A Runaway American Dream: Springsteen Sings Whitman's America
Greasy Lake ,
By Cheryl Duckworth
"I will not have a single person slighted or left away"
Whitman, "Song of Myself"
"Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins!"
Springsteen, in concert, introducing "Born to Run"
Walt Whitman's poetry has captured and defined American dreams and values more clearly and with more originality than perhaps any other American poet before or after him. In poems such as "Song of Myself", "Calamus" and "I Hear America Singing", he insisted on democracy, brotherhood and, as Emerson, self-reliance. He celebrated the American landscape and sang of the heroes of the Civil War. He also sharply criticized his country when it fell short of its ideals of "liberty and justice for all." Nearly a century later, as Whitman surely hoped would be the case, this literary and ideological tradition he helped established is still alive. American songwriter Bruce Springsteen, for example, whether knowingly or not, has effectively continued the conversation on class politics and democracy that Walt Whitman begun; his songs explore the same themes of freedom and equality for everyone, the nobility of labor and the importance of brotherhood.
The ideal democracy Whitman envisioned would have room enough for everyone (though some argue "everyone" for him translated to everyone who was male and white.) If America was to be the world leader and even the New Eden he and other political and cultural leaders hoped, no one could be excluded. A reader of Whitman would be hard pressed to find a poem that does not resonate with this theme but one passage from "Children of Adam" provides a particularly apropos example. He writes:
Oh you shunn'd persons, I at least do not shun you I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet, I will be more to you than to any of the rest (Bradley 109).
In "Streets of Fire", from his fourth album Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen expresses an almost identical sentiment. He writes, "I live now, only with strangers, I talk to only strangers, I walk with angels that have no place." Clearly, like Whitman, Springsteen is aligning himself with anyone marginalized: his "strangers." He even refers to them as "angels", revealing his love for them, as did Whitman. Further, the end of "Racing in the Street", also from Darkness on the Edge of Town, suggests Springsteen is singing both to and for these "shunn'd persons." At the ballad's end, the narrator sings, "for all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels rumbling to the promised land?." The "shut down strangers" are the reason his song is sung and with this line he literally dedicates it to them. Whitman promised he would be the poet of all who were "shunn'd"; in these lines and more, Springsteen made himself their songwriter.
With Liberty and Justice for All: The Working Life
"I do my best to live the right way; I get up every morning, go to work each day" ~Springsteen, "The Promise Land"
Again, in a democracy, there should be no "shunn'd persons." Class, in both Whitman's time and Springsteen's, was a major dividing line between those who had the power (and therefore the freedom America promised) and those who did not. Whitman once wrote, "If the United States, like the countries of the Old World, are also to grow vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations?.then our republican experiment, notwithstanding its surface successes, is at heart an unhealthy failure" (Garmen 40). His opinion here on the social injustices in his time, in which a minority of men amassed a majority of the wealth, is unambiguous. Springsteen once again (likely without knowing) echoes Whitman. In an interview with Will Percy, Springsteen explained that "the politics of exclusion" had been "a theme that's run through much of my writing" (Percy Online). Springsteen reemphasized this in another interview when he explained, "You can't tell people what to think. You can show them something by saying, 'Put on these shoes, walk in these shoes.'" (Garmen 249). Both Whitman and Springsteen made it the explicit purpose of their work to bring this reality to the American public.
Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" is one of my favorite examples. In it he celebrated (and helped create the image of) the American working class hero. This poem is about mechanics, boatmen, shoemakers, and sewing girls. No one in this poem is what was typically thought of as a hero, yet Whitman's description of their "strong, melodious songs" suggests he wants that to change. Through the poem's title, he asserts that not only are these often ignored workers a part of America, they are America! In this poem Whitman gives the American working class a voice and dignity they'd not been given before; his laborers sing a song "what belongs to him and her and to none else" (Bradley 12). "Song of Myself" provides another example as Whitman catalogues nearly every kind of person and occupation he can imagine and swears his exuberate love: "To the cotton field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean, on his right cheek I put the family kiss, and in my soul swear I will never deny him" (Bradley 74). Whitman cannot deny him, for he believes that only when one can love everyone, class notwithstanding, can a true democracy exist.
Springsteen's songs have a population identical to that of Whitman's; he writes of construction workers, cops, waitresses, and immigrants. More importantly, his songs give working class men (and they are almost always men) the same dignity and humanity Whitman's did. "The Factory Song", again from Darkness on the Edge of Town, provides a clear, if dark, example. It was written for his father, who drifted in and out of such jobs as a bus driver, a prison guard, and rug mill worker (Alterman 11). Effectively, it opens with the sound of the clank of chain to tell the story of a man imprisoned by his economic situation:
Early in the morning the factory whistle blows Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light It's the working, the working just the working life.
The song ends by showing the potentially devastating consequences of such a bleak, powerless, monotonous life:
End of the day the factory whistle cries men walk through the gate with death in their eyes and you just better believe boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight It's the working, the working just the working life.
As Whitman once warned and as this song demonstrates, holding people captive in an unlivable socioeconomic situation will lead to violence. Whitman insisted on equality for the workingman and the workingwoman often by celebrating their lives; here Springsteen achieves the same purpose by instead lamenting and decrying the injustice that traps them.
Countless other Springsteen songs use a similar technique. "The River", written for Springsteen's sister who became pregnant at the age of seventeen, is one of his most popular. The narrator and "Mary" meet and fall in love; when their parents discover that she is pregnant, they are marched to the justice of the peace for a quick wedding. As the song continues, he struggles to support his new family: "I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company but lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy." For her part, Mary struggles to believe in him, or their future together: "Now I just act like I don't remember, Mary acts like she don't care." Their story ends with the narrator wondering, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" This dream is the American dream of self- improvement and upward mobility, which should have enabled this young couple to overcome any obstacle if they only worked long and hard enough. Springsteen asserts in the story of "The River" that that is not true for everyone, since some social and economic barriers are insurmountable. For this man, the jobs simply do not exist, or if they do, they don't pay the bills. Wanting it and working for are not always enough.
Born in the USA, Springsteen's multi-platinum success, took these "blue collar" stories to the American masses as perhaps not even Whitman had done. Springsteen spoke "to" the people whereas Whitman spoke "for" them. The ballad "My Hometown" relates the tale of a young man driving through the streets where he was born and mourning the death of the way of life he remembers from his childhood. Springsteen paints a vivid picture: "Now Main Street's white washed windows and vacant stores, seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more."
The specific cause of this change, he tells us, was the closing of the factory that had once supported the town. Just as changes in the labor force caused by a lack of unions and by industrialization trapped working class people in Whitman's time, so it was in Regan's 1980's, when union membership was at an all time low and countless factories and plants that workers need to support themselves closed
They're closing down the textile mills across the railroad tracks Forman says, "These jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back To your hometown, your hometown"?.
This story ends with the young man, his wife and their young son "maybe headin' south", where they can begin trying to build a new life.
Prior to Born in the USA, however, Springsteen released a far less commercially successful acoustic album, recorded in his bedroom, that was devoted exclusively to revealing the inequities of the economy and class relations that prevented Whitman's dream of a true democracy from being realized. As Springsteen himself put it, "It's time that somebody took on the realities of the eighties" (Garmen 204). Titled simply, Nebraska, it is perhaps the most desolate, frightening, and uncompromising album he has released. "Johnny 99", for instance, tells the tale of a man from Mahwah, New Jersey, who has just lost his job, again due to the closing of the auto plant where he had worked. Enraged, drunk and desperate, he shoots a night clerk and is given ninety-nine years in jail (and his nickname.) The Whitmanite social critique comes in the conversation between Johnny and "Mean John Brown", the judge. Johnny explains
Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they Were taking my house away Now I ain't saying that makes me an innocent man But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand
Johnny 99 goes so far as to request that the judge have him executed, rather than having to live the rest of his life behind bars. Though Johnny does not claim to be "an innocent man", he clearly feels that his social and economic circumstances played a part in the terrible act he was driven to commit.
All of the other "hurt songs", songs which express the pain and isolation of an entire group of people, on Nebraska accomplish the same purpose. "Mansion on the Hill" relates the story of a young man who spent his childhood gazing in envy with his father at a mansion that stood in the center of town
At night my daddy'd take me and we'd ride Through the streets of a town so silent and still Park on a back road along the highway side Look up at that mansion on the hill
This boy learns at a painfully young age where his "place" in society is: outside the gates of the mansion. Neither the memory nor the wistful pain it arouses have faded by the end of the song
Tonight here in Linden Town I watch the Cars rushin' by home from the mill There's a beautiful full moon rising above the Mansion on the hill
Springsteen does not explicitly say that this man is poor and trapped; he does not need to. The audience knows by implication that he narrator will never be able to afford anything like this beautiful, imposing mansion.
"Used Cars", also from Nebraska, is similar. In it a teenage boy watches in embarrassment and unconscious, impotent rage as his father struggles to buy his family a car. The dealer, with his own financial concerns, tells the family, "`bout the break he'd give us if he could but he just can't." This young man learns the same lesson as the boy of "Mansion on the Hill": it all comes down to money. Without it, he cannot be a part of the American dream. In his own words, "Mister on the day my ship comes in, I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again."
These characters are all one of Whitman's-and Springsteen's -- "shunn'd", forever on the outside looking in. The stories Springsteen tells in these songs recall most specifically Whitman's warning that the American dream would be an "unhealthy failure" until "liberty and justice for all" became a reality. They are what inspired one critic to praise Nebraska as, "the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance and refusal that Ronald Regan's USA has elicited from any artist or politician (Alterman 138). And, in their radical exploration of working class concerns, they are a continuation of the work Whitman begun.
As demonstrated above, most of Springsteen's explorations of the everyday realities of working class lives are often marked by a bitter, mournful tone unlike what one normally associates with Whitman (although the Good Gray Poet could at times be decidedly less than optimistic himself). However, this is not always the case. "Badlands", for example, from Darkness on the Edge of Town, communicates a tone of triumph and tenacity when confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In critic Eric Alterman's words, it was about people who respond "to every defeat?" by "simply will[ing] him- or herself the strength to go on" (Alterman 100). Or as Springsteen himself put it in his liner notes on the Greatest Hits album, "Badlands" is about "the everyday heroism" of people struggling "to lead decent, productive lives." Its chorus is rousing, a challenge to the listener never to give up
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday Let the broken hearts stand, that's the price you gotta pay We'll keep pushing till it's understood and These badlands start treating us good!
This advice to simply steel yourself and continue on when life is painful recalls a verse in Whitman's Song of the Open Road
Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing?. Strong and content I travel the open road
Both these narrators affirm that they will continue on despite the difficulties they may be faced with. Springsteen, in "Badlands", even orders his listener, "Don't waste your time waiting" for a "moment that just won't come", as if he'd heard Whitman's advice to "postpone no more." For both of these writers, one's own personal strength was a way to overcome the obstacles society might put in one's way.
One other Springsteen song stands out as echoing Whitman in both its vision of an inclusive democracy and in its optimistic, even joyful, tone. Its title, fittingly, is "Land of Hope and Dreams" and in it Springsteen envisions a train on which "dreams will not be thwarted" and where "faith will be rewarded." But mostly importantly, on this train no one is excluded
This train carries saints and sinners; this train carries losers and winners This train carries whores and gamblers; this train carries midnight ramblers?.
Importantly the narrator here is waiting for this train; it has not arrived yet. Nor has a perfect democracy, in America or anywhere else. But the land Springsteen depicts and awaits in this song is perfectly in line with the egalitarian country Whitman envisioned where everyone, despite background or financial success, could come aboard.
Democracy as Brotherhood
I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape and will through the States?.
We stood side by side, each one fighting for the other We said until we died, we'd always be blood brothers
~Springsteen, "Blood Brothers"
Whitman envisioned America as a brotherhood. Class and other barriers to democracy would be overcome by engendering a deep "adhesive love" between men who would presumably put the others' interests first (Garmen 38). Greed, capitalism, labor injustices, "the negro question" and more could be overcome if men would only love one another. In his own words, "I believe the main purport of these States is to found a superb friendship, exalte', previously unknown" (Bradley 134).
Calamus is the most obvious example of this theme in Whitman's work. Many interpret it as an explicitly homosexual poem, and perhaps this is correct; perhaps not. What is relevant here is Whitman's notion that brotherhood and a true democracy could not exist without each other. Indeed Whitman considered, "the threads of many friendships?the inevitable twin or counterpart of democracy" (Garmen 41). Whitman dreams of an "invincible city" of "new Friends" where "nothing was greater than the quality of robust love." This love was seen "every hour in the actions of the men of that city/ and in all their looks and words" (Bradley 133). Such a "robust love" would heal divisions and prevent, in Whitman's mind, injustices from occurring because surely no one would allow that for his brother. Further, since this love was to be put into action, if there were a brother in need, he would be taken care of. "Adhesive love" was what made the city invincible; this was what Whitman desired for America.
"We Two Boys Together Clinging" further develops this notion. Whitman describes two young men who might be either friends or lovers (or both). What is clear is that their loyalty to one another empowers them. These two boys are "power enjoying?arm'd and fearless?thieving, threatening" and my personal favorite, "priests alarming" before finally, "fulfilling our foray." They own "no law less than themselves" (Bradley 130). Clearly their love for one another (however one may interpret it) has made them stronger. With such a love, two men could together take on the various barriers between them and true freedom.
Just as Springsteen consistently echoed Whitman's instance on equality and justice for the working class, so too did he celebrate the notions of community and specifically male friendship-brotherhood. (However, as Dr. Bryan Garmen pointed out in his Whitman's Working Class Hero From Guthrie to Springsteen, Springsteen extended this community to women and people of color, perhaps farther than Whitman himself intended.) This notion of brotherhood has been an explicit theme in both Springsteen's work and his life.
"Bobby Jean", from the Born in the USA album, is one of his earliest examples. In it a middle- aged man reminisces about his closest friend, Bobby Jean, used to share. Suddenly one day, he goes to pay Bobby a visit only to discover that he has moved away without warning. The narrator pledges his love and dedicates this song to the friend with whom he "went walking in the rain, talking about the pain that from the world [he] hid." He assures Bobby that "ain't no body nowhere no how ever gonna understand me the way you did" and hopes that Bobby will "hear [him] sing this song" someday and know he is missed.
Significantly, the listener cannot tell from the name "Bobby Jean" if this beloved friend is a man or woman and the details of the song offer no further clue. Not even the spelling of the name is helpful: "Bobby" is a male spelling, while "Jean" is the female version. This might be a direct echo of Whitman's notion of manly love or it might be Springsteen's more modern (and more truly democratic) version thereof, which could include a woman as well. That ambiguity aside, popular fan legend holds that Springsteen wrote this song as a farewell to his lifelong friend and lead guitarist, Steve Van Zandt when Van Zandt left the E Street Band. The timing is right; the song was released shortly after Van Zandt left. Neither men confirm or deny this but the final line seems to suggest the legend is true. The narrator tells Bobby if he does somehow hear this song written in his honor
You'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between And I'm just callin' one last time Not to change your mind but just to say I miss you baby Good luck, good bye, Bobby Jean.
Whether the song was written for Van Zandt or not, the bond of "adhesive love" between Springsteen and Van Zandt became clear once one saw the two men together on stage. As Jim Cullen, author of Born in the USA: Springsteen and the American Tradition, noted, the two men "gazed" into one another's eyes as they sang and shared the microphone so closely their lips almost touched (Cullen 132). Even more telling, night after night on the Born in the USA tour, Springsteen dedicated another song to his absent blood brother, entitled "No Retreat, No Surrender."
In "No Retreat, No Surrender" a middle-aged man remembers the carefree times he used to share with his childhood friend and longs to recapture them. He sings, "we swore blood brothers against the wind, now I'm ready to grow young again." As with "Bobby Jean", the chorus is an oath of loyalty between these two men
We made a promise we swore we'd always remember No retreat, baby, no surrender Like soldiers in the winter's night with a vow to defend No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Like the two young boys in Whitman's "We Two Boys Together Clinging", the manly love these men share empowers them. The narrator tells us with his "blood brother" he "could cut some place of our own with these drums and these guitars." Their bond allowed them to find a place "of [their] own" in their community and their society, as Whitman believed it would.
Springsteen also shared a similar kind of "manly love" with his African American saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, aka "The Big Man." It was even more explicitly homoerotic (though only a few would say homosexual) than his relationship with Van Zandt. Springsteen and Clemons would often embrace one another and engage in a "soul kiss" in front of anyone who happened to be in the audience. Springsteen even went so far as to say, in his acceptance speech at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, "I love it when he wraps me in those arms at the end of the night. I want to thank you, Big Man. Thank you so much" (Garmen 223). Now, Clemons, Van Zandt and Springsteen are all husbands and fathers; few could credibly say their physical relationship on stage continued off stage. But clearly they refused to rule out the homoerotic overtones in their onstage image. And as the songs above, written for his "blood brothers" in the E Street band demonstrate, these men (and one woman, singer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, who joined the men in 1985 and married Springsteen in 1991) clearly shared the kind bond Whitman endorsed as the building block of his ideal democracy.
Perhaps Springsteen's ballad, simply entitled "Blood Brothers" express this bond most clearly. In it Springsteen remembers, "Now we stood side by side each one fighting for the other, we said until we died we'd always be blood brothers." And at the song's end he promises
But the stars are burnin' bright like some mystery uncovered I'll keep moving though the dark with you in my heart My blood brother.
Springsteen clearly had his band in mind when he penned this; in his liner notes regarding it, he wrote, "It was good to see the guys again." Further, to the delight of fans who deeply valued the camaraderie Springsteen shared with his band, he dedicated it to the E Street Band as the last song on the last night of their recent reunion tour.
Critics and fans alike noted the bond the men (and woman) shared and cited it as being one of the reasons their concerts were so powerful. The musicians seemed to be the living embodiment of the loving, democratic community Springsteen's songs -- and Whitman's poems -- spoke of. As reviewer Daniel Wolff observed, "The obvious mutual respect and good feeling within the band present an ideal kind of equality" (Wolff 68). Reviewer Robert Hilburn agreed, "In many ways the band members were the physical realization of the brotherhood that Springsteen often wrote about " (Hilburn Online). And perhaps most importantly, Springsteen himself viewed his band as enabling him to "call up a sense of community" that was the physical representation of the themes of community and brotherhood in his songs. As he told interviewer Charlie Rose, Springsteen considered evoking this sense of community "an essential part" of his work (Alterman 122). It is also another example of his link to the poet of brotherhood-Walt Whitman.
The Open Road
Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road?.
~Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"
The night's busted open, these two lanes can take us anywhere?. >
~Springsteen, "Thunder Road"
In addition to the themes of democracy and brotherhood shared by Bruce Springsteen and Walt Whitman, both men used one symbol in particular to communicate that theme: the open road. (Springsteen by modern extension also used cars for the same purpose.) Significantly, both men explicitly invite their audience along for the ride. Whitman's joyful, hope-filled (though not maudlin) "Song of the Open Road" is the most eminent example. He declares himself, "done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms/strong and content I travel the open road" (Bradley 149). He is his "own master total and absolute", surely a declaration of the kind of freedom Whitman desired for himself and others (Bradley 151). At the poem's end, Whitman invites the reader to join him on the open road to freedom from the restrictions of society's biases and expectations
Camerado, I give you my hand! I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Further on up the road, Whitman promises, "I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell" (Bradley 154). If the reader will only take his hand and join him, the fullest joy and freedom can be his.
In two of his signature songs, "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run", from the Born to Run album, Springsteen makes his audience an almost identical invitation. In "Thunder Road" a restless yet hopeful young man sits in his car, waiting for his lover Mary to decide if she has the courage or not to join him on Thunder Road. He encourages her to
Roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair The night's busted open, these two lanes can take us anywhere We got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings for some wheels Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the track Come take my hand, we're riding out tonight to case the promised land Oh thunder road, oh thunder road?.
If Mary is ready "to take that long walk from [her] front porch to [his] front seat," the promised land can be theirs. Recalling Whitman's fiercely hopeful attitude toward the future, Springsteen declares at the end of this song, "It's a town full of losers but I'm pulling of out here to win." Freedom, and the opportunity to make something better of his future, which is the heart of the American dream, cannot be had in this town. Only Thunder Road offers this possibility.
Author and lecturer at Harvard University Jim Cullen also noted a similar invitation and similar questions to the audience in what might be Springsteen's signature song, "Born to Run", in which the singer and Wendy take to the road to chase "a runaway American dream" (Cullen 34). Cullen simply placed the final stanza of Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" next to the final verse of Springsteen's "Born to Run" and allowed the lyrics to speak for themselves
Will you walk with me out on the wire? Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider But I gotta know how it feels I wanna know if love wild, I wanna know if love is real Can you show me?
As in "Thunder Road", Springsteen is inviting the listener to begin a journey with him to someplace better where the questions of love can be answered. "Tramps like us", he tells his audience, "baby, we were born to run." Men and women will not find the freedom or satisfaction they seek by standing still, according to both Whitman and Springsteen. They must accept the invitation to the open road.
Dr. Bryan Garmen, chair of the Sidwell Friends School, and author of A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen, writes that Whitman desired to inspire a "race of singers" to continue his depiction of the working-class hero and finally realize his dream of a genuine American democracy. Whitman helped define what that working class hero should be-strong, loving, confident, hard working, unashamed and above all, free. He celebrated these heroes in nearly every one of his poems and criticized the inequalities that prevented the working class from having an equal opportunity to share in the American Dream. Over a century later, Bruce Springsteen continued the conversation, mirroring Whitman's vision of a democratic America. With his songs of freedom, brotherhood and working class men and women struggling against sometimes unimaginable odds, Springsteen explicitly sought to accomplish this purpose. In so doing, he is living proof that Whitman succeeded.
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