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  • Writer Login


    The Pessimism of Bruce Springsteen

    by | 10 | Sep 5, 2010

    Too often politicians get away with lying.

    What’s worse, though, is when they’re attacked for being honest.

    Go back to April 2008. A recording of comments made by presidential candidate Barack Obama at a private fundraiser hit the internet. Reaction was rabid, hostile even. Obama learned about the high cost of candor, even in a private setting.

    What terrible thing did he say? He meant no harm; he was simply trying to convey understanding of people hit by hard times. “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them, ” Obama told those gathered at the San Francisco event. “So it’s not surprising then that (they) get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    Obama was attacked by the usual right-wing noisemakers and even Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, who said, “Americans need a president that will stand up for them, not a president who looks down on them. Mrs. Clinton now calls Obama “Mr. President” and serves at his pleasure as Secretary of State.

    In tough economic times, people can turn on others they feel have usurped their sense of security, be they Mexicans cutting the grass, working  the chicken plants or filling burritos. In 1937, with America still gripped by the Depression, the film, The Black Legion, starring a young Humphrey Bogart, exposed the bitterness members of a so-called ” free white 100% American” community felt toward “foreigners.” Donned with hoods, the legion members embarked on a search-and-destroy mission against the Dombrowski family. They burned down the family’s chicken farm, then chased Joe Dombrowski and his father out of town. Forever. It was Joe Dombrowski who got the foreman’s position at the plant instead of Frank Taylor, the character played by Bogart. This didn’t sit well with the legion, so they decided to show the “undesirable aliens” how things worked in their twisted America.

    The film’s setting is a middle-class town with a big factory, a new car dealer, modest but comfortable homes and a pleasant street life belying the desperation and discord felt by millions of Americans during the ’30s. The Black Legion moves at a steady clip yet there’s still time for the viewer to question the idea of terror reigning over what appears a peaceful community. But horrors emerge when bitterness is exploited by those who hate.

    A different sort of  dichotomy was seen five decades later as the American economy swooned for some and soared for others. The economy swooned most in old factory towns in the Northeast and Midwest, where jobs were lost and gone forever. Lives were shaken and recovery was not just around the corner.  Bruce Springsteen, a rock and roll hero to a great cross-section of Americans, examined the hardships faced by boomers and their families in his song, “My Hometown.”

    Closing out Born In The U.S.A, his wildly popular album from 1984, “My Home Town” is a poignant look at one man’s struggles with the changing economy. The song is imbued with sadness in several layers. Its melody is sweet and wistful, perfect for what is actually the story of the man’s life. Important memories of the man are touched upon, contrasting them with the seemingly dead-end he’s reached at the age of 35.

    Springsteen opens with the man recalling how at the age of eight, he’d run to the bus stop to buy a paper for his dad. Then he’d scurry on back to the car where his dad was waiting and they’d drive around, the boy behind the wheel, sitting on his father’s lap. Dad is proud of the boy and the comforts he provides for his family. He has found a happy life and a livelihood in the town he calls home. He has faith that what he possesses in the ’50s will be there for the boy in the decades ahead. It’s with pride and gratitude that the father tells the son, “take a good look around, this is your hometown.”

    But trouble comes to the hometown. Integration doesn’t make a smooth transition. Springsteen sings of “a lot of fights between the black and white.” There’s less optimism in the hometown. People start to move away. Stores go out of business. The street life isn’t so pleasant. And things get tougher.

    With the textile mill across the railroad tracks closing, the jobs are leaving the hometown. Like Obama said a generation later, nothing replaced them. So the boy who grew up thinking he could always count on a decent living considers a change. He and his wife talk of “maybe heading south.” They have a boy of their own now. In what may have been their last ride around the old town, he sits his boy behind the wheel and tells him to “take a good look around, this is your hometown.” One doesn’t sense any optimism on the man’s part. Mostly, he’s feeling sad. He’s not inclined to stock up on weapons or wax fanatically about his religion, but already in the early stages of his struggles, there must be some bitterness.

    This article continues the Southern Song of the Day series.

    ###
    Jeff Cochran

    Jeff Cochran

    Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

     

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    • Indeed. Middle America has much to resent. Their ambitions were modest and, having settled for being just a little bit better “fixed” than some other group, they can’t understand why they’ve been deprived. It surely never occurred to them that “liberating the equity in their homes for the market” was part of somebody’s plan; that cashing out the value of the family homestead was part of a plan to put them in debt?
      Nobody expects the deprivators, do they? But then, Eve didn’t expect the snake to lie to her either and then she got the blame. It’s enough to make a man doubt God’s mercy.

    • Alex Kearns

      Just a thought…

      I read this article while listening to Cat Stevens’ incomparable album, Tea for the Tillerman. (Yes, it’s a CD -- but I will always think of the classics as “albums”). Stevens is now known as Yusuf Islam and continues to sing of peace, unity, tolerance and love.
      I wonder if the rabid anti-Muslim crowd has destroyed all of their Cat Stevens albums, 8-tracks, tapes and Cds?
      Insanity runs amok these days.

      • Somehow I doubt most of them ever really listened.

        Some of the children of the sixties were only in it for the “free love”.

        I think they confused love with something else.

      • AndoDoug

        I don’t get the impression that people hate Muslims, but they are genuinely suspicious. Others believe we shouldn’t publish cartoons that cause others to get all in a huff. Cartoonists in Pakistan for one who publish images sympathetic to America have a way of disappearing. We must stand up for the right to needle each other, in Denmark or whereever.

    • Philip Brown

      A very well-written, insightful piece, Jeff. And, very appropriate for Labor Day. Thanks for taking the time to write and post. Kind of brings to mind an old cartoon -- a couple of guys are looking in a store window and one tells the other if you don’t see anything you like, lower your expectations… Perhaps the expectations for many of us were just too high given the vast amount of change that has happened in our lifetimes. And instead of lowering expectations or figuring out another way to get by, a lot of people just got angry. As your article pointed out we’ve been through this before and hopefully we’ll figure out a way to work together and make things better again. But it certainly won’t just happen, especially if most of us don’t pull together. Divided we fall…

    • Lee Hatling

      I have long admired the truth telling in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, as I also admire President Obama for his truth telling. What is hard for me to understand is that people of all economic situations laud Springsteen, while condemning Obama for saying basically the same thing. Apparently we exempt those who entertain us from criticism.

    • fred

      You’re fond of the word “antipathy”

      Also used in your last article “Mr. Dylan’s Perspective & the Twits Who Tweet”

    • Tommy Housworth

      Another keenly-written piece, Jeff, and about my favorite American troubadour, no less.

      I’d love to see a piece that follows up on “My Hometown” with a socio-political analysis of the tune many consider to be that song’s sequel, of sorts: “Long Way Home” from ‘Magic’.

    • Tim Oliver

      Jeff, great article. Remember when Ronald Reagan wanted to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as his campaign song ? Basically, the Boss said “No way !” It was clear that the Great Communicator hadn’t really read the lyrics of that song. To prove his point, on his box set, the Boss released another version of that song that’s a different animal, indeed !

    • Janet Ward

      Love, love, love Springsteen. He got “political” during Kerry’s campaign, playing at all those concerts (I flew to Minneapolis to see him) and has remained political. Magic is a totally political album (yes, Alex, they will always be “albums” to those of us of a certain age!) Best line from Magic (Livin’ in the Future): My faith’s been torn asunder, tell me is that rollin’ thunder
      Or just the sinkin’ sound of somethin’ righteous goin’ under?

      I kinda think when he wrote that line, he just sat there smiling.

      Very odd, though, that, as good a songwriter as he is, my favorite song by Springsteen is “Trapped,” a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song. There’s actually a YouTube video of that song taped at a Philips Arena concert ( rel="nofollow">). Bad video, but the sound is good. I was there. So, Bobby at Manuel’s comes up to me and says, “Your scream is on the Trapped video on YouTube. I swear it’s you.”

      I am pretty sure he’s right. But it freaks me out that someone knows me so well that he can tell my scream even when he’s never heard me scream.

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