Bruce Springsteen - Fighting for the Promised Land: Political and Social Implications in Springsteen's Words and Actions

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

168 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biographical Background
2.1. “Growin’ Up” – Upbringing of a Jersey Boy
2.2. Influences
2.2.1. Elvis Presley
2.2.2. Bob Dylan
2.2.3. Woody Guthrie

3. Social Issues
3.1. “Roulette” – M.U.S.E.
3.2. “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” – Vietnam Veterans
3.3. “This Land Is Your Land” – The Effect of Ronald Reagan
3.4. “Factory” – The Necessity of Work
3.5. “Trapped” – USA for Africa
3.6. “Sun City” – Anti-Apartheid
3.7. “Chimes of Freedom” – Amnesty International
3.8. Overcoming Insecurities

4. Vietnam
4.1. “Born in the U.S.A.” – A Patriotic Anthem?
4.2. “Shut out the Light” – The Inability to (Dis)Connect
4.3. “Vietnam” – Human Decay
4.4. “War” – Effects of Blind Faith
4.5. Giving a Voice

5. A Decaying American Dream
5.1. “Nebraska” – The Killing Spree of Charles Starkweather
5.2. “Atlantic City” – The Wrong Side of the Line
5.3. “State Trooper” – Deliverance from Nowhere
5.4. “Reason to Believe” – or Not?
5.5. American Isolation

6. Race
6.1. “My Hometown” – Fights between the Black & Whites
6.2. “Let’s Be Friends” (Skin to Skin) – Overcoming Racial Differences
6.3. “41 Shots” (American Skin) – The Death of a West African
6.4. “All I’m Thinkin’ About” – Love Misunderstood
6.5. “Black Cowboys” – Escaping Mott Haven
6.6. No “Code of Silence”

7. Immigration
7.1. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – The New World Order
7.2. “The Line” – Hunger is Powerful
7.3. “Across the Border” – A Vision of Paradise
7.4. “Galveston Bay” – America for Americans?
7.5. “Balboa Park” – Little Spider and Other Immigrants
7.6. “Sinaloa Cowboys” – Cooking Methamphetamine
7.7. “Matamoros Banks” – A Journey Backwards
7.8. The Border

8. September 11, 2001
8.1. “Into the Fire” – A Death Not in Vain
8.2. “Nothing Man” – Life (Un)Changed
8.3. “Empty Sky” – Seeking Retribution
8.4. “You’re Missing” – Everything Is Everything
8.5 “The Rising” – A Dream of Life
8.6. “Paradise” – Above the Waves
8.7. “Worlds Apart” – Building a Bridge
8.8. “The Fuse” – An Act of Comfort
8.9. “My City of Ruins” – A Mode of Prayer
8.10. Living in the Present

9. Vote for Change
9.1. “No Surrender” – Empowerment for a Wide Open Country
9.2. “The Promised Land” – Faith in America
9.3. A Land of Great Promise

10. Iraq – Fear is a Powerful Thing

11. Final Statement

12. Selective Discography (Songs/Albums discussed)

13. Bibliography

14. Appendix

1. Introduction

“If you’re going to stand up and say, ‘I’m an American’, that means you’ve got some responsibility to America,”[1] Bruce Springsteen said in 1975.

He was 26 years old at the time and at the beginning of his life-long career as a singer, songwriter and musician. In fact, this statement is quite surprising when one takes into consideration the progress Springsteen underwent since the 1970s. After all, he started out as a somewhat timid young man who was reluctant to voice his opinions on political matters and has turned into a man who actually endorsed a political candidate in 2004.

Of course, Springsteen is also known and liked for many of his fun and lighter songs. Sometimes he is even smiled upon because many of his lyrics deal with girls and cars. This image does not do Springsteen’s significance justice. However, he is aware of the fact that he is sometimes not taken seriously and that he has been widely misunderstood at times, but he has always followed his ideals. In this paper, however, I will focus on his songs with deeper (socio-) political meaning.

I will attempt to outline and discuss the progress Springsteen has made by means of analyzing his lyrics and comments. I will begin by discussing the influences, musically, politically and familiarly, that have shaped his opinions and the capability to express them. An important factor are his parents, who influenced the young Springsteen concerning his politics, as well as the importance of holding a job and the respectability that comes with it. After all, Springsteen is often recognized as the speaker of the working man. Hence, taking a look at his middle-class upbringing is essential.

I will also discuss three major artistic influences: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie. Presley was the one who initially evoked Springsteen’s interest in music. Dylan inspired Springsteen to think outside of his own little world, and Guthrie, as well as Dylan, shaped Springsteen musically.

In the third chapter, I will discuss Springsteen’s involvement for various causes. I will show how he gradually became involved with issues that did not concern his immediate realm. Rather, Springsteen progressed from being timidly concerned with something that he felt personally threatened and scared by – the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island –, to making a conscious decision to become involved with the “Vietnam Veterans of America” and their fight for respect.

What caused Springsteen to become unmistakably outspoken about his opinions was, in fact, someone who was seeking his support: President Ronald Reagan. Reagan also inspired Springsteen’s interest to get involved with each community he and his band entered during their tours, and he became more and more outspoken concerning matters he cared about, for instance the importance of work. Eventually, Springsteen engaged himself in projects that went far beyond his own little world: USA for Africa, Apartheid in South Africa, and Amnesty International. Despite these efforts, Springsteen never lost track of what he felt needed a changing direction at home in America and always managed to see the issues he felt strongly about in a larger picture.

Springsteen’s initial interest in Vietnam Veterans and their plight is also mirrored in his songwriting. Hence, I have devoted a whole chapter to Springsteen’s outlook on Vietnam and the mistreatment of American soldiers when they returned home and on his giving these soldiers a voice and a public.

The fifth chapter is connected to Springsteen’s early criticism of Reagan, as Springsteen released a unique acoustic album in the 1980s that was regarded to be his statement on Reaganomics, a weak American economy and how this effected the American people. Springsteen brings up the concept of “American isolation” in this context.

Moreover, Springsteen has written songs on racial issues, among them a particularly controversial one. It is especially interesting to see why a white rich man sings to his white middle-class audience about poor black people.

The seventh chapter deals with Springsteen’s outlook on illegal immigration, on the hopes and dreams of the underprivileged and on how their striving to realize their American Dream oftentimes breaks them.

Furthermore, Springsteen has released an album which deals with the trauma of September 11, 2001. It is interesting how Springsteen did not misuse this time in American history to superficially appeal to new-found American patriotism. Rather, his songs offer comfort to those left behind and show a path towards a new direction.

In 2004, Springsteen – for the first time ever – became involved in partisan politics when he supported Senator John Kerry in his attempt be elected president. Springsteen expressed a particular desire to change the direction American was headed towards, and he became actively engaged in this attempt, both by rallying for John Kerry and by being outspoken about his opinions.

The last chapter will discuss Springsteen’s strong feelings about the invasion of Iraq, which he processed in his commentary and songs, as well as his performances at concerts.

What will hopefully convey to the reader is Springsteen’s love for his country, as it is this love that encourages him to be critical and outspoken – or as critic Robert Coles put it:

A poet, performer, music maker who has come to the people as their gratefully embraced spokesperson – their morally introspective teacher, whose writing mind, singing voice, traveling appearances prompt people to stop and think about the lives they are living in contemporary America. His songs give public expression to the yearnings, doubts, memories, worries of American lives, and render them in verse, to be considered in private by those living them.[2]

This brings forth another aspect of Springsteen’s effect: He has the power and the popularity to speak to people and make them listen, and through the years he has encouraged them to think freely, to use their independent minds and to be critical of what goes on around them. Sometimes, as in the case of his support of John Kerry, Springsteen has lost some of his popularity with the people who differed in opinion, but Springsteen has always upheld his integrity.

He has been outspoken in both lyrics and commentary about issues he feels strongly about for the last 25 years. What lies at the core of all this is the American Dream, or the Promise as Springsteen often calls it, which is not fulfilled for many these days. Bruce Springsteen lends his voice to people who might otherwise not be heard. Yet, at the same time, he is the epitome of a successful realization of the American Dream.

2. Biographical Background

2.1. “Growin’ Up” – Upbringing of a Jersey Boy

Bruce Springsteen is not only known as the writer of songs which deal with political and social matters – he has documented many aspects of his childhood and upbringing in his lyrics as well. As everybody, Springsteen is a product of his surroundings, and his family as well as additional factors have influenced him and shaped him as who he is today.

Bruce Springsteen was born in Freehold, New Jersey, on September 23, 1949 as the first child of his parents Adele and Douglas Springsteen. They would later have two daughters, Virginia and Pam.[3]

Springsteen upheld the role of an outsider for many years. He was far from being popular in school. He, a Catholic, went through rough times and frequent confrontations with the nuns at his parochial elementary school St. Rose of Lima. “I was a big daydreamer when I was in grammar school. Kids used to tease me, call me dreamer. It’s something that got worse as I got older,”[4] Springsteen has commented. In ninth grade, however, he transferred to the public Freehold Regional High School and later went to college briefly. He, according to his own reflections, left college because other students complained about his appearance and apparently had issues with his status as a loner.[5]

Although it is the city of Asbury Park that Springsteen has made famous through his songs, he, in fact, grew up in Freehold, New Jersey. Freehold is a small town, fifteen miles inland from the coast, with a few factories that, in the 60s and 70s, employed much of Freehold’s population. During Springsteen’s youth, Freehold was a deeply segregated town where black and white, rich and poor were divided by railroad tracks.[6] Therefore, it was a spot of racial tension, as occasionally documented in Springsteen’s lyrics.[7]

Springsteen has commented on both his mother and father during his concerts and in his writing and interviews. His father Douglas was the kind of workingman Springsteen frequently portrays in his songs. All through Bruce Springsteen’s childhood and youth, the elder Springsteen held a variety of jobs, for instance as a prison guard, taxi driver or factory worker. Mostly, however, he drove a bus. At any rate, his career was a life-long struggle trying to find his place in the local economy.[8]

Bruce Springsteen has always had ambivalent feelings towards his father. On the one hand, he respected the fact that he was hard-working; on the other hand, father and son had many conflicts along the way. “Both Bruce and Douglas [Springsteen] are headstrong, volatile personalities, without much tolerance for rules. In such circumstances, a son with a vision and ambition can seem less than a blessing.”[9] Their relationship was a constant struggle coined by discipline and rebellion.

In 1981, Springsteen said this about his father:

I grew up in this little town. As I got older, I started looking around me, and it didn’t seem there was any way I was going to get out of there. I looked back at my father, and the only time he got out of that town was to go to World War II. When he came out of the Army, he got married, settled down and went to work in a plastics factory. And his father had done the same thing. It seemed that the one thing we had in common was that we didn’t have enough information; we didn’t have enough knowledge about the forces that were controlling our lives. I watched my old man end up a victim, and he didn’t even know it.[10]

Springsteen has written many songs that deal with the relationship to his father. One that captures his emotions best is “Independence Day”, a song which he has often dedicated to his father and introduced with the story of himself when he was about to be drafted for the Vietnam War. His father used to tell him, “Man, I can’t wait ‘til the Army gets you, they’re gonna make a man outta ya. They’re gonna cut all that hair off, and they’ll finally make a man outta ya.”[11] When Springsteen received his draft notice in 1968, he hid it from his parents. His story continues:

And we were so scared […]. And we went up and we took the physical and I failed. […] But I can remember comin’ home […], and my mom and pop sittin’ there. And they asked me, ‘Where you been for three days.’ And I said, ‘I had to take my physical.’ And my dad said, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘I failed.’ And he said, ‘That’s good.’[12]

In “Independence Day”[13], Springsteen tells the story of a first person narrator breaking lose from his home and his father in particular. The words are addressed to him. The speaker says

Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late

Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now

I’ll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary’s Gate

We wouldn’t change this thing even if we could somehow

In the following lines, the speaker mentions the “darkness” that he is attempting to escape. The “darkness of this house” may refer to the literal darkness that Douglas Springsteen often created when he came home from work and turned off every light in the house. “He would get real pissed off if me or my sister turned any of ‘em on,” Springsteen said.[14] Moreover, the “darkness” may refer to lack of stimulation the speaker feels in his father’s house and in the city, as well as the lack of knowledge and stimulation Springsteen accounts for his father’s situation. Hence, he tries to escape because he knows that if he stayed any longer, he would go down the same road his father did.

Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us

There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too

But they can’t touch me now

And you can’t touch me now

They ain’t gonna do to me

What I watched them do to you

So say goodbye it’s Independence Day

It’s Independence Day

All down the line

Just say goodbye it’s Independence Day

It’s Independence Day this time

With a bit of sentimentality and ambivalence, the speaker admits, “Now I don’t know what it always was with us. We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines.” Ultimately, he knows that “there was just no way this house could hold the two of us. I guess that we were just too much of the same kind.” This coincides with Dave Marsh’s statement[15] of Bruce and Douglas Springsteen’s similar personalities, as mentioned above.

Adele Springsteen, on the contrary, has been described as “the key to the family’s stability.”[16] Bruce Springsteen has said, “The consistency, the steadiness, day after day – that’s her. And the refusal to be disheartened, even though she was really up against it a lot of the time.”[17] Adele Springsteen held the same job as a legal secretary throughout Springsteen’s childhood.[18] She took much pride in her “professional identity”.[19]

Bruce Springsteen has reflected on his mother in his song “The Wish” in which he may be considered the narrator of the song. He begins by describing that it was she who gave him his very first guitar, which was indeed so.[20] In order to do so, Adele Springsteen had to take out a sixty-dollar loan as she worked for minimum wage.[21]

The first two lines convey the negativity Springsteen felt in his hometown: “Dirty old street all slushed up in the rain and snow. Little boy and his ma shivering outside a rundown music store window.” But with the gift from his mother, this negativity passes: “That night on top of a Christmas tree shines one beautiful star. And lying underneath a brand-new Japanese guitar.”

In the next verse, Springsteen describes the continuity of his mother going to work and, most notably, the satisfaction this gave her.

I remember in the morning, ma, hearing your alarm clock ring

I’d lie in bed and listen to you gettin’ ready for work

The sound of your makeup case on the sink

And the ladies at the office, all lipstick, perfume and rustlin’ skirts

And how proud and happy you always looked walking home from work

Springsteen’s father is mentioned only briefly in this song, and Springsteen draws a reference to memories of his father who would often come home from work and sit in the dark kitchen all night, brooding and sometimes drinking.[22] Springsteen mentions in this song that his father’s eyes were “windows into a world so deadly and true”, implying that his father was caught in the real life, with all its worries and hardships. Therefore, it is the reality that makes this world “deadly” for him. However, even though Springsteen’s mother could not prevent her son “from lookin”, she did manage to keep him from “crawling through.” Here, Springsteen gives credit to his mother for helping him to stay on his path and not get lost in the hardships of the every-day life as his father did.

The speaker says, “And if it’s a funny old world, mama, where a little boy’s wishes come true. Well, I got a few in my pocket and a special one just for you.” However, this wish is not a “phone call on Sunday, flowers or a mother’s day card. It ain’t no house on a hill with a garden and a nice little yard.” Rather, he wishes to take his mother out dancing to a “little rock ‘n roll bar.”

In the following lines, the narrator reflects on his childhood and how his mother would make him “twist for [his] uncles and aunts.” He is grown now, has a “hot rod” of his own, but she will “know [him] in a glance.” Moreover, he “found a girl of [his] own” and asked her to marry him on his mother’s birthday, and it was she who encouraged him to do so.

The last verse takes one back to the present:

Last night we all sat around laughing at the things that guitar brought us

And I layed awake thinking ‘bout the other things it’s brought us

Well tonight I’m takin’ requests here in the kitchen

This one’s for you, ma, let me come right out and say it

It’s overdue, but baby, if you’re looking for a sad song, well I ain’t gonna play it

The last verse connects to the very first, in which Springsteen’s mother gave him his first guitar which eventually lead to his success. This success, however, is taken with a certain degree of incredibility and humor: the family is laughing at it.

“The Wish” is a grounded ode to Springsteen’s mother. It is not filled with sentimentality. Rather, it shows the realistic, constant force that his mother has always been in his life, which explains the stability that he often accounts to her. The song contains all the necessities of Springsteen’s early life: a guitar, the working life of his mother, her helping him not to become like his father and finally her assistance when he has grown to be a man.

The very last line makes it clear that there is no room for sentimentality here. There will be no “sad song”, no getting lost as Douglas Springsteen often did. Rather, there will be a party with cheerful songs and potentially a dance for mother and son.

Springsteen has shied away from making blunt political statements for many years. This attitude is rooted in his upbringing and education, which he received mostly from television. “I wasn’t brought up in a house where there was a lot of reading and stuff. I was brought up on TV,” Springsteen has said.[23] Moreover, Springsteen’s parents did not create a very political environment at home.

I didn’t grow up in a very political household. The only politics I heard was from my mother. I came home from grade school, where someone asked me if I was Republican or Democrat, and I asked my mom, “Well, what are we?” She said, “We’re Democrats, ‘cause Democrats are for the working people.”[24]

2.2. Influences

2.2.1. Elvis Presley

Undoubtedly, Bruce Springsteen has been influenced by many artists. Among the most significant and earliest influences is Elvis Presley. Springsteen was first exposed to Presley when the latter appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Springsteen was nine years old at the time, and he “couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley.”[25] After this experience, Adele Springsteen bought her son his first guitar.

Dave Marsh considers Presley “the root of [Springsteen’s] inspiration”[26] and accounts his influence to be significant in the shaping of Springsteen’s more joyous lyrics and sound.

Springsteen has said, “I was provoked to think by Elvis Presley. He made me think, ‘Where am I at?’”[27] Not only did Presley inspire Springsteen’s thinking; Springsteen was also fascinated by Presley’s rise and fall. Hence, Springsteen put his thoughts in lyrics and wrote a song titled “Johnny Bye-Bye”, in which he describes the shock of the people and the uselessness of Presley’s death.

She drew out all her money from the Southern Trust

And put her little boy on a Greyhound Bus

Leaving Memphis with a guitar in his hand

On a one-way ticket to the promised land

Hey little girl with the red dress on

There’s party tonight down in Memphis down

I’ll be going down there if you need a ride

The man on the radio says Elvis Presley’s died

We drove down into Memphis, the sky was hard and black

Up over the ridge came a white Cadillac

They’d drawn out all his money and they laid him in the back

A woman cried from the roadside “Ah he’s gone, he’s gone”

They found him slumped up against the drain

With a whole lot of trouble running through his veins

Bye-bye Johnny

Johnny bye-bye

You didn’t have to die

You didn’t have to die

2.2.2. Bob Dylan

“The way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind and showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellect,”[28] Springsteen said in 1988.

Bruce Springsteen has been compared to Bob Dylan for all of his professional life, and undoubtedly Dylan has had a lasting effect on Springsteen. In fact, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were discovered by the same man: John Hammond of Columbia Records.[29] This, of course, contributed immensely to the Dylan – Springsteen comparisons. Quickly, Springsteen was labelled the “New Dylan”, despite the fact that Springsteen’s mode of writing, especially until the 1990s, differed tremendously from Dylan’s singer-songwriter approach. Springsteen’s roots were clearly in rock tradition.

However, Dylan’s influence on Springsteen’s songwriting cannot be denied. It is evident on Springsteen’s more acoustic albums Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust on which he follows in the footsteps of the singer-songwriter tradition. Moreover, Springsteen embraces Dylan as a major inspiration as he has now established himself, and labels such as the “New Dylan” have become meaningless.

On October 4, 2003, Bob Dylan appeared as a surprise guest during Springsteen’s concert at Shea Stadium in New York. Springsteen introduced him as his “great friend and inspiration” and performed “Highway 61” with Dylan, mostly with his back turned towards the audience, facing Dylan and playing his guitar with a smile.

Later that night, Springsteen introduced his song “Land of Hope and Dreams” with a statement that combined both his admiration of Bob Dylan and his demand of the American people to be critical, thinking individuals:

It was Bob’s work that when I was first trying to write songs… At a particular time in our country’s history he was one of those fellas who came along and has been willing to stand in the fire. And I remember when I was growing up in my little town, he just made me think big thoughts. His music really empowered me and got me thinking about the world outside of my own little town. And I don’t know if great men make history or history makes great men, but for me Bob is one of the greatest. Now and forever. So I’m going to dedicate this one to him tonight and thank him for gracing my stage and for being such an inspiration. When I wrote this one, I was trying my best to follow along in his footsteps. It’s a time right now in our country when there is [sic] a lot of questions in the air about the forthrightness of our government; playing with the truth during wartimes is a part of both democratic and republican administrations in the past. And once again, the lives of our sons and our daughters are on the line. So it’s a good time to be good, vigilant citizens. And protecting the democracy we ask our sons and our daughters to die for is our sacred trust, demanding accountability from our leaders, taking our time to search out the truth. That’s the American way; I learned that from Bob Dylan.[30]

“Land of Hope and Dreams” gives the reasons for Springsteen’s critical way of thinking and for the fact that he expects his audience and fellow Americans to do the same. In this song, Springsteen captures the pioneer mentality of the early Americans as well as that of any other immigrant who has sought freedom in America – a land of hope and dreams.

The couple portrayed in this song does not know what to expect, but they are together and they are headed for a place “where sunlight streams”.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase

Thunder’s rolling down the tracks

You don’t know where you’re goin’

But you know you won’t be back

Darlin’ if you’re weary

Lay your head upon my chest

We’ll take what we can carry

And we’ll leave the rest

Big Wheels rolling through fields

Where sunlight streams

Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

The speaker offers his unending companionship and support and assures his partner that what lies ahead will put an end to their suffering.

I will provide for you

And I’ll stand by your side

You’ll need a good companion for

This part of the ride

Leave behind your sorrows

Let this day be the last

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine

And all this darkness past

After all, everyone is invited to get on this train which is headed to the “Land of Hope and Dreams”. The train carries “saints”, ”sinners”, “losers”, “winners”, “whores”, “gamblers”, “lost souls”, “broken hearted”, “thieves”, “sweet souls departed”, “fools” and “kings”. The speaker calls out, “All aboard!” Most importantly, this place that welcomes everyone – especially the disheartened ones – is a haven for the realization of dreams: “Dreams will not be thwarted.” Moreover, “faith will be rewarded, and “bells of freedom” are ringing, proclaiming a new life in freedom for everyone, which is the epitome of what America stands for. Springsteen reminds his audience of this, and by adding his remarks, he leaves not doubt that these opportunities that America offers are not a guarantee. Rather, they need to be fought for and seized, and critical thinking is an essential part of this process.

Bob Dylan has been a very significant influence on Bruce Springsteen’s music, as well as his thought process and interest in the world beyond his immediate realm. In fact, Springsteen has been performing Dylan’s songs throughout his career, which may indicate that Springsteen would like his audience to benefit from his own thought process as well. After all, as Springsteen said, “[Dylan’s] music really empowered me and got me thinking about the world outside of my own little town.”[31] Since Springsteen’s interest is to achieve exactly this goal with his own audience, it seems only logical to sing the songs that had such a strong effect on him to others.

2.2.3. Woody Guthrie

“There is a long tradition of the artist being involved in the life of the nation. For me, it goes back to Woody Guthrie, James Brown, Curtis Mansfield and Bob Dylan. These were all people who were alternative sources of information”,[32] Springsteen answered when questioned about the responsibility of the artist in society.

Springsteen initially became interested in and fascinated by Woody Guthrie when he was given a copy of Joe Klein’s book Woody Guthrie: A Life in 1980.[33] Bruce was intrigued by Guthrie’s songwriting, which mingled personal and political topics not unlike Springsteen’s own writing. Both men have written songs that have been widely misinterpreted: Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, which will both be discussed in this paper. Springsteen understood that Guthrie’s song had initially been written as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” with obvious Marxist traces. “It’s been misinterpreted a whole lot. It was written as a fighting song and it was written, I feel, as a question everybody has to ask themselves about the land they live in, every day,”[34] Springsteen has commented on “This Land Is Your Land”. He has performed the song often to remind his audience of “what our country was supposed to be about”[35] and that this promise is not fulfilled for millions.

Guthrie’s influence on Springsteen is most evident on Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad album. In fact, Guthrie has written on John Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad, as well. Although this album of Springsteen’s has been influenced by many sources, Guthrie – as a singer and writer of Dust Bowl ballads – is clearly among them, and it is safe to say that Guthrie has had an impact on Springsteen’s political awareness and the ability to communicate it through his songwriting.

3. Social Issues

3.1. “Roulette” – M.U.S.E.

Until 1979, Bruce Springsteen had been an, at least publicly, unpolitical person. This changed, however, when a near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania occurred on March 28, 1979.[36] It effected Springsteen not only because it turned into a major public event, but also because the location of the plant was relatively close to Springsteen’s home in New Jersey. In the wake of the near catastrophe musicians and political activists joined to form “Musicians United for Safe Energy” (M.U.S.E.). They asked Bruce Springsteen to join their cause.

Springsteen was reluctant. He had avoided any specific political involvement in the past. After much consideration Springsteen decided to participate. At any rate, he never gave an explanation as to why he became a part of M.U.S.E. and what his motivation was. He refrained from making political statements and did not give any anti-nuclear statements as the other M.U.S.E. performers had done.[37] His presence on stage was enough. Dave Marsh argues that “Bruce Springsteen played M.U.S.E. as a simple act of good citizenship.”[38] Springsteen had always been careful not to speak about issues he did not fully comprehend, as he believed was the case with the nuclear accident. Springsteen would be faced with this fear again in the future. However, it was rooted more in his shyness and insecurities, rather than in an actual lack of intelligence or insight and would eventually be overcome.

“Roulette”, a song Springsteen wrote after the Three Mile Island incident and which was clearly inspired by it, considers the more humane aspects of such a catastrophe. Springsteen portrays a man who has been evacuated from his home with his family after a similar incident, a man who is angered by what has happened and who feels he is not told the whole truth, and he demands this truth to be told. The first verse also expresses the helplessness that a common man is left to deal with when he is given answers that are evasive and too difficult to understand.

We left the toys out in the yard

I took my wife and kids and left my home unguarded

We packed what we could into the car

No one here knows how it started

Suddenly everything was just so out of control

Now I want some answers, mister, I need to know

I hear all the talk but I don’t know what you’re sayin’

But I think I got a good idea of the game that you’re playin’

The refrain mentions the title of the song in every line: Roulette. Everybody is playing this game, as is the man in the song, despite the fact that he does not “know what they’re sayin’”. It is a deadly game, a game nobody is in control of, and a game this man has found himself facing without his choosing. The game of roulette is just as arbitrary as a nuclear catastrophe; and it leaves one just as powerless.

Roulette, that’s the name

Roulette, that’s the game now

Roulette, I don’t know what they’re sayin’

Roulette, everybody’s playin’

In the next verse, Springsteen shows how cheated this man feels. He worked an honest job, he grew up in this town and is now raising his family there. The town is described as a boring place where “nothing moves”, but the man stuck with it nonetheless. He worked as a fireman and served his community – but received nothing in return. Everything he has and worked for is now useless. He cannot return to his house, his belongings have been damaged by the accident. They are contaminated and pose a threat to him and his family.

I grew up here on this street

Where nothin’ moves, just a strange breeze

In a town full of worthless memories

There’s a shadow in my backyard

I’ve got a house full of things that I can’t touch

Well all those things won’t do me much good now

I was a fireman out at Riker’s, I did my job

Mister, I’ve been cheated, I feel like I’ve been robbed

I’m the big expendable, my life’s just cancelled null and void

Well what you gonna do about your new boy

Roulette, you’re playin’ with my life

Roulette, with my kids and my wife

Roulette, every day the stakes get bigger

Roulette, a different finger on the trigger

In the last paragraph, actions come to a climax. The man follows events on his shortwave radio and decides to return to his home because he “has left behind the man [he] used to be [and] everything he believed and all that belonged to [him]”. In this instant, it is clear that the man has decided against the passiveness that was forced onto him. He no longer sits and waits, listens to the radio and to the lies he is fed. Instead, he takes action – and is immediately stopped and arrested. He is again left with the feeling of being overwhelmed (“I don’t know who to trust and I don’t know what I can believe”) and not in charge of his own life. Eventually, he resigns because he realizes that he is in fact helpless. Nothing he says or does will change a thing about the bureaucratic system he is trapped in, and it becomes evident that one man has nothing to hold against the machinery of big corporations. What is particularly frustrating for this character is the fact that he knows that he is a victim. The narrator is completely out of control of his own life; it is even unclear who is: “a different finger on the trigger.” The danger has become incalculable. He knows “those guys just wanna keep on playin’ Roulette with [his] life” until the end: “Pull the trigger, feel the click. No further danger.”

Down by the river that talks

The night speaks in searchlights

And shortwave radios squawk

The police patrol the streets

But I’ve left behind the man I used to be

Everything he believed and all that belonged to me

I tried to find my way out to somewhere where I thought it’d be safe

They stopped me at the roadblock they put up on the interstate

They put me in detention but I broke loose and then I ran

They said they want to ask me a few questions but I think they had other plans

Now I don’t know who to trust and I don’t know what I can believe

They say they want to help me but with the stuff they keep on sayin’

I think those guys just wanna keep on playin’

Roulette, with my life

Roulette, with my kids and my wife

Roulette, the bullet’s in the chamber

Roulette, who’s the unlucky stranger

Roulette, surprise, you’re dead

Roulette, the gun’s to your head

Roulette, the bullet’s spinning in the chamber

Roulette, pull the trigger, feel the click

No further danger

The man Springsteen portrays in “Roulette” can be seen as a symbol of all men like him. After all, he is stripped of many details concerning his character and life. His significance lies in the fact that the speaker can be seen as a representation for the whole town and for all those whose agency is limited by stronger forces.

The incident at Three Mile Island clearly inspired Bruce Springsteen and – to a degree – made him more conscious if not yet outspoken. At this stage, he put his opinions in his lyrics only. In “Roulette”, he demonstrates how the worlds of the powerful and the powerless collide and how utterly helpless the workingman is in this situation.

Springsteen would later deal with many more plights of the American workingman.

3.2. “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” – Vietnam Veterans

Through his friendship and professional relationship with manager Jon Landau, and having visited Europe and experienced life outside of the United States, Bruce Springsteen made a conscious decision to return some of what he had been given.[39] Springsteen himself had not been to Vietnam. “I had no real political standpoint whatsoever when I was eighteen. […] The whole draft thing, it was just a pure street thing. You didn’t want to go […]. We didn’t even know where Vietnam was when I was eighteen, seventeen. We just knew we didn’t want to go and die,” Springsteen said.[40] He did not have to go, due to a concussion he had suffered in a motorcycle accident in 1968.[41] However, he was familiar with the effects of the war. Bart Hanes, the drummer of his first band, went to Vietnam and was killed.[42] Hence, the cause of the Vietnam veterans intrigued Springsteen much. He felt that the Vietnam war had been a big mistake and that an even bigger mistake was made in how the veterans were treated by the American government. Jon Landau helped Springsteen to get in contact with Bob Muller, president of “Vietnam Veterans of America” (VVA). Consequently, Bruce Springsteen agreed to give a benefit concert in Los Angeles on September 20, 1981, in which nearly $50,000 were raised.[43] “Without Bruce and that evening, we would not have made it,” Muller has stated repeatedly.[44] After an introduction by Springsteen and then Muller, the E Street Band played John Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, a song that has since been adopted by the veterans as their unofficial anthem.[45]

Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down.

Clouds of myst’ry pourin’ confusion on the ground.

Good men through the ages, tryin’ to find the sun;

And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain.

I went down Virginia, seekin’ shelter from the storm.

Caught up in the fable, I watched the tower grow.

Five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains.

And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more.

The crowd had rushed together, tryin’ to keep warm.

Still the rain kept pourin’, fallin’ on my ears.

And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

The song speaks of “confusion” and of how “good men through the ages” have been “tryin’ to find the sun”, which, of course, could imply multiple meanings but may refer to men fighting in a war, men who are trying to fight for a cause. However, it is almost impossible to see the sun because it is raining heavily: “Who’ll stop the rain.” It is impossible to win this fight.

The third verse clearly deals with Woodstock: “Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more. The crowd had rushed together, tryin’ to keep warm.” Woodstock was a three-day long rock concert in August of 1969, where approximately 500,000 people gathered in Bethel, NY. They united to speak in favor of the anti-war movement, to legalize drugs and speak out against the government – during which it rained heavily.[46]

Bruce Springsteen took a significant public stand that night, both by giving the concert and by speaking openly for the cause of the veterans. It was the beginning of what would be a life-long involvement and dedication for Springsteen, which includes the Vietnam veterans on the one hand and a public concern with war and its effects and justification on the other.

3.3. “This Land Is Your Land” – The Effect of Ronald Reagan

It is somewhat ironic that one of Bruce Springsteen’s first political statements was made concerning Ronald Reagan’s election in November of 1980 and that it was President Reagan who would, years later, force Springsteen to become political again. On November 5, 1980, the night after Ronald Reagan had beat Jimmy Carter, Springsteen announced at a concert at Arizona State University, “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night, but I thought it was pretty terrifying.”[47] This sentence, however insignificant it may appear, was Springsteen’s first unambiguous statement concerning politics. He made his dislike for President Reagan clear. The statement marked the beginning of Springsteen’s outspokenness in commentary and lyrics concerning Reagan’s politics as he continued to be critical throughout the Reagan presidency. For instance, at a show in Stockholm, Sweden, he defined the American Dream for his European audience, “In America there’s a promise that gets made, and over there it gets called the American Dream, which is just the right to be able to live your life with some decency and dignity. But […] that dream is only true for a very, very few people.”[48] He continued to describe the hard times that Americans were having, and how people turn against each other in the face of difficulty and that this explains the resurgence of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.[49] Springsteen then introduced Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” by saying, “[This is] a song about living free, about the land that you live in, that should belong to each and every one of you, and that you have a right and a promise to life, to fulfill yourself inside.”[50]

Well I rode that ribbon highway

I saw above me the endless sky

I saw below me the golden valley

This land was made for you and me

I’ve roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps

Through the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

And all around me a voice was calling

This land was made for you and me

This land is your land

This land is my land

From California

To the New York island

From the redwood forest

To the gulf-stream waters

This land was made for you and me

Well the sun came shining and I was strolling

Through wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling

And a voice was sounding

As the fog was lifting

Saying this land was made for you and me

“This Land Is Your Land” is a song packed with Americanisms in nearly every word. The narrator is free, he is “roaming”. There is the American highway as well as the endlessness of the sky and the “golden valley”. All this belongs to him: the American. He is following his footsteps, which is literally impossible, but shows that he is doing as he pleases with no restrains and complete freedom. He is following no one else’s footsteps.

American landmarks are mentioned as well, such as deserts, California, New York, the redwood forest and the ocean. And all along, there is a voice calling, claiming that “This land was made for you and me.” This, in fact, is the essence of “Manifest Destiny”, a phrase used by American leaders and politicians in the 1840s to explain continental expansion by the United States.[51] Today, it is sometimes referred to as “Victory Culture”[52] as well. This concept includes a sense of mission to bring freedom to those who were capable of self government – which certainly excluded Native Americans and non-white Europeans at the time. Another major factor was, of course, the increasing need to expand as the United States was growing rapidly. The terms “Manifest Destiny” and “This land was made for you and me” express both a right and a need that serve as justifications for American expansion. However, the side effects of this mentality are frequently criticized today as it is a known fact that this “Manifest Destiny” was indeed not so beneficial for Native Americans, in particular.

During the campaign for his re-election, Reagan and his advisors decided that it would be a smart move for Springsteen to endorse Reagan. This, so was hoped, would attract many young voters in the November election of 1984. After all, Springsteen was widely popular at the time with his Born in the U.S.A. album, and his “good-guy image and unabashed patriotism seemed to make him a perfect fit for Reaganites.”[53] Consequently, as an attempt to use this popularity for his purposes, Reagan appeared on a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state. It was proposed to Springsteen to appear with Reagan together; however, he declined.[54] Reagan gave the following statement in Hammonton, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”[55]

This was the first time ever that a popular singer had been “recruited by a President of the United States as a character reference.”[56] However, Springsteen did not feel the urge to respond immediately. He was reluctant to speak in political terms because he was afraid that his own lack of expertise would embarrass him, as had been the case with M.U.S.E.[57] Oftentimes, he tells stories before a song at his concerts, but giving speeches (or even issuing press releases) was not something Springsteen did.

Rather than voicing his opinion directly, Springsteen found another way to distance himself from President Reagan and his policies: He linked himself to “their polar opposite, the disenfranchised workers exemplified by the men of Local 1397, who had […] formed the most thriving union food bank in the country.”[58] This occurred on a tour stop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 22, 1984.

Additionally, Springsteen introduced his song “Johnny 99” by saying, “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”[59]

“Johnny 99” tells the story of a man – Ralph – who was turned from an honest working man into a criminal by circumstances he could not influence. The first paragraph tells of how he was laid off at work and could not find any other employment. He then started drinking and eventually killed a clerk.

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month

Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none

He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine

He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call’m Johnny 99

Springsteen wrote this song in 1982 at a time when the auto plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, which had been one of the largest in the country, was permanently shut down due to labor and quality control problems. Springsteen wove this factual basis into his fictional story.

In the next stanza, Ralph is arrested. He continues to be trapped in unfortunate circumstances with his public defender and an unjust judge. He is sentenced to “98 and a year and we’ll call it even Johnny 99”. Drama brakes out in the courtroom, Ralph’s (now referred to as Johnny) girlfriend must be dragged away; his mother pleads, “Judge don’t take my boy this way”. Johnny has one last chance for a statement:

Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay

The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away

Clearly, Springsteen portrays Johnny as a lower class worker, indicated by his colloquial speech. He explains how he ended up in the situation when he committed the crime, and it offers understanding for his desperation. He is aware of the fact that he is guilty, but he also blames his surroundings for his deed.

Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man

But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand

Finally, Johnny pleads with the judge to sentence him to death. His argument is that if the judge only knew what Johnny was thinking, and if this justified a death sentence, this is what Johnny would wish for.

Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead

And if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head

Then won’t you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time

And let ‘em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line

Society has turned Johnny into a man without dignity. He has lost his job and all respect and turned into a criminal. Being well aware of this and considering that a way back into his old life is impossible, he chooses death as his only way out.

Springsteen performed this song in Pittsburgh, as mentioned above, a city which was hit hard by unemployment and poverty in the 1980s.[60] Thus, Springsteen made his first statement that may be regarded as criticism of Reaganomics.[61] Part of Reagan’s plan was to reduce the tax rate in order to strengthen a weakened American economy. But even an income tax cut of 25 percent left the country facing recession, poverty, homelessness and a high unemployment rate.[62]

Springsteen continued to introduce his song “My Hometown” by stating that

it’s a long walk from a government that’s supposed to represent all of the people to where we are today. It seems like something’s wrong out there when there’s a lot of stuff being taken away from a lot of people that shouldn’t have it taken away from them. And sometimes it’s hard to remember that this place belongs to us – that this is our hometown.[63]

Springsteen’s song tells the story of a father and his son who drive around together. The father wants his son to be aware of what is happening in his hometown. He tells him, “Son, take a good look around. This is your hometown.” Springsteen continues to describe the desolate state of this town, which could stand for thousands of American towns.

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores

Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks

Stores close and remain closed; there is no business, and many workers are laid off. There is no hope:

Foreman says, “These jobs are going boys

and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”

The next night, Springsteen gave another concert in Pittsburgh and was even more openly critical of what Reagan’s politics had done to America. “We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas. Things are getting taken away from people […]. I don’t think that the American dream was that everybody was going to make it […], but it was that everybody was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect,”[64] Springsteen remarked before he performed “The River”. He dedicated the song to Local 1397, a food bank, and made a donation of $10,000 to this organization.[65]

Moreover, Springsteen told Rolling Stone ’s Kurt Loder in 1984, “You see the Reagan re-election ads on TV – you know, ‘It’s morning in America.’ And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. […] It’s midnight. […] And that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation and I had to disassociate myself from the President’s kind words.”[66]

However, Springsteen was very careful not to endorse the Democrats either, which did not keep Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale from stating that Springsteen had in fact endorsed his candidacy in a letter sent to Mondale. Springsteen’s management denied that such a letter had ever been written, and Mondale was forced to excuse himself on the grounds of misinformation.[67]

Springsteen stated, “I don’t generally think along those lines. I find it very difficult to relate to the whole electoral system as it stands.”[68] Consequently, Springsteen formulated a new idea, “I want to try and just work more directly with people, try to find some way that my band can tie into the communities that we come into. I guess that’s a political action, a way just to bypass that whole electoral thing – human politics.”[69] Springsteen’s involvement in human politics would turn into a life-long commitment, and it is indeed ironic that it was Ronald Reagan who pushed Springsteen towards that direction initially. After all, Reagan’s ambition had been the exact opposite.

3.4. “Factory” – The Necessity of Work

Bruce Springsteen asked his management, Jon Landau and his associate Barbara Carr, to research groups across the United States that worked with the underprivileged: the hungry, the homeless, and the unemployed. Springsteen’s goal was to leave something behind in every community he and his band entered, to make a contribution, and, if nothing else, to raise awareness. The latter was guaranteed as the media picked up on Springsteen’s appeals quickly. There were reports on his engagement in press reviews as well as press conferences that informed about the donation and encouraged more funds and involvement from the community.[70] Therefore, even if Springsteen’s donation was just a momentary help, the awareness he raised was lasting.

Consequently, twelve additional tour dates were announced as part of the Born in the U.S.A. tour, and it was stated that “local community organizations [were to] benefit from tour support”.[71] Springsteen’s interest in the poor stemmed from his own difficult upbringing and financial trouble of his parents when Springsteen was younger. He could identify with the underprivileged because he could easily imagine himself in such a situation.[72]

In each city that Springsteen gave a concert in during the following weeks of 1984, he made a contribution of $10,000 on average and $25,000 whenever he played outdoor stadiums which would hold larger audiences.[73] Generally, donations would go to food banks and sometimes to action groups that dealt with environmental issues. During his concerts, Springsteen promoted one specific local group; usually, he dedicated a song to them and told his audience, as for instance during his show in Tacoma: “Remember ‘Fair Share’ – this is your hometown.”[74]

To this day, aiding the homeless is a social cause that Springsteen reminds his fans of frequently. At concerts, he makes Public Service Announcements and makes his audience aware of people outside the stadium collecting money when the show is finished, as he did on October 3, 2003 while performing in New York City. He said:

This is for some friends of ours tonight, […] for the Coalition of the Homeless. Tonight in New York City, 39,000 people will sleep in shelters, including 17,000 children. Coalition for the Homeless offers mobile soup kitchen, crisis intervention services, job training and other programs aimed at ending homelessness in New York. If you see them on the way out, please stop and give your time and your support for the folks of the Coalition of the Homeless. They’re out there on the frontline doing good work.[75]

Besides these reminders in his comments, the hardships of the working man are ever present in Springsteen’s lyrics as well.

A song of Springsteen’s that describes the hardships of the working man is “Badlands”. It tells of hard physical labor (“Workin’ in the fields till you get your back burned”) that one does until one gains some kind of understanding: “Workin’ ‘neath the wheel till you get your facts learned”. This may be an understanding of how the world works for people like the speaker. Moreover, he has a broader understanding of the “facts”: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king. And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” This describes the cycle of life and how it is impossible to ever be content because there is always something higher to be achieved or strived for. He is ready for the challenge and to discover what it is that life has in store for him: “I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got.” He is ready to take action:

I want control right now

talk about a dream

Try to make it real

you wake up in the night

With a fear so real

Spend your life waiting

for a moment that just don’t come

Well, don’t waste your time waiting

The narrator then tells of the values that sustain him, that motivate him to keep going:

I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the faith that could save me

I believe in the hope

and I pray that some day

It may raise me above these


The song ends with pure resilience: “I wanna spit in the face of these badlands.” This proves that the narrator has understood the game of his life and that he comprehends the circumstances under which he lives. He knows he is a part of the working world and that tough, physical labor will be a part of life forever. However, he also knows what will sustain him: mental strength, activism (“control”), not letting himself give in to his fears. He rather builds on love, faith, and hope and the believe that one day he will overcome these “Badlands”.

Springsteen encourages his listeners to be resilient, not to give up and to hold on to the human connections and the values that sustain the speaker in “Badlands”.

In “Night”, Bruce Springsteen describes the life of a working man as well, this time, however, in the second person instead of the often used first or third person, as if he was speaking to the working man directly. Springsteen writes:

You get up every morning at the sound of the bell

You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell

In order not to lose hope, this character simply forgets about his work, locks his door and “step[s] out into the night”. This is where one can be carefree and is able to let go. Because the “world is busting at its seams, and you’re just a prisoner of your dreams. Holding on for your life ‘cause you work all day to blow ‘em away in the night.” The night is what keeps this character alive. He does not work to re-pay his debts or support his family or strive for a higher goal, at least not explicitly. Instead, he just works because he has to; it remains unquestioned.

You work nine to five and somehow you survive till the night

Hell all day they’re busting you up on the outside

But tonight you’re gonna break on through to the inside

And it’ll be right, it’ll be right, and it’ll be tonight

The night brings freedom. For the character in this song, this is the only way that this feeling can be achieved. There is not much complaint. Facts are taken as they are: work is work, but after work one can “run sad and free until all you can see is the night.”

In “Youngstown”, likely Springsteen’s best known song of The Ghost of Tom Joad, he sings about the decay of Youngstown, Ohio. It is the only song of this album in which the action does not take place in the Southwest. Instead, Springsteen switches location to the Northeast and tells a story of decay of an industrial town from the perspective of a worker. “The song also expresses Springsteen’s most familiar theme, the juxtaposition of a mythical America where anything is possible with the crushing reality of a country that keeps letting hardworking people down.”[76]

Youngstown became rapidly industrialized after pockets of iron ore were discovered, and Dan and James Heaton “built the first blast furnace in the area”[77]. The steel industry in Youngstown sustained the regional economy until the last blast furnace was shut down in 1980. Consequently, the local unemployment rate rose to over 30 percent.[78] Springsteen portrays the story of one man of these 30 percent in his song “Youngstown”.

Here in northeast Ohio

Back in eighteen-o-three

James and Danny Heaton

Found the ore that was linin’ yellow creek

They built a blast furnace

Here along the shore

And they made the cannon balls

That helped the union win the war

The speaker tells the story of how working the furnaces has always been an integral part of his life. His father worked the furnaces after he returned from World War II, as did the speaker when he came “home from ‘Nam”. The speaker does not complain about this hard work despite the fact that it suits “the devil as well”. After all, he is able to provide for his family.

Despite his commitment to his work and his country, the speaker in “Youngstown” is betrayed by those who have the power. “Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble”, and his father tells him, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”, implying the devastating amount of destruction.

These mills they built the tanks and bombs

That won this country’s wars

We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam

Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for

The irony of this speaker’s story lies in the fact that he went to war himself and contemplates the sense of the lives lost; yet, at the same time, he worked in a factory that produced “tanks and bombs”. It remains unclear whether he is aware of this ambiguity. But after all, second-guessing his work would equal doubting his life, as the two are inseparable.

The speaker knows his story is not unique:

From the Monongaleh valley

To the Mesabi iron range

To the coal mines of Appalacchia

The story’s always the same

Seven-hundred tons of metal a day

Now sir you tell me the world’s changed

Once I made you rich enough

Rich enough to forget my name

The speaker feels forgotten and betrayed. After fighting in a war for his country, hence, risking his life, and working hard every day to provide for his family, the furnace closes down, and with it, the speaker goes down as well:

In Youngstown

In Youngstown

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down

Here darlin’ in Youngstown

The speaker has no other choice but to succumb to the closure of the factory and the despair in Youngstown. After all, his work has been his life, and once taken away with no prospect or regaining it, the speaker inevitably must go down.

In his song “Factory”, Springsteen describes the physical strain hard labor puts on a man, but also the necessity of such work to support one’s life:

Early in the morning factory whistle blows,

Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,

Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,

It’s the working, the working, just the working life.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,

I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,

Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,

The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,

Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.

And you just better believe, boy,

somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,

It’s the working, the working, just the working life.

The narrator’s father is among the factory workers, who are mostly referred to rather impersonally as “man” or “men”. The daily routine of getting ready for work is described simply, underlined by the repetition of “the working life”. It shows the monotonous routine these men work every day, and physical pain is just a part of the job. The necessity of having a job in the first place has more weight than matters of health.

In “Seeds”, Springsteen tells the story of a homeless family. The father packs his family together and heads south to Houston, Texas, where he is hoping to find work in an oil refinery. But upon arrival, “they said ‘Sorry son it’s gone gone gone.’” The man is desperate, “I don’t know where I’m gonna sleep tonight.” So he and his family sleep in a car:

Parked in the lumberyard freezin’ our asses off

My kids in the back seat got a graveyard cough

Well I’m sleepin’ up in front with my wife

Billy club tappin’ on the windshield in the middle of the night

Says “Move along man move along”

The song ends with advice the speaker gives to all who attempt to do like he did:

So if you’re gonna leave your town where the north wind blow

To go on down where that sweet soda river flow

Well you better think twice on it Jack

You’re better off buyin’ a shotgun dead off the rack

You ain’t gonna find nothin’ down here friend

Except seeds blowin’ up the highway in the south wind

Movin’ on movin’ on it’s gone gone it’s all gone

Springsteen has actively supported homeless groups such as the National Union of the Homeless (NUH) for two decades. He continues to speak of them in his Public Service Announcements, and NUH has adopted “Seeds” as its unofficial theme song.[79]

Conclusively, Springsteen offers various solutions to enduring the hardships of the working life. Sometimes it is faith, sometimes resilience or an act of desperation, and sometimes it is the “night”, which is symbolic for whatever it is that sustains a person. Moreover, he points out that oftentimes there are circumstances in one’s life that are outside of the realm of influence, as is the case in “Youngstown” and “Seeds”. In this case, there is no remedy and no way out. At any rate, Springsteen understands the hardships of the working man, as whose speaker he is often regarded. Despite the fact that he is now a multi-millionaire and can be seen the epitome of a successful American Dream, he has never forgotten his working class roots and has continued to sing and write about it. Especially his songs “Seeds” and “Factory” underline the importance of work. The effects of unemployment are displayed in many of his songs, and they range from personal relationships falling apart, to isolation, unhappiness and homelessness.

Springsteen summed up his opinion of the necessity of work in this statement:

Holding onto the things you’ve worked for, the deep fear of displacement, the fact that you’re useful only as long as you’re useful. I always thought people should be guaranteed the right to work. You know, being 45 or 50, you’ve worked your whole life, and then there’s somebody telling you that’s it. Your work is caught up so deeply in who you are. The ability to have a job, support a family, create a home, feel a part of a community, those are the things that keep people sane and bring them fulfilment. To have such a large percentage of people in such a wealthy country whose basic needs haven’t been met, that’s a terrible moral failing. That should be our bridge to the 21st century, to straighten these things out.[80]

3.5. “Trapped” – USA for Africa

Inspired by a similar project in Great Britain, American folk singer Harry Belafonte was spurred to create something alike in the United States in order to aid the suffering people of Africa. He involved talent manager Ken Kragen who suggested the making of a charity record. In the following weeks, he managed to engage celebrities like Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler – and Bruce Springsteen. “The turning point was Bruce Springsteen’s commitment,” said Kragen. “That legitimized the project in the eyes of the rock community.”[81]

Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson wrote the song “We are the World”, which was recorded and filmed by a video crew in January of 1985. It became a huge success and consequently raised approximately $50 million for hunger relief in Africa.[82] Moreover, “We Are The World” was considered “a grand pop event with serious political overtones.”[83] It demonstrated that musicians of all backgrounds and races could work together for a cause and be successful and productive with their efforts. Combining the record sales and the video documentary that was sold as well and the release of an additional album, USA for Africa raised a total of approximately $200 million.[84] Springsteen released a live recording of the song “Trapped”, originally written by Jimmy Cliff.

“Trapped” is a song that tells of a miserable current situation. However, its words can relate to various situations: a relationship between partners or friends, for instance, but it may also be seen in a broader context: Africa as a whole continent is trapped. Since this is the context in which Springsteen released it, one can assume that he intended to get a message across to his listeners.

In the song, the narrator is caught in a trap; he is in chains.

Seems like I’m caught up in your trap again

Seems like I’ll be wearing the same old chains

Good will conquer Evil

And the truth will set me free

And I know some day I will find the key

This may express the dependency of the African continent on other countries to help the African people. It is also mentioned that the “game” that the narrator has been playing has empowered his captor. It is rather common that an oppressor feels comfortable in his situation, and that the suppressed will oftentimes oblige. The longer this cycle continues, the more it empowers the one already in power, and the harder it becomes for the weak to break free.

Ultimately, however, what prevails in this song is the hope and the striving to break free. There is a trust in a good outcome: “Good will conquer Evil”. The narrator knows that he is stuck in this unfortunate situation for now, but there is no doubt that he will eventually be free: “I won’t walk out the loser. I know I’ll walk out of here again.” This can be achieved by being vigilant: “But I’ll teach my eyes to see beyond these walls in front of me.”

It is a hopeful message that Springsteen may have intended to convey. It shows his understanding of the at times unbearable situations for the African people, but he also empowers them in saying that there is a way out of this dependency and suffering.

3.6. “Sun City” – Anti-Apartheid

In 1985, E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt took a trip to South Africa and found himself appalled at the circumstances he witnessed there, most of all by the so-called “homelands” in the South African state of Bophuthatswana. He saw parallels to the treatments of American Indians in the United States. In South Africa, “homelands” were established as African reserves in the 1970s and 80s. These homelands were independent states, and each African was assigned by the government to a homeland according to his record of origin. All political rights, including voting, were restricted to the homeland with the goal in mind to take away all political power of Africans and to make them citizens of the homeland – and not of South Africa.[85]

Moreover, Van Zandt noticed how pop music was used “to legitimize both apartheid and [the] homeland system”[86] on which he reflects in his song “Sun City”. For this cause, similar to the USA for Africa project, many artists united, among them Ringo Starr, Bono, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel – and Bruce Springsteen.

We’re rockers and rappers united and strong

We’re here to talk about South Africa we don’t like what’s going on (tell it)

It’s time for some justice it’s time for the truth (speak it)

We’ve realized there’s only one thing we can do

We gotta say

Ain’t gonna play Sun City

This first paragraph sums up the motivation behind the project, and the artists take action: they boycott the exploitation and misuse of pop music by the Bophuthatswanan government, which had turned the state into an “African Las Vegas”[87]: pop music served as a means to subtly cover up the bad conditions. The song continues to discuss the miserable conditions in the homelands and strongly criticizes the apartheid regime:

Relocation to phony homelands

Separation of families I can’t understand

23 million can’t vote because they’re black

We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back

We’re gonna say

Ain’t gonna play Sun City

Furthermore, Van Zandt takes a look at his own government and at President Reagan’s policy of “Constructive Engagement”, a policy which proclaimed that quiet diplomacy would be more successful in undermining apartheid as opposed to more confrontational measures, such as sanctions.[88] It is made clear that the artists do not approve of this silent treatment of wrongful conditions. Rather, they call for outspokenness and action:

Our government tells us we’re doing all we can

Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke

We’re gonna say

Ain’t gonna play Sun City

Criticism of the American government continues with the next stanza. However, it also reminds the American people that with privilege comes a certain amount of responsibility:

It’s time to accept our responsibility

Freedom is a privilege nobody rides for free

Look around the world baby it cannot be denied

Can somebody tell me why we’re always on the wrong side

The next paragraph admits that Bophuthatswana is indeed far away and may, hence, not be of much concern to the average American. This does not, however, make the circumstances there less wrong. Van Zandt again makes it clear that he cannot be bought by the government and that under no circumstances would he ever perform in Bophuthatswana’s pop music resorts.[89]

Bophuthatswana is far away

But we know it’s in South Africa no matter what they say

You can’t buy me I don’t care what you pay

Don’t ask me Sun City because I ain’t gonna play

Conclusively, Van Zandt calls out to the world (“Come on world, come on world”) and critizes his fellow artists and musicians who have performed in Bophuthatswana: “Shame on you, don’t play Sun City”.


[1] John Duffy, Bruce Springsteen...In His Own Words (Norfolk, Great Britain: Omnibus Press, 2000), 59.

[2] Robert Coles, Bruce Springsteen’s America. The People Listening, A Poet Singing (New York: Random House, 2004), 10f.

[3] Dave Marsh, Bruce Springsteen: Two Hearts – The Definitive Biography, 1972 – 2003 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 21.

[4] Marsh. Two Hearts, 327.

[5] Marsh. Two Hearts, 45.

[6] Marsh. Two Hearts, 324.

[7] See “My Hometown”, p. 60.

[8] Alterman. It ain’t no Sin, 11.

[9] Marsh. Two Hearts, 23/24.

[10] June Skinner Sawyers, Racing In The Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 21.

[11] Marsh. Two Hearts, 596.

[12] Marsh. Two Hearts, 596.

[13] For a complete compilation of lyrics of all songs discussed in this paper, please refer to the appendix, p. 124.

[14] Marsh. Two Hearts, 24.

[15] see page 7

[16] Marsh. Two Hearts, 325.

[17] Marsh. Two Hearts, 325.

[18] Marsh. Two Hearts, 325.

[19] Alterman. It ain’t no Sin, 13.

[20] Skinner Sawyers. Racing, 3.

[21] Alterman. It ain’t no Sin, 13.

[22] Marsh. Two Hearts, 24.

[23] Marsh. Two Hearts, 24.

[24] Jann Wenner, “We’ve Been Misled , Rolling Stone (2004): 4/4/2005 <>.

[25] Marsh. Two Hearts, 27.

[26] Marsh. Two Hearts, 86.

[27] Duffy. In His Own Words, 78.

[28] Duffy. In His Own Words, 80.

[29] Marsh. Two Hearts, 52.

[30] Transcript of an unauthorized copy of Springsteen’s concert on October 4, 2003.

[31] Transcript of an unauthorized copy of Springsteen’s concert on October 4, 2003.

[32] Wenner. “We’ve Been Misled .

[33] Marsh. Two Hearts, 276.

[34] Marsh. Two Hearts, 279.

[35] Marsh. Two Hearts, 600.

[36] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Fact Sheet On The Accident At Three Mile Island: 4/15/2005 <>.

[37] Jim Cullen, Born in the U.S.A. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 14.

[38] Marsh. Two Hearts, 217.

[39] Marsh. Two Hearts, 307.

[40] Marsh. Two Hearts, 307.

[41] Marsh. Two Hearts, 308.

[42] Marsh. Two Hearts, 307.

[43] Marsh. Two Hearts, 310.

[44] Marsh. Two Hearts, 310.

[45] Marsh. Two Hearts, 313.

[46] 1969 Woodstock: Festival & Concert, 5/20/2005 <>.

[47] Marsh. Two Hearts, 276.

[48] Marsh. Two Hearts, 339.

[49] Marsh. Two Hearts, 339.

[50] Marsh. Two Hearts, 339.

[51] Manifest Destiny: An Introduction, 5/22/2005 <>.

[52] Cullen. Born in the U.S.A., xvii.

[53] Cullen. Born in the U.S.A., 4.

[54] Marsh. Two Hearts, 481.

[55] Parke Puterbaugh, “Introduction”, Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files (London: Pan Books, 1998), xxxix.

[56] Marsh. Two Hearts, 484.

[57] Marsh. Two Hearts, 485.

[58] Marsh. Two Hearts, 486.

[59] Marsh. Two Hearts, 487.

[60] Marsh. Two Hearts, 486.

[61] Marsh. Two Hearts, 486.

[62] ‘Reaganomics’, 7/31/2005 <>.

[63] Marsh. Two Hearts, 487.

[64] Marsh. Two Hearts, 488.

[65] Marsh. Two Hearts, 489.

[66] Kurt Loder, “The Rolling Stone Interview: Bruce Springsteen”, Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files (London: Pan Books, 1998), 172.

[67] Marsh. Two Hearts, 488.

[68] Marsh. Two Hearts, 488.

[69] Marsh. Two Hearts, 489.

[70] Marsh. Two Hearts, 497.

[71] Marsh. Two Hearts, 490.

[72] Marsh. Two Hearts, 493.

[73] Marsh. Two Hearts, 494.

[74] Marsh. Two Hearts, 496.

[75] Transcript of an unauthorized copy of Springsteen’s concert on October 3, 2003.

[76] Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Pop Populist”, Racing In The Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader, Ed. June Skinner Sawyers (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 257.

[77] History Of Youngstown, 6/6/2005 <>.

[78] Alterman. It ain’t no Sin, 253.

[79] Marsh. Two Hearts, 587.

[80] Dawidoff. “The Pop Populist”, 265.

[81] Marsh. Two Hearts, 516.

[82] Marsh. Two Hearts, 519.

[83] Marsh. Two Hearts, 519.

[84] Marsh. Two Hearts, 220.

[85] The History of Apartheid in South Africa, 7/31/2005 <>.

[86] Marsh. Two Hearts, 590.

[87] Marsh. Two Hearts, 590.

[88] Incomplete Engagement: Reagan’s South Africa Policy Revisited, 3/29/2005 <>.

[89] Marsh. Two Hearts, 590.

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Bruce Springsteen - Fighting for the Promised Land: Political and Social Implications in Springsteen's Words and Actions
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M.A. Frauke Scheben (Author), 2005, Bruce Springsteen - Fighting for the Promised Land: Political and Social Implications in Springsteen's Words and Actions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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