Bruce Springsteen, History, and Civic Engagement

By Robert Shaffer posted 02-11-2018 03:53:23 PM


Social studies teachers and history professors all too often face students who question the relevance of history to their lives.  Among the many aphorisms and explanations that we can cite for history’s importance, we can now add this one, from Bruce Springsteen’s sprawling autobiography, Born To Run (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), when the rock and roll legend was describing a new urgency in his song-writing in the late 1970s, when he was about to turn thirty years old: 

History was a subject that had bored me in middle and high school, but I devoured it now.  It seemed to hold some of the essential pieces to the identity questions I was asking.  How could I know who I was if I didn’t have a clue as to where I’d personally and collectively come from?  What it does mean to be an American is all caught up in what it did mean to be one.  Only some combination of these answers could lead you to what it might mean to be an American. (p. 292)


This new openness to the importance of history for Springsteen was motivated by meeting antiwar Vietnam veterans Ron Kovic – the author of Born on the Fourth of July – and Bobby Muller, and then performing concerts to help launch Muller’s new organization, Vietnam Veterans of America.  Springsteen writes that “a sense of history opened by reading Henry Steele Commager’s A Pocket History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life,” which “all provided me with a new view of myself as an actor at this moment in time.  What happened here was, in some infinitesimally small way, my responsibility.” (p. 291).

Bruce (as his fans universally call him) is articulating here a basic theme familiar to social studies teachers generally and to the National Council for the Social Studies in particular: that civic engagement requires historical knowledge and a historical sensibility.

Born to Run – the book, more than the iconic song – displays numerous vignettes and passages which exemplify this civic engagement expressed through music, along with the thinking about history and society which underlay the songs.  Bruce says that “Youngstown,” a 1995 song (it resembles Billy Joel’s earlier “Allentown,” but in a bluesier, more personal vein):

chronicled the effects of post-industrialization in the United States and the weight of lost jobs, outsourced labor and the disappearance of our manufacturing base on the citizens whose hard work built America.  I’d seen it firsthand when the Karagheusian Rug Mill, based in Freehold [Bruce’s hometown, of course], rather than settle a labor dispute with its workers, closed up shop and shipped south for cheaper, nonunionized labor.  The jobs were gone.  My dad had worked on the floor there when I was a kid; my musical life and the Castiles [Bruce’s first band] had been born not fifty yards from its belching smokestacks and clacking looms. (p. 402)

Describing his 1995 album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Bruce self-consciously relates the ethnic and class tensions in John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, the novel of the Dust Bowl which featured Tom Joad as hero (and whose story was soon put to music by Woody Guthrie), to the contemporary subjects of his songs:

We are a nation of immigrants and no one knows who’s coming across our borders today, whose story might add a significant page to our American story.  Here in the early years of our new century, as at the turn of the last, we are once again at war with our “new Americans.”  As in the last, people will come, will suffer hardship and prejudice, will do battle with the most reactionary forces and hardest hearts of their adopted home and will prove resilient and victorious. (p. 403)

(Born to Run was published just five weeks before Donald Trump’s election as president.  These words become even more poignant in the Trump era.)

“Death to My Hometown,” released in 2012 on the album, “Wrecking Ball,” is a kind of reprise of Bruce’s 1984 song with a similar name and theme, “My Hometown,” on the loss of community and security.  But the newer incarnation clearly seeks to blame as much as to describe:

Oh, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down 
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground 
No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sound 
But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown

Bruce explains in Born To Run his thinking about the newer album, again infusing a sense of history:

After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street.  “Wrecking Ball” was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans.  The middle class?  Stomped on.  Income disparity climbed as we lived through a new Gilded Age.  This was what I wanted to write about.  (p. 468)

Bruce recounts the misreadings – by the public, by the police, by President Reagan – to “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) and “American Skin (41 Shots)” (2000).  The former, inspired by the antiwar vets Bobby Muller and Ron Kovic, pressed “for the right of a ‘critical’ patriotic voice along with pride of birth,” but this proved “too seemingly conflicting (or just a bother!) for some of its more carefree, less discerning listeners”  (p. 214).  Bruce compares the song’s fate to what happened to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” “but that didn’t make me feel any better.”  The latter, about the killing by New York City police of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, receives in the autobiography the most extended textual explication of any of his songs.  The song was “critical” but “not anti-police,” Bruce insists, explaining that the first lines “are from the policeman’s point of view” and that “I worked hard for a balanced voice.”  Nevertheless, he concludes, “American Skin” is about “systematic racial injustice” (pp. 435-436).  The incident, and the song, clearly prefigure the more recent “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Reading Born to Run certainly gives me more ideas about how to incorporate some of Bruce Springsteen’s songs into my U.S. history courses, and I can describe and discuss the songs more fully with his explanations of his goals and motivations.  But there is one section of the book, only four pages long (99-103), which I may also assign as course reading, on the budding musician’s efforts in 1968 to avoid the draft.  Bruce was not in college, so he was not eligible for the type of deferment which our current president employed, but, post-Tet Offensive, “the country was getting the idea that Vietnam was a losing game.  I’d had two close friends, Walter and Bart, killed at war and I had no intention of joining them.”  Bruce describes the lengths to which he and his buddies – and so many other American young men – went to prove that they were “mentally unfit for Uncle Sam”: make a mess of the forms, act like a “mumbling, bumbling…hippie out-cast,” play up the impact of a previous motorcycle accident.  There are echoes of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” here, as well as some retrospective (and introspective) expressions of survivor’s guilt, along with the unexpected reaction of his World War II-veteran father to Bruce’s eventual 4F deferment.  These pages provide a vivid sense of the unpopularity of the draft and the Vietnam War even away from college campuses.  (Bruce provided similar, though less detailed, accounts of these events in some of his concerts, and they appear, for example, as a monologue on “Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/1975-85.)

Bruce Springsteen’s 500-page Born to Run is by no means all about civic engagement and history.  It’s about his concerts, and his band-mates, and his family, and his obsessions, and, above all, his improbable rise from hard-scrabble working-class life in New Jersey to superstardom.  And his songs and stories may mean a lot more to teachers and professors of my age – I’m five years younger than Bruce – than to students today.  But reading it helps me rededicate my teaching to those same ideas of civic engagement cited above: “What it does mean to be an American is all caught up in what it did mean to be one,” and ultimately “to what it might mean to be an American.”  Thanks, Bruce.


1 comment



02-23-2018 01:11:33 PM

Hey Robert, good stuff. A Bruce song I use in my US History class is American Land. Perfect for an Immigration unit. It hearkens back and comments on the present.  My most recent blog is above if you're interested.