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« Rural America and the Ag Program | Main | The Soul of Society »

Bruce Springsteen and the Blue Collar Worker

By Angelo Lopez
June 7, 2012

Many Republicans today hold to a strong belief in a free market economic philosophy with a minimum of government interference. Within the Republican Party, libertarians like Ron Paul and the Tea Party activists are pushing the Republican Party to a more austere economic policy with cuts on government spending, a minimum of government regulations on businesses, and lower taxes on the wealthy, on the assumption that an unrestrained free market will eventually life all sections of the population. They look to the Reagan recovery of the early 1980s, where after passing tax cuts, cutting spending on social programs, and cutting business regulations, the American economy went through an economic upsurge in the mid 1980s. The unrestrained free market economy that libertarians and Tea Party members sound great on paper. But when you look at history, the boom-and-bust cycles of the unrestrained free market economy has wrecked havoc on the poor and the middle class. In the course of this country's history, the United States has had periods of serious economic crisis in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929 and now today. And in those economic crisis the same things happen: a large percentage of people are thrown out of work, homes are foreclosed, banks go under, thousands of businesses go under, and charities are overwhelmed by the sheer need of the poor and homeless.

During those times, musicians have chronicled the struggles of the poor and the working class. In the nineteenth century the spirituals of the African American churches sang about the struggles that African Americans endured in segregationist America. Folk singers like Woodie Guthrie sang about the unemployed and the migrant workers of the Great Depression. The punk rockers and ska groups of the 1970s articulated the anger of the youths of the decaying manufacturing centers in England and America. Rap groups like Public Enemy described the despair of the inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s. One of the great musicians of social commentary today is Bruce Springsteen, who has been singing about the blue collar American for the past 40 years.

The Reagan years are seen by many conservative Republicans as the inspiration for their policies today. Before Reagan was President, the United States was going through a period of high inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment. Reagan's economic policies did succeed in lowering inflation from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.1% in 1988, and in reducing interest rates from 20% in 1981. Reagan's free market policies, though, also exacerbated economic trends of the 1970s where blue collar workers were seeing their manufacturing jobs disappear due to the increasing globalisation of the world economy. According to an article in the January 17, 1990 article by Peter Passel for the New York Times

Are you better or worse off than you were four years ago, asked Ronald Reagan in 1980. But George Bush's image-makers chose not to press the rhetorical point in his Presidential campaign, and for good reason.

Young, male, blue-collar workers, part of the demographic coalition that has given Republicans a big leg up on the White House in recent decades, suffered devastating financial setbacks during the 1980's. While the real earnings of 25- to 34-year-old men who graduated college rose by 9 percent from 1979 to 1987, the earnings of high school dropouts fell 15 percent. High school graduates did not do much better, absorbing a 9 percent cut.

Steve Lohr wrote in the December 25, 1991 edition of the New York Times

The pinch on blue-collar workers has been tightening for years. From 1980 to 1990, after adjusting for inflation, the wages of blue-collar workers fell by 6.3 percent, while white-collar salaries rose 3.9 percent. "Even a strong economy did not arrest the decline of earning capacity of blue-collar workers," said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The manufacturing sector, heavily blue collar, suffered more in the 1981-82 recession than this time around. In the previous downturn, 2.2 million manufacturing jobs were lost. Many of the cuts were made in the name of fashioning a lean and newly competitive corporate America that could hold its own against foreign rivals. The streamlining process succeeded in making American producers more vigorous and, recently, manufactured exports have been one of the few sources of strength in the American economy.

Yet the process of squeezing more production from fewer workers is by no means over. This time, companies began shedding factory jobs 18 months before the recession began. Since January 1989, companies have eliminated 1.2 million manufacturing workers. "Manufacturing employment has been hard hit in this recession and for years before," said Thomas Nardone, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fewer Auto Sales, Fewer Auto Part.

During the Reagan years, Bruce Springsteen began to delve into more social commentary in his music. He became a star in the 1970s with albums like The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run. When the country's economy took a turn for the worst in the late 1970s, Springsteen's songs began to focus more on stories of individuals struggling to get by in urban America. Eric Alterman wrote an article for the April 11, 2012 edition of the Nation in which he wrote:

It’s hard to find an analogue for Bruce Springsteen anywhere in American history. Musically, he is an amalgam of so many disparate influences it looks ridiculous to list them together. (Don’t believe me? OK, here goes: Elvis, Dylan, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Sam & Dave, the Shirelles, King Curtis, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Roy Orbison, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, the Sex Pistols, Pete Seeger, the Swinging Medallions, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett…) But it is equally difficult to locate a proper political antecedent for Springsteen in American history. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are the obvious nominees, but the fact that they were associated with the Communist Party, as well as pretty orthodox folk singers, significantly limited their ability to be heard by many Americans. Springsteen, meanwhile, has managed to give voice to political values—what he calls “news with a beat”—that fall well leftward of the boundaries of mainstream political discourse.

This happened almost entirely by accident. Springsteen began his career singing about guitars, cars and girls before moving on to empty factories and abandoned quarries. His songs began as stories of individual characters divorced from what Trotsky called “the dialectic,” until, in the early 1980s, he began to read deeply in American history and literature. Springsteen began to ask questions of himself about what really determined the contours of the lives of the working-class characters whose tribune he had become. “A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? ‘Promised Land,’ ‘Badlands,’” he would explain in 2009, decades after the transformation took place. “I’ve seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I’d seen that country on a grassroots level…. And I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.”

In September 1979, Bruce began his first tentative steps into the political realms when Springsteen and the E Street Band joined the Musicians United for Safe Energy anti-nuclear power collective at Madison Square Garden for two nights. Springsteen's album The River tried to reflect the hard times of the recession of the late 1970s. Some of the songs of Nebraska were partly inspired by historian Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States. The song Born In The U.S.A. criticized the treatment of Vietnam veterans, some of whom were Springsteen's friends and bandmates. Springsteen contributed the song "Streets of Philadelphia" for the movie Philadelphia, a movie about a gay man dying of AIDs. Springsteen created in 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad, inspired by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and by Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winners author Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael WilliamsonBruce Springsteen wrote the song American Skin (41 Shots) in the aftermath of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, and the acquittal of four police officers who had fired at him forty-one times. Here are two Rolling Stone reviews of two of Springsteen's most celebrated albums.
The October 25, 1982 review of the album Nebraska noted

Until now, it looked as if 1973's dizzying The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle would be the last Springsteen album to surprise people. Ensuing records simply refined, expanded and deepened his artistry. But Nebraska comes as a shock, a violent, acid-etched portrait of a wounded America that fuels its machinery by consuming its people's dreams. It is a portrait painted with old tools: a few acoustic guitars, a four-track cassette deck, a vocabulary derived from the plain-spoken folk music of Woody Guthrie and the dark hillbilly laments of Hank Williams. The style is steadfastly, defiantly out-of-date, the singing flat and honest, the music stark, deliberate and unadorned.

Debbie Miller wrote in a review of the album Born In The U.S.A.

The people who hang out in the new songs dread getting stuck in the small towns they grew up in almost as much as they worry that the big world outside holds no possibilities — a familiar theme in Springsteen's work. But they wind up back at home, where you can practically see the roaches scurrying around the empty Twinkie packages in the linoleum kitchen. In the first line of the first song, Springsteen croaks, "Born down in a dead man's town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground." His characters are born with their broken hearts, and the only thing that keeps them going is imagining that, as another line in another song goes, "There's something happening somewhere."

...That you get such a vivid sense of these characters is because Springsteen gives them voices a playwright would be proud of. In "Working on the Highway,: all he says is "One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back" to let us know the guy's in love. And in the saddest song he's ever written, "Downbound Train," a man who's lost everything pours his story, while, behind him, long, sorry notes on a synthesizer sound just like heartache. "I had a job, I had a girl," he begins, then explains how everything's changed: "Now I work down at the car wash, where all it ever does its rain." It's a line Sam Shepard could've written: so pathetic and so funny, you don't know how to react.

I first listened to Bruce Springsteen's songs when his album Born In The U.S.A. was a big hit in 1984. I'm not the fan that some of his more fervent followers are, but I like a lot of Bruce Springsteen songs. I admire his courage and eloquence in articulating the lives of everyday Americans, and think he's one of this country's cultural treasures. As this country faces its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I'm glad that Springsteen is here to make sure that the voices of average Americans are heard.

Bruce Springsteen in the VH1 Storytellers series describing his music

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen singing Atlantic City

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen performing The River

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen performing Working On A Highway

The video for the Bruce Springsteen song Streets of Philadelphia

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen performing The Ghost of Tom Joad

A youtube video of Bruce Springsteen performing American Skin (41 Shots)

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