In exploring the quest for the American ideal, Bruce Springsteen has used the freedom of expression to make powerful comments on his country, government and the lives of “We the People.” He is part of a long tradition of American protest songs. Here are five of his best.
Famously co-opted by President Ronald Reagan for his 1984 re-election campaign (Springsteen objected), “Born in the USA” is the archetypal Springsteen protest song. On first listen, a prideful chorus of American patriotism, on closer examination it’s a poignant anti-war song. But this is not an idealistic call for world peace—Springsteen is writing from the point of view of a working-class Vietnam veteran adrift in the country he loves.
In a speech on the streets of Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential campaign, Springsteen talked about his music: "I've spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between [the] American promise and American reality.” This thematic thread is perhaps most evident in “The Promised Land,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The narrator has “done [his] best to live the right way…get up every morning and go to work each day” and though he may “feel so weak [he] want[s] to explode” he still believes in the promised land. The dogs on Main Street understand.
Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” this song from Springsteen’s 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., sees a “ragamuffin gunner” returning home from Vietnam “like a hungry runaway.” More lyrical and enigmatic than the anthem it presages, “Lost in the Flood” is a complex commentary on the country to which veterans returned. The characters lose themselves in fast cars and guns while “everybody's wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood.”
Inspired by the politically conscious protagonist of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this song draws parallels between the Depression and the early 1990s, with “highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge” while “families [sleep] in their cars.” Springsteen looked fondly on the social activism of the 1930s, and the refrain finds him “waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad.” Though Springsteen’s 1995 recording is stripped-down and subtle, the force of the lyrics is evident in a driving cover by Rage Against the Machine, the era’s most successful protest band.
It’s not a Springsteen original, but this cover expresses the hopeful call for freedom of opportunity that runs through the singer’s work. According to Springsteen, this fixture of his live set was written by Woody Guthrie as “an angry song…a response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America.’” Like Guthrie’s classic folk ballad, Springsteen’s adaptation is a tender evocation of a beautiful nation which belongs to all of us, regardless of wealth or access to power.
From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen is on view at the National Constitution Center through September 3, 2012.
Christopher Munden is a Freelance Writer for the National Constitution Center. His favorite Springsteen album is Nebraska.