Human Touch's closing song, "Pony Boy," is perhaps the oddest Bruce Springsteen had yet released—and considering some of its peers, that's stiff competition—and, in retrospect, the way he approached closing songs seems to have changed with this track and this album.
The Springsteen recording is his arrangement of the 1909 song, "My Pony Boy," written (according to the handy wikipedia and the trusty YouTube) by Bobby Heath and Charley O'Donnell and was introduced in the 1909 musical "Miss Innocence." The same year Ada Jones and the Peerless Quartet had a hit with their recording of it.
Here's an excerpt of that recording.
(Huge thanks to Zefren Anderson for uploading this to YouTube.)
For Human Touch, Springsteen tweaked the lyrics and, in doing so, altered the structure, cutting off the introduction, which accounted for nearly 25% of its total time. And simply by dint of his style, Springsteen moved it out of the realm of (Broadway) cowboy music and into a more purely folk neighborhood. (Obviously, there's more than a little crossover between folk and cowboy songs.) He also added a few extra verses.
Pony boy pony boy
Won't you be my pony boy
Giddy-up giddy-up giddy-up whoa
My pony boy
Ride with me ride with me
Won't you take a ride with me
Underneath the starry sky
My pony boy
O'er the hills and through the trees
We'll go ridin' you and me
Giddy-up giddy-up giddy-away
My pony boy
Down into the valley deep
'Neath the eaves we will sleep
Sky of dreams up above
My pony boy
It's intersting how much the last two verses—the new ones—echo/foreshadow the final track on Human Touch's companion LP, Lucky Town, with its dreamy nighttime imagery. It's also a bit humorous how he can't help but make his new verses much more sophisticated lyrically.
"Pony Boy" is unusual in several ways. It's the first cover on a Springsteen studio album. Sonically, it's worlds away from most of the rest of the Human Touch album, with not a hint of the soul music that makes up the majority of the LP, and absolutely none of the overproduction, as the track mainly consists of a quietly picked acoustic guitar; the ghostly keyboards that enter towards the end of the recording show up later on 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad album and, especially, the ensuing tour.
Even without knowing that Springsteen and Patti Scialfa had recently had children, it's nearly impossible to miss that this is a bedtime song sung by a parent (or, more accurately, given Scialfa's lovely harmonies, parents plural). So, thematically, you can more or less see how it sorta kinda fits in with the rest of the Human Touch album, especially given the LP's title. Except that it's the only song like it on the album—the rest deal strictly with the trials and tribulations of adult relationships. (More or less. Some of it's just bizarre macho posing. We'll ignore those for now. And by "now," I mean "hopefully forever.")
But it's not a good fit. The transition from the execrable "Real Man" to "Pony Boy" may be the most awkward in Springsteen's oeuvre. "Pony Boy" works less as a summing up of Human Touch and much more clearly and successfully as a signpost towards the subsequent album, Lucky Town, released the same day. (Not that it really would have been a good fit there, either.) It's easily the sweetest moment on his worst album, and a lovely recording, but still his least successful closing track yet. By a country mile.
But at least it's better than "Real Man." So there's that.