Much insight has been gathered from the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Many of the observations he has shared are about the America he inhabits: the country where tens of millions have listened repeatedly to his albums and stood in line to see him play at clubs, halls, theatres, arenas, and stadiums. It’s an America where Bruce Springsteen has been legendary for his ability to engage and rouse those who come to hear the two dozen or so of his songs they have adored for 10, 20, 30 and even more years. It’s also the America that Bruce Springsteen has made clear he loves. Let there be no doubt: the songs of Bruce Springsteen are infused with a healthy sense of patriotism.
It’s an America Bruce Springsteen has reported on as ably as any journalist. Out on highway 9, or in the Kingstown bar, with the winners and losers in Atlantic City, then out west on the rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert and, most poignantly, where above us is a sky of longing and emptiness that will be replaced by a sky of fullness and blessed life.
In July 2002, with America still in shock and feeling most vulnerable in the wake of 9/11, Bruce Springsteen, together again with the E. Street Band, released The Rising, a profoundly moving album that spoke vividly to those shaken by loss and maybe for the first time ever, impacted by things far beyond them. It can also be said Springsteen set brilliant music to his words of sadness and hope. After all, he’s a pro. The professional recognizes, as did Solomon, that there is a time to dance as well as a time to mourn. Bruce Springsteen did so splendidly, leaving one upbeat, even after the dismal inventory had been taken.
The Rising closes with “My City Of Ruins,” a song written before 9/11. The song concerns Asbury Park, the town by the New Jersey shore that serves as a character itself in many of Springsteen’s early recordings. On “My City Of Ruins,” the decay of Asbury park is observed. But hope for the future is also evident. With a beautiful melody similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Springsteen sings of the hopes and prayers for the city. The strength that is prayed for in the song’s refrain will lead the city to “rise up.”
Nearly a year after 9/11, Americans listening to the new Springsteen album took solace in his calls to arise and renew. “My City Of Ruins” softly but with vigor, reveals the Bruce Springsteen who could see better times for his country. His patriotism is obvious and it’s genuine. He loves America and its people, but is angered by what the people are put through by so-called leaders.
The anger has come across in many of his songs, notably on Born In The USA. More recently, on “Last to Die,” from his 2007 album, Magic, Springsteen sings of an America tragically led. He resurrects the words of a young John Kerry, testifying before Congress in 1971 about the war in Vietnam, asking, “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” The mistake addressed in “Last to Die” was planned in Washington, D.C. and carried out in Iraq. So far 4,397 American soldiers have died in the war in Iraq.* Not to be overlooked either are the estimated 96,000 to 106,000 civilians killed* since Iraq was invaded in 2003.
The war in Iraq has polarized the American people, as did the war in Vietnam. At times there seems to be no learning from mistakes. Yet good people continue to help, heal and remain optimistic. Even as he was moved to write “Last to Die,” the optimism of Bruce Springsteen came across on his rendition of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
As a tribute to the great folksinger Pete Seeger, Springsteen and a slew of musicians and singers gathered to record the album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, released in the spring of 2006. The great songs Seeger helped keep alive in a period of vast changes in music are rendered wonderfully and made new again.
Springsteen delivers “We Shall Overcome” softly, but with zeal, utilizing the same hope he expressed on “My City Of Ruins.” It’s a worthy addition to the many great versions of the song which have inspired millions to keep hoping, praying and working.
The man most associated with “We Shall Overcome” is undoubtedly the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He too had his moments of simultanoulsy loving and fuming with America. When America disappointed him, it angered him because he knew the America he loved could do better.
In 1965 Dr. King spoke at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California at the request of Rabbi Max Nussbaum. In his speech, he picked up on a theme he knew well.
We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlisle is right; no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; truth crushed to earth shall rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right; truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the then unknown standard God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words, the morning skies will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.
This article, Part Two of the “We Shall Overcome” story, continues The Southern Song of The Day series.