Archives For Bruce Springsteen

Style is that “identifiable quality that varies from author to author.” That seems a simple idea.

The wording in the Common Core Anchor Standard for style seems simple:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Teaching style, however, is not simple. Our high school students who spend hours creating their own style-selecting music stylings, stylizing phone cases, following YouTube fashion stylists-go blank when asked to assess or identify the style of a text.

One stumbling block could be in the selections of texts for examples. Style is often subtle or nuanced, which means that if style is described as the voice of the author, then some authors speak in whispers.

Until September 2016.

That’s when Bruce Springsteen used his authorial voice to tell his life story in his autobiography Born to Run.

His voice is not a whisper…His voice is LOUD!

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

His voice is hyphen-heavy, word-binding; it is a tete-a-tete with the reader.

His voice lists, lists, lists, all of the emotions, locations, events, memories, friends, and objects he has collected over his career.

And he is direct; he knows why he wanted to be a songwriter:

“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.”

 He writes well. He writes individually. He writes with style. This is 508 pages of The Boss talking to you, the reader.

While some of his language choices in the autobiography may limit a few examples for classroom use, most selections of this text could be used for analysis. There is also the opportunity to compare and contrast the autobiography with song lyrics. In both genres, Springsteen offers examples for practice to identify and to assess style through his word choice, his tone, and his syntax:

  • word choice: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” (Born to Run lyrics)
  • tone (sad): “No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress.” (The River lyrics)
  • syntax: “Then . . . if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, a furious fire in the hole that just . . . don’t . . . quit . . . burning.” (Born to Run-Autobiography)

The evidence for an identifiable Springsteen style begins on page one of Born to Run, where the prose in the story of his life is mirrored in his earlier song lyrics:

 “I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless . . . I am seven years old” (1).

That line sounds suspiciously like the list in his song lyrics:

“I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man” (Rosalita).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with lists.

In his autobiography, Springsteen’s voice in reflects on his hometown:

 “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin”(7).

This hyper-hyphenating in the autobiography is not very different from Springsteen’s lists of the same Jersey locations in the song lyrics for  Born to Run:

“Sprung from cages on Highway 9,
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected
And steppin’ out over the line.”

Conclusion:  Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with hyphenated word combinations.
Then, read on a few more pages and you become aware of Springsteen’s extensive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, such this reflection on Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

“Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” (39)

That same style choice is chosen for other musical force in his life, The Beatles:

The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and . . . THE HAIR . . . THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of . . . THE HAIR” (50).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s prose in the autobiography is filled with CAPITAL LETTERS, a style choice he makes to emphasize the IMPORTANT MOMENTS of REALIZATION. His lyrics probably don’t need to be capitalized; he can sing those LOUD for emphasis.

Finally, in both song lyrics and in prose, Springsteen serves up multiple examples of motifs he uses to communicate ideas. In writing about his upbringing and religion:

“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward” (17).

A similar idea is expressed in the lyrics to Land of Hope and Dreams.

“Dreams will not be thwarted.
This train…
Faith will be rewarded.”

Of course, if we are talking about faith, here is yet another take on faith that Springsteen placed into a rhyming couplet for the lyrics of  Thunder Road:

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night;
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.

That tone…those blunt, coarse, tender words…the casual-just-you-and-me attitude….the style of the voice that sang 508 pages of his life into my head….I hold the lighter up and beg for an encore: BRUUUCCCE!

Screenshot 2014-01-31 07.06.53Pete Seeger was a collaborator. Someone acting with others to achieve a goal.

He collaborated in songwriting. The song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was written with Joe Hickerson, “If I Had a Hammer” was written with Lee Hays of the Weavers, and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was written with a little help from the Old Testament (Ecclesiastics).

He collaborated in performances with other singers: Dylan, Cash, Baez, and frequently with Woody Guthrie. He was a relentless promoter of Guthrie’s music as a tool for social change. His dedication was illustrated in a story told by Bruce Springsteen in a speech at the South By Southwest Festival in 2012. (Read entire speech at SpringsteenKeynoteNPRTranscript)

Springsteen recalled performing with Seeger on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the inauguration celebration for President Obama. He recalled the power of singing Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Seeger that day:

“So four years ago, I found myself in an unusual situation. It was a cold winter day. I was standing alongside of Pete Seeger. It was 25 degrees. Pete had come to Washington. Pete carries a banjo everywhere he goes — the subway, the bus — and comes out in his shirt. I said, “Man, Pete, put on a jacket. It’s freezing out here.” He’s ninety years old — living embodiment of Woody’s legacy.

“There were several hundred thousand of our fellow citizens in front of us. We had the Lincoln Memorial behind us, and a newly-elected president to our right. We were going to sing, “This Land is Your Land” in front of all these Americans. And Pete insisted — he says, “No, we have to sing all the verses. We have to sing all the verses, man. You can’t leave any of them out.”

“I said, ‘I don’t know, Pete.’ We had a crowd of six-year-old school kids behind us. He says, “No, we’re all gonna sing all the verses.” And so we got to it.

At this point in the speech, Springsteen picked up the guitar and began singing: “This Land Is Your Land”

As I was walking I saw a sign there
And on that sign said We’re trespassing
And on the other side It didn’t say nothing.
That side was made For you and me.
This land is your land This land is my land 

He paused to admonish the crowd, “This song is meant to be sung by everybody.” They began to join him:

From California To the New York island
From the Redwood Forest
To the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Springsteen concluded playing and explained to the crowd:

On that day Pete and myself, and generations of young and old Americans — all colors, religious beliefs — I realized that sometimes things that come from the outside, they make their way in, to become a part of the beating heart of the nation. On that day, when we sung that song, Americans — young and old, black and white, of all religious and political beliefs — were united, for a brief moment, by Woody’s poetry.

Woody’s poetry is American poetry, and Pete Seeger was his American troubadour. Listen:

As a collaborator, Seeger worked with others on many causes: workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental conservation, and world peace. In supporting these causes, he encouraged all others to sing along.
So, here are the words Seeger promoted; the words to Guthrie’s contribution to the American Songbook, the words to “This Land is Your Land.”
Feel free to hum along as you read:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Thank you, Pete Seeger, for reminding us to sing about America and to sing ALL the verses.

Continue Reading…

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.

For teachers who are looking for guidance on how to teach informational texts at the high school level, there is a model lesson on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the EngageNY website. The text of the speech delivered by Lincoln on November 19, 1863, is short enough to fit on two pages or two bronze plaques on a memorial on the battles grounds in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. With 272 artfully crafted words Lincoln reframed the objectives of the Civil War while restating the principles of the equality of man. The opening six words are iconic, the closing asyndeton, “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” is inspiring. The choice of the Gettysburg Address is laudable and non-controversial as a selection as an informational text. However, this speech is nearing its 150th birthday, and while an understanding of this speech helps students understand who we were as a nation, there are more contemporary speeches that address who we are as a nation today. What other speeches can we offer our students to review for content and style?

I can think of two speeches that have impressed me this school year. One such speech is a commencement address to college students, the other an address of how the power of rock and roll “commenced” and what that meant to an artist. The first speech is formal, running a little under 15 minutes in length, and delivered by Steve Jobs on June 12, 2005, at Stanford University. The second speech is a full 50 minutes delivered on March 15, 2012, by Bruce Springsteen as the keynote address at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

While Jobs engineered his speech into three separate and distinct parts (“Connecting the dots”, “Love and loss”, “Death”), the “Bruce’s” rollicking retelling of his life as a musician is part-explanatory, part-stream of consciousness, and wholly poetic. While Jobs formally and frankly narrated his stories of failure and ultimate redemption in the computer industry, Springsteen peppered his observations with epithets and musical interludes. Both speeches should get a “look-see” by teachers looking to engage students with meaningful informational texts.

Steve Jobs’s commencement address received a great deal of attention after his passing in October 2011. Stanford University has a page on its website that has both the text of the speech and a video of Jobs reading the speech , standing at the podium with his black graduation robe swirling in the breeze. He opened with the story of his adoption and his bold admission that he had dropped out of college because he “didn’t see the point” –this before a crowd of parents and new graduates who had just completed four or more years at one of the country’s more expensive universities!

Shortly after this startling confession, Jobs deftly described how he followed the “dots”, crediting a calligraphy class at Reed College with being the inspiration in developing his sense of sleek design. These “dots” led him to the computer industry when “Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20” and that “in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees.” He professed his failure, the subsequent firing from the company he had founded, as entirely necessary. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
In contrast to Jobs’s formal delivery, the video of Springsteen’s speech (video with text link on the NPR website) shows him blinking at the cameras wondering why he is up so early (it was noon) gripping the podium and addressing other musicians saying, “Every decent musician in town is asleep, or they will be before I’m done with this thing, I guarantee you. I’ve got a bit of a mess up here.” Several minutes (and epithets and expletives) later, Springsteen states his thesis:

“So I’m gonna talk a little bit today about how I’ve put what I’ve done together, in the hopes that someone slugging away in one of the clubs tonight may find some small piece of it valuable. And this being Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, and the centerpiece of this year’s South by Southwest Conference, I’m also gonna talk a little about my musical development, and where it intersected with Woody’s, and why.”

Springsteen’ s “dots” began with Elvis and television:

“Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language; a new form of communication; a new way of being; a new way of looking; a new way of thinking about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday, and there was today, and there was a red hot, rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow before your very eyes.”

Inspired by Elvis, the six-year-old Springsteen wrapped his fingers around a guitar neck for the first time, and when they wouldn’t fit, “I just beat on it, and beat on it, and beat on it — in front of the mirror, of course. I still do that. Don’t you? Come on, you gotta check your moves!”

Both of these speeches center on the importance of love and the love of one’s profession. Springsteen’s love of music, and his embrace of all musical genres, is lyrical as evidenced by his professed love for Doo-wop, a passage in the speech which aches for an accompanying melody:

“Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu-perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark at the YMCA canteen. The soundtrack for your incredibly wonderful, limp-your-ass, blue-balled walk back home after the dance. Oh! It hurt so good.”

Jobs’s love of his work at NeXT, at Pixar, at Apple, is less descriptive but equally impassioned, and he challenged the graduates to recognize the importance of loving one’s work:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Both speeches also focus on change. In the last portion of his speech, Jobs introduced death; in a moment of cheer and celebration, he bluntly talked about death. He was honest with his beliefs, stating how he did not want to die, and he described how the prognosis of pancreatic cancer drove him to seek surgery. His statement, “and I am fine now” is delivered with such confidence, a poignant moment now that he has passed away. However, Jobs was not trying to be maudlin in discussing his, and our own, imminent fate; he deliberately summed up his feelings about death as “the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” Jobs is right about death as a change agent, but as he stood before that crowd gathered for Stanford’s graduation in 2005, he was a live example of a change agent in our lives and the lives of our students.

Springsteen introduced the legacy of Woody Guthrie as his change agent. He explained how in his 20s he read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie, A Life, noting that, “Woody’s gaze was set on today’s hard times” and that “Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism. It was a world where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome.” Springsteen explained that although he would cover Woody’s infamous This Land is Your Land, he was never “going to be like Woody” because he was too fond of Elvis and the pop simplicity of his Pink Cadillac, that is until he and Pete Seegar stood up in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009 to sing (with the crowd) From California/ To the New York island/ From the Redwood Forest /To the Gulf Stream waters /This land was made for you and me:

“On that day Pete and myself, and generations of young and old Americans — all colors, religious beliefs — I realized that sometimes things that come from the outside, they make their way in, to become a part of the beating heart of the nation. On that day, when we sung that song, Americans — young and old, black and white, of all religious and political beliefs — were united, for a brief moment, by Woody’s poetry.”

Both Jobs and Springsteen ended their speeches with a clarion call. From the industrialist,” Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.” From the musician: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt — it keeps you awake and alert.”

Could these speeches be “informational texts”-the new CCSS term used to cover all manner of writing other than fiction? While these speeches are most certainly not equal to the eloquence of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, do they have a place in the study of contemporary history? Is the speech that details the development of the Mac with its sleek design and easily used graphic interface, as told by its founder, an informational text? Does the speech that chronicles a musician’s experience with the birth of American rock’n roll and the influence of pop culture qualify as an informational text? Could either speech be a springboard into student research? Could either speech be analyzed for rhetorical structures, word choice, and imagery? Do these speeches inspire the reader?

For students in the upper grades of high school, grades 11 and 12, for whom the CCSS suggests 70% of reading should be in the form of informational texts, the answer is a yes, yes, most assuredly yes!