July 4th Poetry Friday: Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”

July 4, 2013 — 1 Comment
In my youth I thought Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues (1967) was a song about knights who galloped on horseback wearing white satin, so I am no longer surprised when the attraction of a song’s melody overrides my understanding of the lyrics.
Such is the case with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984).
This song rates a spin up on the volume of my car radio or a little dance in the kitchen to that driving beat when the CD is playing.
Born in the USA..ay” I will sing along with Bruce, Clarence Clemons and the E-Street Band*, “I was born in the USA..ay.”
I had always thought that this was a paean to America.
Then I read the lyrics.

Born in the USA

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

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

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

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand now”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.

*E-street Band

  • Roy Bittan – piano, synthesizer
  • Danny Federici – organ, glockenspiel, piano on “Born in the U.S.A.”
  • Garry Tallent – bass
  • Steven Van Zandt – acoustic guitar, mandolin, harmony vocals
  • Max Weinberg – drum
(sorry about the advertisement!)
Springsteen’s Born in the USA is not a tribute,  but is instead a grim recollection of a man’s hard life in America; a life that began in abuse, involved a scuffle with the law, a tour in Vietnam, the loss of a friend at Khe Sahn, the return home to unemployment, and a life that still has the shadow of a penitentiary hovering over him as a possible end.

The poetry in the lyrics are a collision with the song’s percussive call to celebrate.
The quick-march tempo complements the song’s narrator’s movement; he is still moving, running, on an endless search for truth that Springsteen says is the true American way.
That truth, however, is full of irony.
While elements of the “American Dream” have eluded him, he remains stubbornly proud of his heritage.
While his service in Vietnam is not reciprocated by a grateful nation, he remains stubbornly proud of his country.
While there is the looming shadow of a penitentiary or unemployment at the refinery, the man has chosen to move down the road in a country where such movement is possible.
While he drifts with Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go, there is pride in American independence in the last line, I’m a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A. 
Trust Springsteen to capture the paradox of America, a place where fate and the land of opportunity collide. That collision is captured in this song where we are left hopeful that something good will happen to the man who, despite the odds, remains proud to have been Born in the USA.

One response to July 4th Poetry Friday: Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”

    Keri Collins Lewis July 5, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    I’m glad you shared these lyrics, because I rarely understand what he says. Thanks for persisting in looking for Poetry Friday — sometimes I have a hard time finding it too!

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