The Rock Star as Historian

Culture Watch


John W. Johnson is Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the co-author of "Affirmative Action" (ABC-Clio, 2009) and the editor of "Historic U.S. Court Cases: An Encyclopedia," 2 ed. (Routledge, 2001).

Bruce Springsteen performing at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida on August 15, 2008. Credit: Craig O'Neil.

On a cool evening in early September, my son and I joined 40,000 fans in the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field. No, we didn't travel more than two hundred miles to see the Chicago Cubs stumble to the end of another forgettable season. We made our way to Wrigley, instead, to see the country's most consistent long-term winner ... Bruce Springsteen.

To frequent chants of "Bruuuce," the "Boss" and his E-Street Band belted out twenty-one songs, followed by seven (!) encores. Included on the set list were highlights from the Springsteen canon: "Prove It All Night," "Atlantic City," "Badlands," Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "Jungleland." There were also six tracks from Springsteen's most recently-released CD, "Wrecking Ball." Love him or hate him, Springsteen and his band mates have been playing an ever evolving, eclectic and exuberant brand of music for four decades.

With the possible exception of Bob Dylan, no American singer-songwriter of the last half century has generated as much attention from scholars as Bruce Springsteen. I know of about twenty books on Springsteen, including a few by academics who teach American history and American studies.

Springsteen first attracted national notice in 1974 when rock critic Jon Landau wrote prophetically that "[Tonight] I saw rock 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." A year later Springsteen was simultaneously on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.

But I confess I wasn't paying much attention. I only started to take Springsteen seriously in the 1990s. And I've been playing catch-up ever since: listening closely to the 17 studio albums, tuning in digital concerts via satellite radio, and dipping into the reviews, biographies and other analytical pieces on Springsteen and his band mates. Now I lecture regularly on Springsteen in my U.S. history classes.

As Alan Lomax so brilliantly demonstrated in a lifetime of collecting and studying American popular music, this country's singer-songwriters have looked to history for musical inspiration since the seventeenth century. I contend that Springsteen stands prominently near the head of this long line of musicians.

According to rock and roll lore, sometime around 1980 Springsteen picked up an old edition of Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager's History of the United States. From this thin volume he was exposed to the American triumphalism and New Deal leftist leanings of the text's two authors. And, soon, historical themes bemoaning racial and economic injustice began to work their way into Springsteen's songwriting.

For example, in "Youngstown" (1995) Springsteen tells the story of the iron and steel fabrication that fired the country's industrial revolution but has now faded into sad memories with the decline of American manufacturing: "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."

Or in "American Skin," first performed in 2000, Springsteen offers a haunting account of the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, who was shot 41 times outside his New York apartment by police officers who mistakenly thought the young man was reaching for a gun when he was actually trying to pull out his wallet. The officers were later acquitted of any wrong doing in the shooting. Springsteen's song, alternatively titled "41 Shots," not so subtly implies that Diallo's tragic death was a result of racial profiling. Although the song drew praise from civil rights advocates, it sparked strong criticism from many police officers who were offended by Springsteen's version of the fateful "seven seconds in the Bronx."

In 2006 Springsteen temporarily formed a new band for his "Seeger Sessions" CD and Tour in which he played many traditional folk and protest songs in the style of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Included among the tracks on the CD are American classics like "John Henry," "Shenandoah," and "We Shall Overcome." Perhaps the best track is Springsteen's cover of "My Oklahoma Home," written in 1961 by Sis and Bill Cunningham, to memorialize with wry humor the tragedy of the 1930s dustbowl: "I hollered and I cussed when my land went up in dust, when my Oklahoma farm, it blowed away."

I'm pleased to report that Springsteen "Wrecking Ball" Tour features several historically-grounded performances. On the night that my son and I caught the show, one highlight was a rendition of title song to Springsteen's 1995 CD, "The Ghost of Tom Joad." This evocation of life in California labor camps in the Great Depression has special resonance as the country continues to dig its way out of our current spate of hard times: "Welcome to the new world order, families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest. No home no job no peace no rest."

The first encore at the Chicago concert was "We Are Alive" from the "Wrecking Ball" CD, a song set in a graveyard where the voices of the victims of injustice emerge from earth. In a powerful single stanza, Springsteen links the fate of nineteenth-century labor protesters, black children murdered in a southern city during the 1960s, and recent migrants from Mexico who died trying to make their way to a better life in the U.S.: "A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877 when the railroad workers made their stand. Well I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham. Well I died last year crossing the southern desert, my children left behind in San Pablo. Well they left our bodies here to rot. Oh please let them know. We are alive."

Historians and students of history still have an opportunity to catch the "Wrecking Ball" Tour as it rumbles through the nation this fall. At a time when so much of American popular music is suffused with passion but devoid of ideas and context, it is a privilege to witness the 63 year-old Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band still putting on a spectacular show and, in the process, making pieces of the past meaningful to multiple generations of fans.

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