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Three Reasons Historians Should Take Note of Bruce Springsteen's 65th Birthday

Culture Watch




John W. Johnson, Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa, has written several books on American civil liberties.

My daily newspaper contains a feature titled “Celebrity Birthdays.” Perhaps yours does too. On Tuesday, September 23rd, one of the entries will read something like this: “Rock Singer-Songwriter Bruce Springsteen is 65.”

That’s right, the composer of “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA” was actually born . . . in 1949.

There’s nothing particularly newsworthy about rock stars getting older. After all, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Mick Jagger, and Paul McCartney all have a few years on “The Boss.” Nevertheless, Springsteen’s entry into his golden years is an important milestone for this popular musician and cultural lightning rod. It also represents an occasion that should not go unobserved by American historians.

Here are three reasons why U.S. historians should take this moment to acknowledge, even celebrate, Springsteen and his E Street Band.

First of all, Springsteen holds an important place in the history of rock music. With his initial album, “Greetings from Asbury Park” in 1973, Springsteen’s talky lyrics and raspy voice qualified him, in the eyes of many popular music fans, as “the new Dylan.” In 1974, rock critic John Landau wrote: “[Tonight] I saw rock ‘n roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” When the bulk of American rock music began to soften and become more production oriented in the mid-‘70s, Springsteen and the E Street Band released “Born to Run,” an amazing collection of potent, well-crafted rock songs. Rated as one of the best albums of all times by Rolling Stone, the appearance of “Born to Run” persuaded Time and Newsweek to place Springsteen on their covers in the same week in October 1975.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Springsteen wrote and released three albums—“Darkness at the Edge of Town,” “The River,” and “Nebraska.” Each contains beautiful and haunting tracks. Most Springsteen fans rate these three as among his best albums. Then, in 1984, came “Born in the USA”--one of the most played and recognized albums of the 1980s. The international “Born in the USA Tour” made the man from New Jersey a world-wide star.

Since the 1980s, Springsteen has continued to write and perform an eclectic brand of popular music—including rock anthems (“Glory Days,” “We Take Care of Our Own”), love songs (Brilliant Disguise,” “Dancing in the Dark”), ballads (“Mansion on the Hill,” “Outlaw Pete”), nostalgia (“My Hometown,” “Long Walk Home”), protest music (“Last to Die for a Mistake,” “Death to My Hometown”), and even a bit of hip-hop (“Rocky Ground”).

A case can be made that Springsteen is the most versatile popular American singer-songwriter of his generation. Moreover, unlike other popular American rock bands that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s—for example Journey, The Eagles, and Credence Clearwater Revival—Springsteen and the E Street Band still continue to create and perform original, new music. Several of the tracks on the 2012 “Wrecking Ball” CD, for example, possess a power and a poignancy reminiscent of the best songs on “Darkness at the Edge of Town.” The Springsteen canon now includes nineteen studio albums, the last seven released since the beginning of the 21st century. Springsteen’s music has been accorded 20 Grammys and countless other awards.

Springsteen, of course, is not for everyone. For some listeners and concert-goers, Springsteen’s politics are too strident and left-leaning. And many millennials are hostile to what they term Springsteen’s “Dad Rock.” Nevertheless, the live concerts of Springsteen and his E Street Band appeal to about as wide an age-span of fans as one can imagine: seventy-five year old women vie to slow dance with Bruce to “Dancing in the Dark,” and seven year old kids vocalize with him on “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” And when the E Street Band performs, audiences have come to expect exhausting three-hour plus concerts. In the words of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, “Springsteen empties the tank every night.”

A second reason for historians to pause to pay attention to Springsteen on this occasion is that The Boss frequently addresses historical themes and events in his music.

While on tour sometime around 1980, Springsteen, a community college dropout, began to read American history. The book that initially caught his eye was Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s A Pocket History of the United States. This serviceable, but hardly cutting edge interpretation of the nation’s past, appealed to Springsteen’s working-class origins and influenced him to introduce historical themes of economic inequality and racial injustice into his lyrics.

In his 1995 album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” for example, Springsteen calls to mind the struggles of John Steinbeck’s hero in The Grapes of Wrath. The most historically resonant track on the album is “Youngstown.” With lyrics reminiscent of compositions by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, “Youngstown” offers a moving account of the birth, preeminence, and eventual decline of the nation’s iron and steel industry: “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.”

Springsteen’s most powerful statement about racial injustice is “American Skin,” first performed in 2000 but not included on a studio album until “High Hopes” in 2014. This evocative composition speaks to the tragic death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea living in the Bronx in the late ‘90s. The young man was shot numerous times when four white police officers mistakenly thought he was reaching for a gun when he was actually attempting to display his wallet. Alternatively titled “41 Shots,” Springsteen’s song makes clear the songwriter’s belief that Diallo’s death was a result of racial profiling long prevalent in the U.S. Springsteen has recently performed “American Skin” in concert to memorialize the 2012 Florida “neighborhood watch” killing of Trayvon Martin. It will be interesting to see if Springsteen, in future concerts, relates “American Skin” to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri policeman.

Springsteen injected himself squarely into recent U.S. history with his 2002 album, “The Rising.” It includes several tracks inspired by the country’s experience with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. The elegiac title song tells the story of the 9/11 attacks from the standpoint of a first responder. By contrast, the opening stanzas of “Paradise” relate imagined thoughts of a suicide bomber preparing for his or her final brutal act.

Springsteen’s homage to American history also includes covers of such American folk classics as “Shenandoah” and “John Henry” in a 2006 album and tour with the “Seeger Sessions” band.

A third reason for historians to pay attention Springsteen at this propitious time in his life is to take note of the singer’s ubiquity as a public figure.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan appropriated the chorus from “Born in the USA” for his upbeat re-election campaign. Springsteen responded by inquiring from the stage: Has the president “actually read” the lyrics to “Born in the USA”? A key stanza features an archetypal veteran expressing some not so optimistic sentiments: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”

During the last few years, hardly a week has gone by without “a Springsteen story” hitting the news. Some examples: 1) Springsteen delivers the keynote address at the South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festival; 2) Springsteen is recognized to receive Kennedy Center Honors; 3) Springsteen stumps for Barack Obama in the final stages of the 2012 presidential campaign; 4) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie claims to have attended more than 100 Springsteen concerts; 5) Fans of The Boss submit more than 2000 videos for possible inclusion in the crowd-sourced film, “Springsteen and I”; 6) Boss: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies publishes its first issue with articles bearing such esoteric titles as “Springsteen as Developmental Therapist: An Autoethnography”; 7) A scrap of paper with Springsteen’s handwritten working lyrics for “Born to Run” sells at a Southeby’s auction for $197,000; and 8) Springsteen stars in a short western, “Hunter of Invisible Game,” reminiscent of John Ford’s “The Searchers.”

Since 2005, long articles on Springsteen and his music have appeared in such serious publications as The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. In 2013, Rolling Stone published Collector’s Edition—Bruce, containing pictures and four decades of Springsteen interviews. Perhaps only Bob Dylan, among American singer-songwriters of the last fifty years, has inspired more book-length studies than Springsteen.

Here’s another rough index of Springsteen’s impact on contemporary popular culture: My impressionistic survey of the music played in the background before and after commercial breaks on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” reveals that Springsteen is by far the most featured artist. Occasionally the hosts and guests on the program even joke about who will be able to claim the privilege of having such Springsteen standards as “Badlands” or “Thunder Road” play over and around their comments.

So . . . love Springsteen or hate him. You just can’t ignore him.

If you’re a historian of recent America, Springsteen should be on your playlist AND in your syllabus. Now eligible for Medicare, Springsteen continues to create, perform, entertain, campaign and provoke.

A very happy 65th birthday, Bruce! Rock on!


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