What Every Country Needs: The Vulnerable, the Innocent and the Immigrant in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen

While celebrated for energetic stadium rock performances, Bruce Springsteen’s real value is as the most important American singer-songwriter since Bob Dylan. One of the major themes of his music has been the experiences of the immigrant and the vulnerable in American society. Greg Lewis explains how this makes him distinct among rock and pop’s major stars.

Bruce Springsteen often stresses his family’s Irish and Italian origins, and he has strong fan-bases in both countries.

His wife, Patti Scialfa, is proud of her similar heritage. The E Street Band’s list of surnames from Lofgren and Van Zandt to Weinberg and Federici perfectly illustrates the world diaspora that makes up the modern United States.

Is it any wonder then that Springsteen - more than any other major modern artist – is the champion of the refugee, the immigrant, the man and woman searching for a better life?

He lays it on the line in his 2007 album Magic, which he is currently touring to support (including a concert at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff). He may have shared a platform with Rev Jesse Jackson, and campaigned for John Kerry, but the political search for “something righteous” probably goes back to FDR, before the American flag, in Springsteen’s words, “flew so high/It drifted into the sky”; way back when the Stars and Stripes did mean certain things were set in stone, “Who we are, what we’ll do/And what we won’t”. (It is always an incarnation of Springsteen’s father who describes an ideal of America – from My Hometown to Long Walk Home.)

Springsteen’s most nakedly political record remains The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Here the characters occupy the new economic desperation underneath the first President Bush’s New World Order. These characters longed for FDR’s New Deal.

This was a complete album dedicated to the refugee and the disenfranchised American.

The inspiration was cinematic and journalistic: John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath – as opposed to John Steinbeck’s – and newspaper reports of life on the Mexican border towns.

The title track offered the philosophy in a nutshell – to fight to protect “somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or decent job or a helpin’ hand” – but the rest of the album probes deeper.

Sinaloa Cowboys follows brothers Miguel and Louis who cross from northern Mexico and find they can earn more “cooking methamphetamine” for local criminals than doing honest but back-breaking work in the orchards. But it is a dangerous life and Louis is killed. The message that haunts the pair and the song itself is the one the father had given them as they left home: “My sons, one thing you will learn/For everything the north gives/it exacts a price in return.”

The brothers learn that lesson the hard way. So too, equally heart-breakingly, does the young boy, Spider, in Balboa Park.

Having grown up in the red light district of Tijuana, Mexico, where locals and people from southern California use the legalized brothels of the Zona Norte, he manages to escape into the United States by smuggling cocaine.

But it is no real escape: he is now living rough in Balboa Park where the rich men arrive at night for the “services of the border boys”.

Spider is just a child. He sends home some of the money he makes but also buys “high-top sneakers” and stylish jeans.

The rest of his earnings go on “toncho”, an octane booster which he sniffs from a Coca Cola can. This grim high octane image ends with Spider knocked down in the road and crawling back to his “blanket ‘neath the underpass”.

As this is Springsteen, he turns his focus to the other guys too, those doing their job on The Line, the border policemen.

Springsteen’s former serviceman Carl is told early on by a Mexican colleague about the border’s vicious circle of desperation, danger and crime. “They risk death in the deserts and mountains/Pay all they got to the smugglers’ rings/We send ‘em home and they come right back again/Carl, hunger is a powerful thing.”

Carl does alright at keeping his “uniform pressed and clean” and chasing the “shadows through the arroyos and ravines”.

But it is when he gets up close to one of these shadows, a woman with eyes as “black as coal” and with a young child crying in her arms that Carl begins to see the other side.

Seeing the person behind the flow of immigrants proves his downfall. He tries to help her and her family, but the brother is smuggling – almost certainly to make money for the family – and the girl is forced to run into the night.

Carl gives up his job and Springsteen leaves him searching for the girl in the bars and migrant towns.

It’s the experiences of so many of the other characters on Tom Joad which provide the moving backdrop to the song of hope, Across the Border. The man who sings it is telling his loved one, his “corazón”, that tomorrow they will cross the border, leaving behind the “pain and sadness we found here”.

He paints a picture that must be in the heart of every person leaving a homeland of poverty, a past of despair, and heading for somewhere they believe can give them a new and better life. “For you I’ll build a house,” he tells his love, “high upon a grassy hill.”

This is the immigrant wanting his own piece of the American Dream: “I know love and fortune will be mine/Somewhere across the border.”

But the listener knows that has not been the experience of the others who have gone before. Of Louis, buried “in the dirt” after dying in an explosion; of Spider, breathing his last on the roadside in San Diego; of young mother Louisa trapped in a never-ending cat and mouse chase with the INS.

True acceptance and redemption comes only, perhaps, in the potentially most violent confrontation of the album.

In Galveston Bay, Vietnam veteran Billy Sutter, shipped home wounded in 1968, works the Gulf of Mexico fishing grounds, as his father did before.

He watches the refugees come in to his home town of Seabrook, Texas, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Among them is Le Bin Son, who had fought with the Americans but is now seeking a new life with his family in the “promised land”.

However, as the refugees settle, there is no warm welcome. Springsteen sings: “Soon in the bars around the harbor was talk/Of America for Americans.”

A loud-mouth says: “You want ‘em out, you got to burn ‘em out.”

The Texas Klan comes to town and a gang comes to set fire to the Vietnamese people’s boats. In self-defense, Le shoots two of them dead. The jury acquits him but Billy tells him he’s a “dead man”.

Late one summer night, with the bay “still as glass”, Billy stands in the darkness as Le walks along the waterside. A knife glints in Billy’s hand.

There’s a breath. Le lights a cigarette and walks on as Billy puts the knife back in his pocket.

Early the next morning Billy kisses his wife, heads into the bar and “casts his nets into the water”. The water, a bay not a river (a redemptive source elsewhere in Springsteen’s work), this time symbolizes not only the cleansing of the bitterness that almost ate Billy up but also the work and good living which redeems him.

Tom Joad was released on November 21, 1995. Its tunes are often simple and stark, the vocal whispered, but the lyric sheet reads like it was put together by Raymond Carver during a day in a newspaper office in southern California.

Springsteen knows that the people who risk everything to cross into the “promised land” also often lose everything. Around 300 die every year crossing the Texas border alone and, on April 6, 1996, as if to underline the absolute journalistic endeavor of this updated tale of Dustbowl hardship, a truck loaded with Mexican immigrants crashed off the road while being chased by border police in Temecula, California. Seven people died, including three brothers, and 18 were injured.

Research published around the same time by the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston, described the deaths of people crossing the border after, not only road crashes, but violent assaults and dehydration. The vast majority though, it noted, drowned in the mighty river known as Rio Grande in the United States and the Rio Bravo in Mexico.

In Across the Border the man dreaming of the better world tells his lover “we’ll drink from the Bravo’s muddy water” on their way into the States.

By the time we meet the couple again on Devils & Dust (2005) we find out what happened to all that hope and love – and the news is devastating.

There was no redemption and healing for them in the muddy waters - only death. Across the Border was a gently sung hymn of hope, but it was underscored with sadness: we knew the singer could not believe everything would be so bright and easy as he was trying to persuade his lover.

The song’s sequel shows he, and we, were right to be concerned. Matamoras Banks is a death ballad and, as it follows the action backwards, the listener is greeted immediately with graphic detail: “For two days the river keeps you down/Then you rise to the light without a sound.”

There is a body in the river and as it drifts “past the playgrounds and empty switching yards” Springsteen takes us unbearably close: “The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars”.

The river strips the body: its clothes and then its identity. Springsteen prays that as the elements of the earth “make their claim” that the “things of heaven may do the same”.

Springsteen’s starker political work often turns the romantic imagery of his early records on its head. And so the roads which offered dreams of better worlds to the characters of Born to Run (1975) become highways of death for young Spider. On The Ghost of Tom Joad the highway is alive but “no-one’s kidding nobody about where it goes” – least of all the singer himself. On Magic the characters take the “highway till the road went black”.

Likewise, while the water of the The River (1980) offered resurrection and cleansing, now the fast flowing tides drag refugees under.

These themes were pulled together in American Land (a song written as Pete Seeger’s influence over his work became as strong as Woody Guthrie’s), where the immigrant dreams of “gutters lined in song” and faucets which spill beer all night long turn sour. The immigrants, from Springsteen’s own Italians and Irish (he name-checks the Zerillis, his mother’s family) to the Germans, Jews and Arabs, note in the song that they “built the cities with our sweat and two hands” and there was “treasure for the taking for any hardworking man”.

But Springsteen final verse breaks through the dreams and fantasy. The immigrants of a century ago “died building the railroads” and “in the fields and factories”, he sings.

And it is still happening:

“They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re dying now,

The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep down.”

While other rock stars seek tax avoidance, Springsteen went on to use an especially-written piece in the New York Times (August 5, 2004) to draw attention to “tax cuts to the richest 1 percent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another and render mute the promise of ‘one nation indivisible’.”

He explained he had always “been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens”.

In an interview to promote The Rising (2003) he expanded on his intensely personal political philosophy: “I felt that I saw nobility in people. Not the kind you read in the story books, but the kind where people go in to work every day, they come home every day and dinner’s on the table every day. There’s people doing this in little ways every day all the time. These are the people I want to write about. This is what I think is important. That’s what moves me. That’s what makes me want to sing my song.”

Springsteen bats for both those so battered down they have forgotten their dream and those who are still dreaming. The most perfect Springsteen line on Magic is: “Things been a little tight/But I know their gonna turn my way.”

In a fascinating profile in The Times (London) in July 2002 Robert Crampton noted: “To appreciate the courage and commitment of releasing Tom Joad, or its legendary all-acoustic forerunner, Nebraska, imagine a Sting album which championed the cause of unemployed shipbuilders in his native Newcastle, or George Michael documenting the Greek immigrant experience in north London and Hertfordshire. On a harmonica.”

This is what makes Springsteen such an important artist.

He celebrates America, the most powerful and influential nation in the world during our lifetimes, and also analyses it. As he wrote in the New York Times: “Over the years I've tried to think long and hard about what it means to be American: about the distinctive identity and position we have in the world, and how that position is best carried. I've tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures.”

And so when 22-year-old West African immigrant Kadiatou Diallo was killed in February 1999 in a hail of police bullets, Springsteen wrote about it in American Skin (41 Shots).

In the UK, following the terror attacks of July 7, 2005, an unarmed Brazilian named Jean Charles de Menezes was shot seven times in the head by London police officers.

No significant British artist has made a comment on this nation-defining incident. It’s not just America: every country needs Bruce Springsteen.


Greg Lewis is a freelance journalist. His work on asylum and immigration issues has twice been nominated for national awards.