Novelist Walker Percy was a fan of Bruce Springsteen, calling him “my favorite American philosopher.” Percy even wrote a letter to Mr. Springsteen, seeking information about his interest in Flannery O’Connor and his spiritual journey as a baptized Roman Catholic. Percy was also impressed by Mr. Springsteen’s song-writing, seeing the New Jersey native as a sort of American gadfly, who loved his country so much that he pointed out her shortcomings in an effort to call her back to her central principles. “His songs are about America, without hyping the country up and without knocking the country down. He sings of us while singing to us.”
“My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” Mr. Springsteen has said. The songs listed below reflect the rocker’s vision of America and paint vivid scenes of American life.
10. “Born in the U.S.A.”
An obvious choice, but here is the song as you probably have never heard it. Mr. Springsteen originally recorded the song in its acoustic guise for inclusion on his first solo album, Nebraska, but it did not make it onto the final version of the record. Whereas that version is haunting, the version below, recorded live in Berlin in 1996, is primarily bitter in tone, and all the better for it.
Another unreleased acoustic song by Mr. Springsteen, “Vietnam,” is in many ways—musically and lyrically—a rough draft of “Born in the U.S.A.”
9. “County Fair”
Another song recorded by Mr. Springsteen for Nebraska, but which also failed to appear on the final album, this plaintive ballad evokes the sights and sounds of a dying American institution.
8. “Darlington County”
The narrator and his buddy Wayne drive down from Jersey to Darlington County, looking for work and some fun on the Fourth of July. They tell lies to the pretty girls they meet (“Our Pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers”) and party it up on the $200 they brought with them; even the fact that Wayne ends up getting “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford” seems not to dampen the narrator’s high spirits. In recounting the story of two good old boys enjoying the moment on a road trip south, “Darlington County” is pure Americana.
Writing in the American tradition of the work song, Mr. Springsteen is a master at combining upbeat music with depressing lyrics. The unreleased “Sugarland” is one of his best efforts in this genre. It tells the story of a farming family that can’t get a decent price for their crops; the narrator’s wife is pregnant again, and his father is simply a beaten man who has given up on making the farm profitable. Like many of Mr. Springsteen’s characters, the narrator is driven to desperate measures by the impersonal and uncontrollable forces of the market economy:
Well, if drifting prices don’t get no higher
We’ll fill this duster with gas and set these fields on fire
Sit up on the ridge where the bluebirds fly
And watch the flames rise up against the Sugarland sky
6. “This Hard Land”
Before it was released in 1998 on Tracks, Mr. Springsteen called “This Hard Land” his best song that never made it to one of his albums. It tells the story of two friends struggling to raise crops and cattle in the American Southwest:
Well hey there mister, can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown
Can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they never grown
They just blown around from town to town back out on to these fields
Where they fall from, from my hand back into the dirt of this hard land
Despite their struggles, the men vow “in the morning to make a plan.” The song concludes on a typically American note of optimism in the face of adversity: “Well if you can’t make it, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive if you can and meet me in a dream of this hard land.”
5. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”
Mr. Springsteen—probably to the surprise of most of his fans—called this one of his own favorite songs. It simultaneously paints a Rockwellian portrait of an American summer day while expressing that innate American optimism.
A kid’s rubber ball smacks off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes off go the sleepy front porch lights
Downtown the stores alight as the evening’s underway
Things been a little tight but I know they’re gonna turn my way
The working life of the typical American blue-collar worker is a double-edged sword in Mr. Springsteen’s view: It both giveth and taketh away:
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life
The working, the working, just the working life
3. “Glory Days” (original version, with extra verse)
Though the final version that was included on the hit album Born in the U.S.A. is a masterpiece in its own right, nostalgically evoking an old man’s memory of youthful exploits on the diamond and in the bedroom, an earlier version of the song included a typically Springsteenian verse about the narrator’s father being laid off from his job, these deleted the words adding a tinge of bitterness to a song whose musical mood is decidedly upbeat.
My old man worked twenty years on the line
And they let him go
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work
They just tell him that he’s too old
I was nine years old and he was working at the
Metuchen ford plant assembly line
Now he just sits on a stool down at the legion hall
But i can tell what’s on his mind
2. “Long Walk Home”
A wistful song that tells of the inevitable changes that come over one’s life and one’s home town. A lover leaves, the diner closes… and yet one tries to hold onto the past, to love, to the permanent things, including the principles that bind people together in America’s small towns:
My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone
You know that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”
1. “Land of Hope and Dreams”
Mr. Springsteen sees community as essential to American life, and he views America itself as one giant community–made up of “saints and sinners,” “losers and winners,” the “broken-hearted” and “sweet souls departed”—in which all must work together for the common good. “My view of America is of a real bighearted country, real compassionate,” Mr. Springsteen has said. In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the imagery is one of people on a train, rolling “through the fields where sunlight streams.”
I said, now this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing
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