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Bruce SpringsteenNovelist 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 lesser-known songs listed below reflect the rocker’s vision of America and paint vivid scenes of American life. (I have purposely excluded obvious choices such as “Born in the U.S.A.”–and all other hit singles by Mr. Springsteen–from this list; some of the songs listed have not yet even been officially released by Mr. Springsteen.)

10. 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.


9. Sugarland

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


8. 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 adveristy: “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.”


7. 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


6. Factory

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


5. Vietnam

“Without Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veterans movement,” proclaimed Bob Muller, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Indeed, Mr. Springsteen, who lost two boyhood friends in the Vietnam War, was an early supporter of the veterans’ movement, giving a benefit concert for VVA in 1981 and penning songs as early as 1972 about the struggles of American boys returning from the war in Asia. His early 1980s unreleased, acoustic song, “Vietnam,” was a precursor of his hit song, “Born in the U.S.A.”


4. Wild Billy’s Circus Story

What is more American than the circus? This early 70s song is, like much of Mr. Springsteen’s work at the time, somewhat rambling in nature; it is a masterpiece of word-painting, evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the now-almost-lost world of the circus that every boy and girl in the country used to experience.


3. 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”


2. 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


1. American Land

It’s a song that sounds much older than it is–perhaps a cover of some American folksong written in the nineteenth century? But no. This Celtic-tinged, rousing anthem is a Springsteen original that pays homage to the immigrants who built America (“They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin/They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind”) and celebrates the promise of economic opportunity that the country still holds, even while it tries to keep new immigrants from coming to its shores.


Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but the man sure could write songs about cars! From “Pink Cadillac”

    Some folks say it’s too old,
    And that it goes too fast,
    Some folks say it’s too big,
    And uses too much gas

    But my love is bigger than a Honda,
    Bigger than a Subaru,
    Hey man there’s only one thing
    And one car that will do

    Anyway we don’t have to drive it
    Honey we can park it out in back
    And have a party in your pink Cadillac

    Crushed velvet seats
    Riding in the back
    Oozing down the street
    Waving to the girls
    Feeling out of sight
    Spending all my money on a Saturday night
    Honey I just wonder what you do there in the back
    Of your pink Cadillac

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