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The Humanism, Progressivism, and Beauty of Netflix’s “Springsteen on Broadway”

Walter G. Moss: Having viewed various musical performances since the 1950s, I have never seen a greater mix of music and personal story-telling than that of the dark-t-shirted Bruce Springsteen in his streaming performance of “Springsteen on Broadway.”
Springsteen on Broadway

Having viewed various musical performances since the 1950s, I have never seen a greater mix of music and personal story-telling than that of the dark-t-shirted Bruce Springsteen in his streaming performance of “Springsteen on Broadway.” In 1953 Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952, said about his friend Carl Sandburg, he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” Like Springsteen, Sandburg played the guitar and gave live performances in which he combined story-telling with songs—but he had also won Pulitzer Prizes for both history (1940) and poetry (1951). After viewing Springsteen’s two and a half hour show, I think of him as I have of Bob Dylan, as being a modern-day Sandburg and an artist who embodies an important aspect of the American dream.

Having viewed various musical performances since the 1950s, I have never seen a greater mix of music and personal story-telling than that of the dark-t-shirted Bruce Springsteen in his streaming performance of “Springsteen on Broadway.”

To be sure, his story like that of Sandburg’s, does not reflect the experiences of all Americans. In some important ways it does not, for example, reflect that of African Americans or women. But, again like Sandburg, Springsteen is sympathetic to all those who have faced discrimination, and his political views are deeply humanistic and progressive.

In his show he recalls visiting (along with Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July) with Vietnam veterans in California. He then laments the loss of two of his friends in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968, mentions that in 1969 he evaded the draft, and states his belief that “thousands and thousands” of other young men were “simply sacrificed, just to save face for the powers that be.” Following his Vietnam musings, he sings as he often does following other reflections, “Born in the USA,” which he wrote as a “protest song” in 1982 (see here for the lyrics and links to all his songs and introductions to them).

I got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said "son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said "son, don't you understand, no"?

After the 9/11/2001 attacks, he wrote “The Rising,” which he also sings, displaying his empathy with the New York City firefighters.

Just as Sandburg supported FDR and John Kennedy, so Springsteen supported Barack Obama and (against Donald Trump) Hillary Clinton. On the eve of the 2016 election he said, “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer. Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation and of an actual vision of America where everyone counts.” He then added, “Men and women, white and black, Hispanic and native. Where folks of all faiths and backgrounds can come together to address our problems in a reasonable and thoughtful way. That vision of America is essential to sustain, no matter how difficult its realization.” About Trump he said, “This is a man whose vision is limited to little beyond himself, who has the profound lack of decency that would allow him to prioritize his own interests and ego before American democracy itself . . . . Somebody who would be willing to damage our long-cherished and admired system rather than look to himself for the reasons behind his own epic failure.”

In his Netflix performance, he reflects on the March for our Lives (in March 2018), against gun violence, which occurred in Washington, D.C. He thinks it was a good and necessary march, good to see “all that righteous passion alive in the service of something good.” And necessary because there are those in our highest offices [like President Trump] who “speak to our darkest angels, who want to call up the ugliest and the most divisive ghosts of America’s past. And they want to destroy the idea of an America for all. That’s their intention.”

Following this reflection, he sings his “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” It contains the lines,

Now Tom said, "Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there.
Wherever somebody's fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you'll see me."

The song was influenced by Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” which itself was inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and John Ford’s film adaptation of it. In his sympathies for the downtrodden, like Steinbeck’s fictional Okie migrant Joad family, Guthrie reflected the progressivism alive in the 1930s. (Guthrie’s friend, Carl Sandburg, displayed a similar spirit in works like his 1936 epic poem The People, Yes. Lines like, “Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge,’ which Springsteen sings, also calls to mind Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” and Sandburg’s personal hobo experiences in 1897 as a young man riding boxcars westward.) But in the 1990s, when Springsteen composed his song, he was thinking more of the Mexican undocumented immigrants who had crossed the border into California. And, of course, when “Springsteen on Broadway” was taped, the plight of such immigrants was more poignant and troubling than ever.

Despite his abhorrence for what Trump represents, Springsteen’s background, like Sandburg’s, is similar to that of many Trump supporters—from small towns (some losing jobs), not much formal education, and white sons of working-class fathers (Sandburg was from Galesburg, Illinois, never went to high school, but did attend Lombard College before dropping out; Springsteen was raised in Freehold, N.J., says he hated school, and, although he took some community college classes, never obtained a degree). The ancestors of both men were also typical of those of so many earlier white Americans. Sandburg’s parents were both immigrants (from Sweden), and Springsteen’s dad was of Dutch-Irish ancestry and his mother of parents born in Italy.

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What the two sons of such families had in common was their desire to leave their small towns and successfully make their own way in the larger world. In his essay on the American Dream, Jon Meacham quoted words about the “American dream of a better, richer, and happier life.” Many sons and daughters of blue-collar families once shared this dream. And if they left their small hometowns, as did Sandburg and Springsteen for respectively Chicago and California, then their chances of becoming more progressive than the families they left behind increased. What caused children to seek their happiness in bigger cities often varied. For Springsteen his dream of seeking “a freer existence” was motivated by seeing Elvis Presley on TV in 1956 and later taking up the guitar.

In his Broadway show, Springsteen devotes considerable time to talking about his childhood. It seems a typical American story for someone his age (b. 1949)—except it ended up being much more successful than most. He talks much (sometimes while strumming his guitar or noodling a few piano keys), and with love, about hometown, friends, and especially his family—dad, mom, sisters, grandparents, and other relatives, all “jammed into five little houses on two adjoining streets,” with his grade school and church, St. Rose of Lima, nearby. Its bells often rang and his whole clan attended weddings and funerals. He also mixes his talk with some of his old songs such as “Growin' Up,” “My Hometown,” “My Father's House,” and “The Wish,” accompanying himself on guitar, piano, or guitar and harmonica.

His nostalgia and humanism regarding all those Freehold people who “did their very best, the best that they could, to hold off the demons, outside and inside, that sought to destroy them, and their homes and families, and their town” remind one of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, “Our Town.” His love for his parents especially shines forth.

He talks about all the jobs his dad had—besides fighting in World War II, working at a rug mill, at Ford and Nescafé plants, at a plastics factory, and driving a truck, a bus, and a cab—about fetching his dad from the local bar, and sitting on his dad’s lap, steering his old Buick. Despite some conflicts with his father, he recognizes that he desired his dad’s love and learned manhood from him, but that he was “too young and stupid” to understand that his father suffered from depression. (Later in introducing his song “Long Time Comin’,’” he relates how his dad came to see him shortly before Patti gave birth to their first child. His father admitted that he hadn’t been very good to him and seemed to suggest that Bruce should become a better father. After musing on the responsibilities of fatherhood, Springsteen adds. “It was the greatest moment in my life with my dad. And it was all that I needed.”)

Still early in the performance, Springsteen pivots from mentioning his father’s depression to talking about his mother’s dance-loving, bright, happy, optimistic, and outgoing disposition. She worked throughout his youth, and for decades afterwards, as a legal secretary. And she enjoyed her job. He was proud to walk home from it with his “statuesque” mother, as he sometimes did. She made him feel that his family were “responsible members” who had a place in society that they had earned. She is now 93, he tells us, and “seven years into Alzheimer's,” but “when she comes in the door, we make sure there's music on. She wants to dance, ya know?” He sums up by saying his mom “was truthfulness, consistency, good humor, professionalism, grace, kindness, optimism, civility, fairness, pride in yourself, responsibility, love, faith in your family, commitment, joy your work, and a never-say-die thirst for living, for living and for life.”

In the almost two additional hours of his performance, he mentions others whom he loved or still loves, for example, his older sister, who married a rodeo bull-rider and settled in New Jersey; the former saxophonist Clarence (Big Man) Clemons, who played in his E Street Band; and his wife Patti Scialfa, also a member of that band, who joins him for two songs (“Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”)

Following his hometown reminisces; we are treated to traveling songs like “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land.” As he says introducing that duo: “Maybe there's nothing like that moment in your life of being young and leaving some place, all that youthful freedom.” And he confesses to missing that youthful feeling and excitement of having so many possibilities, so many adventures before you. As he said earlier in his show, “I was born to run, not to stay.”

At that early point and later on, Springsteen’s humor and love of beauty often reveal themselves. When telling us about his mom, he describes the tactic she used to get him up in the morning—the threat of ice water cascading down on him after a thirty-second warning. After insisting that he was “Mr. Born to Run,” he treats us to the irony that he now lives only ten minutes from where he grew up. His humor is often of the self-deprecating kind, like when he tells us he’s a “fraud” because he’s sometimes considered a blue-collar bard, but he’s never had a blue-collar job. He acknowledges the irony that he has become absurdly successful writing and singing about something of which he has had no practical experience. He describes how before leaving New Jersey, his girlfriend arranged for an agent to listen to his band, who told him they were the best unsigned band he had ever heard. But then, in Springsteen’s words, “he slept with my girlfriend and left town. That's the end of that story. It's a sad ending.” In a longer amusing tale, he relates how he and his fellow musician Tinker then drove out west, but he had to confess to Tinker that he (now 21) did not know how to drive. With Tinker’s help, however, he learned to do so—or at least to “keep it in between the lines . . . . without killing anybody.”

It is in describing this same trip west that Springsteen words are most poetic as he describes the beauty of what he witnessed. Just before singing "The Promised Land," he quotes a passage from his autobiography, Born to Run, about the beauty he saw. It reminds one of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The passage, barely modified in the Netflix production, reads:

The country was beautiful. I felt a great elation at the wheel as we crossed the western desert at dawn, the deep blue and purple shadowed canyons, the pale yellow morning sky with all of its color drawn out, leaving just the black silhouetted mountains behind us. With the eastern sun rising at our backs, the deep reds and browns of the plains and hills came to life. Your palms turned salty white on the wheel from the aridity. Morning woke the Earth into muted color, then came the flat light of the midday sun, and everything stood revealed as pure horizon lowering on two lanes of blacktop and disappearing into . . . nothing—my favorite thing. Then the evening, with the sun burning red into your eyes, dropping gold into the western mountains. It all felt like home and I fell into a lasting love affair with the desert.

Springsteen also describes the beauty of a band playing together. Before he sings "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" (a tribute to his early E Street Band and Clarence Clemons), he insists that “when they play together, there is a communion of souls, and a natural brotherhood, and sisterhood manifests itself, and a quest, a quest is begun. You’re in search of something, an adventure’s undertaken.”

In the last half hour of his Broadway show, before singing “Dancing in the Dark” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” he further reflects on his musical calling and links it to his own particular American dream. He says, “I wanted to hear and I wanted to know the whole American story . . . . Where were we going together as a people? And—what did it mean to be an American?” He wanted to both honor the American story and be a “critical voice” when needed, and that is what he hopes he has done, help people make sense of the American story and their place in it.

Before closing his show with “Born to Run,” Springsteen talks about returning to his old house in Freehold and seeing that the beautiful copper beech tree that had for so long graced its front yard had been cut down. It saddened him, but although it was gone he mused that its spirit lived on, just as did that of his father, his friend Clarence (both of whom he thought of every night), and so many others he had known. For “history matters,” he insists, and he reflects that the traces of the old Catholicism, which had been such a large part of his childhood, also lived on. And the words that then came to him were those of the “Our Father,” which he had repeated so often as a Catholic schoolboy.

When he ends his program with the words of that prayer and then “may God bless you, your family, and all those that you love. And thanks for coming out tonight,” they seem sincere and heartfelt. Everything that occurred in the previous two and a half hours made us believe that the man who just uttered “forgive us our sins, our trespasses, as we may forgive those who trespass against us,” was one who was wise and humble enough to realize that he shared with all of us common human failings, as well as hopes and dreams.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss