite being, in Hiatt's recollection, 'a little less than sober that day'. Cooder himself recorded it on Get Rhythm, a largely unnoticed 1987 album; a third verse, half in Spanish, had been added for the actor Harry Dean Stanton to sing.

'Jackson Browne's been doing it, too,' Cooder remarked last week, 'at some of his benefit concerts.' But while Browne, performing it at a Sandinista benefit, would be thinking of the original meaning of the song, Dylan and Springsteen surely find within it a different kind of truth. Cooder does, too. 'To me,' he says, 'that borderline may be inside yourself.'

Dickinson agrees. 'It doesn't have to be about illegal aliens,' he says. 'It's about people who're trapped.'

'I guess the larger metaphor is that there are borders we all have to cross in our lives,' Hiatt adds. 'It's a pretty gosh-darn powerful song.'

Little Village appear today at Crystal Palace Bowl, SE8 (071-413 1445). Bruce Springsteen begins a series of five sold-out concerts at Wembley Arena (081-900 1234) tomorrow.