A Boss Education

Ken Campbell shares 5 songs that reflect Bruce Springsteen’s take on our American history.

Utter the name “Bruce” at the Jersey Shore and it goes without saying that you’re referring to the Bruce, the Boss—Bruce Springsteen.

And while that name conjures different notions to different people—rock legend, champion of the underdog, everyman—history professor Ken Campbell says that Springsteen is an American icon whose views and interpretation of American history in his music and lyrics have made him an integral part of our American history that deserves to be recognized and studied.

“I argue that his views on America need to be taken seriously not only because he’s a famous person and a cultural icon but also because he has spent so much time reading, reflecting, and addressing very serious questions and issues in his music over the decades,” says Campbell, who teaches Bruce Springsteen’s America: Land of Hope and Dreams. “Much of what he wrote was based on really thinking deeply about the country, about its ideals, its heritage, and its vision about what the American Dream means.”

Campbell’s course, offered this past semester, is the first class dedicated to Springsteen’s work and musical legacy to be taught at Monmouth. It’s an important achievement not only because the Boss grew up close to Monmouth and regularly played shows on campus in the 1960s and 1970s, but also because the University is home to the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music, which houses the largest official collection of the rock legend’s written works, photographs, periodicals, and artifacts.

“It’s a great resource for a course like this considering that researchers and fans from all over the world have come to use the archives,” says Campbell. “They’re right here on our campus, available to our students, and it is an amazing asset that we should take advantage of.”

Built around Bruce’s songs and writings, the course focuses on a wide range of historical events. Here, Campbell shares five songs that he covers in the course and explains how each, representing different points in American history, reflects Bruce’s own life, experiences, and political views.

“Thunder Road” — This song opened Bruce’s most iconic album, Born to Run (1975). Springsteen alluded to the fact that this was his first post-Vietnam album, which provides the students and me an opportunity to discuss how this album relates to the period immediately following the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. A period of disillusionment and skepticism had Americans yearning for a simpler time, a time that some people equated with the early days of rock-and-roll, as reflected in the popularity of the film American Graffiti and television shows set in the ’50s like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. “Thunder Road,” both musically and lyrically, harkens back to those simpler times, even as it speaks of the desire to escape from the past (“We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land”), without specifying exactly where “the promised land” might be found.

“Born in the U.S.A.” — The title song for Bruce’s smashingly successful 1984 album, “Born in the U.S.A.” allows the class to take a closer look at what it meant to live in post-Vietnam America. Ronald Reagan seemed to promise both a reborn country and a return to traditional values, looking to the future and the undefined distant past for solutions to the country’s woes, while seeming to skip over the more depressing aspects of recent American history, including the Vietnam War. This song is a reminder that the fallout from that war remained present in the mid-1980s, especially for veterans, but also for millions who, like Springsteen, did not fight in the war but knew people who did and had their own trials, perhaps related to a form of survivor’s guilt.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” — This title track of Springsteen’s 1995 album refers to the main character in John Steinbeck’s novel (and John Ford’s film), The Grapes of Wrath, about whom Woody Guthrie had previously written a song called “Tom Joad.” The title of the song recalls the Depression and the period in which Steinbeck and Ford set the novel/film, but immediately Springsteen brings listeners into the present with references to “highway patrol choppers” and the “new world order,” a phrase coined by President George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The last verse of the song is a reprise of the closing speech of Henry Fonda in the film, in which Tom Joad promises that his spirit will live on. This song implies that his ghost has done just that in the down-and-out people still struggling to make it in Bruce Springsteen’s America. (The Boss tells many of those people’s stories in other songs on the album.)

“Empty Sky” — The last song written for Bruce’s 2002 album, The Rising, the song raises a question I always encourage my students to confront in all my courses: What is the relationship between the personal and the historical? If Springsteen’s work tells us anything about his vision of history, it is that history consists of the stories of everyday people who are struggling to live; work; and find happiness, meaning, and love in the midst of circumstances frequently beyond their control. “Empty Sky” addresses the question of the relationship between the personal and the historical as it relates to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It provides a framework for his listeners to experience a catharsis in confronting the catastrophe while somehow finding the courage to go on. Sept. 11 changed America, and the response to it was multivariate, but this song and the album on which it appeared will always be a part of the story of that response.

“Death to My Hometown” — This song seemed an especially appropriate song to discuss in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic as it also deals with the impact on people’s lives of events beyond their control. Whether writing about Vietnam, the Depression, 9/11, or the economic collapse and recession of 2007-08, it is frequently ordinary working class people who suffer the most, not the wealthy bankers, CEOs, and lawyers who often find ways to benefit in the midst of hardship and suffering to ordinary Americans. In this song, Springsteen talks about the factories and families destroyed not by cannon balls, rifles, and bombs, nor by the invasion of foreign dictators, but by “robber barons” and “greedy thieves” who just as surely and effectively brought death to his hometown. The song not only relates to important aspects of recent American history, but like our current health crisis, shows that history is not over and we are all living it, which is at least made easier by understanding it, which with his lyrics and music Bruce Springsteen helps us in his own way to do.

Photos: 9/11: Michael Foran; Bruce Springsteen: Takahiro Kyono; We are the 99%: Corbis Historical/Getty Images.