The Working Life: Bruce Springsteen turns 70

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Bruce Springsteen
Photo via Netflix - Springsteen on Broadway

As Bruce Springsteen celebrates his 70th birthday, we at WorkingNation would like to honor the man who has written songs about work and the American Dream for the majority of his career.

Although nicknamed “The Boss,” Springsteen will always be known as the voice of the working man and woman. His recently completed Springsteen on Broadway,” which showed us that the connection runs back to his childhood. The show highlights his life growing up in a working-class family in Freehold, N.J., trying to navigate a world where little is given to you, and people try to take away what you do have.

And with that, in chronological order, here’s a six-pack of Bruce Springsteen songs about work:

Night

Springsteen began writing about work and the American Dream more than 40 years ago with 1975’s “Born to Run.” The characters on that album begin the process of escaping their desperate situations with no idea where they were heading, just that they wanted to change their luck and “make it.”

But there was a message hidden underneath the romantic words of songs intended for the radio. America’s original settlers and founding fathers had been seeking an escape, a dream which continues to this day. They left their homes, boarded ships and came to a new land seeking prosperity. The characters on “Born to Run” left their homes, and instead of crossing an ocean, they headed out on the road with similar goals.

In his autobiography by the same title, Springsteen describes his thoughts, “Dread — the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured — was in the air…. And if I was going to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them.”

And while the album’s title track has become his signature song, it’s in “Night” that the working man reveals himself for the first time:

You get up every morning at the sound of the bell
You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell

Factory

If “Born to Run” put his characters on the road, it led to the question, where will they attain their American Dream? By the time Springsteen released “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in 1978, he had no answers, just life’s realities. The characters get out of the car and onto the job. In “Factory,” he describes the physical toll that comes from hard work. The song is autobiographical, as the protagonist watches his father go to work in the factory, yet there is a reward in hard work, no matter what the physical consequences.

Early in the morning 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 River

It goes on and on with the next three albums, the characters may take on different names and locations, but underneath are stories of men and women struggling to reach the dream. Over and over again the struggle is framed by the metaphors of romance, and the inevitable breakups. We see the American Dream being dangled in front of his characters, only to end up just beyond their reach. The picture of the dream appears, and in a flash, it vanishes into the night.

In an interview with Jon Stewart for Rolling Stone, Springsteen likens the struggles to the real world, “So these are issues and things that occur over and over again in history and land on the backs of the same people. In my music — if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it — I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream.”

On the title track of “The River,” the despair no longer can be hidden beneath the surface. Only now, the dream looks like it has taken a somber turn with an unwanted pregnancy, a shotgun marriage, and real-world economics.

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy

Working on the Highway

Arguably the Boss’ most misunderstood album, 1984’s “Born in the USA” took on the plight of workers and Vietnam veterans. In Working on the Highway, it’s all right there in the title.

I work for the county out on ninety five
All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by

Wrecking Ball

2012’s “Wrecking Ball” was Springsteen’s first post-recession album and unlike his early catalog, he is not hiding the message behind romantic characters. And for the first time, workers have both white and blue collars.

He told Stewart that he needed to speak out, “For the majority of my lifetime, you saw an increase in inequality. It has only been in the news since Occupy Wall Street, but it was something that was a long, long time coming.” In “Shackled and Drawn,” fingers are pointed directly at those he thinks are responsible for denying the dream.

Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

On song after song of “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen points out how low people had fallen during the recession. But in each instance, he holds out hope that through hard work and perseverance, the flame of the American Dream still burns on American Land.

They come across the water a thousand miles from home
With nothing in their bellies but the fire down below
They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re still dying now
Their hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out
There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song
Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man
Who’ll make his home in the American land

And as Springsteen prepared to close his run on Broadway, he told Esquire that his passion has only grown stronger, “So these are folks who are invested in denying the idea of a united America and an America for all. It’s a critical moment…. I think that a lot of what’s going on has been a large group of people frightened by the changing face of the nation. There seems to be an awful lot of fear. The founding fathers were pretty good at confronting their fears and the fears of the country. And it’s the old cliché where geniuses built the system so an idiot could run it. We are completely testing that theory at this very moment…  It’s corny stuff, but: Let people view themselves as Americans first, that the basic founding principles of the country could be adhered to, whether it’s equality or social justice. Let people give each other a chance.”

So from all of us at WorkingNation, we say, Happy Birthday Boss!

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