Monday, July 4, 2011


(this image is from Wikipedia commons, anyone is allowed to use it, so I'm using it!)

It's hard to write about America and do a good job at it.  Obviously, it's easier to rebel about things that you don't like than it is to celebrate America, and that's often the rub with art. Rebelling is easier than celebrating. But I think that July 4 is a good time to be thankful to live in the U.S.A., without getting too flag-wavvy about it.

In recent years, there's been a few attempts at writing what could be referred to as "The Great American Song." U2 wrote "The Hands That Built America" for Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs Of New York. Good song, but not a great one.  Bruce Springsteen took a few whacks at it: "This Hard Land" from his 1995 Greatest Hits album felt like an attempt, as did "Land Of Hope And Dreams" which he started playing on the 1999 reunion tour with The E Street Band. The latter stayed in Bruce's setlists for a long time, but I didn't feel the song was as good as he seemed to think it was.

During Bruce's tour with The Seeger Sessions Band for the 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, he started playing a new song "American Land."  I felt he nailed it. Bono has talked about how America isn't just a place, it's an idea. I don't think the idea of America has ever been better expressed in a rock song than in "American Land." He romanticizes the idea from the perspective of immigrants ("There's diamonds in the sidewalk the's 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 will make his home in the American Land?") in a way that can make all of us proud that we do call this place home.  It also points out that a fair immigration policy is one of the things that made us great. At the same time, he expresses some of his core values: the plight of blue collar workers ("They died building the railroads 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 dyin now/The hands that built the country were always trying to keep down").  And also the fact that everyone deserves a shot, no matter their race or color ("The McNicholas, the Posalski's, the Smiths, Zerillis, too/The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews /Come across the water a thousand miles from home/With nothin in their bellies but the fire down below").

That's why I choose the above photo for this post.  No matter what you think of The President, when Bruce was growing up, or even when *I* was growing up (I'm much younger than Bruce), the idea of an African American president seemed unlikely to say the least.  The fact that Bruce worked so hard for President Obama - who campaigned on a platform of hope and change, some of which has arguably been fulfilled - makes this photo really powerful.

Bruce has nothing to prove anymore. The fact that he still works so hard to fulfill what he sees is his responsibility to himself, his audience, and his country, is inspiring.  Like any other great artist, sometimes his reach exceeds his grasp, but on "American Land" he hit a grand slam.  It's not just a classic that stands up next to his catalog, it also stands next to Woody Gurthrie's.

("American Land" was the only song from The Seeger Sessions that Bruce played with The E Street Band, and you can see their version - played in Hyde Park, in England, here. )

No comments: