There was a stillness on the surface of those pictures, while underneath lay a world of moral ambiguity” —Bruce Springsteen1
America has always had its share of class struggles and its share of outlaws and also-rans. Even those on the good side of the law live in the lower or lower-middle class strata of our society can feel outcast. American citizens are a society who live by laws but are sometimes fascinated with people who often break the law. All too often, an individual’s socio-economic background can influence their behavior. The image of an “American outlaw” has been cultivated; a combination of history, folklore and real stories handed down through generations. The cultural landscape in America from the past two hundred years is littered with tales of bandits, outlaws, thieves, renegades, gunfighters, bootleggers, gangsters, and bank robbers. Desperate people are often the product of desperate times and upbringings. They seek the “American Dream” of wealth, prosperity and independence, only to find it has eluded them.
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released as his sixth album a collection of home demos made with just his voice, guitar, and harmonica. The songs in this collection would be stark recollections about life on the other side of the American Dream. This album was a harsh and unflinching look at American life through the eyes of outlaws, poor folk, estranged families, and other unseemly characters. This study will examine the picture of America through the pieces on Springsteen’s Nebraska. Each of the songs will be discussed at length in terms of narrative and character development. Springsteen’s own commentary on the work will also be explored. We will also discuss the American landscape that framed this powerful work. The collection of songs blurs the line between law-abiding characters and outlaw ones. We will see that Springsteen puts himself into the situations taking a dual stance as narrator and character in these songs. This puts a unique spin on the narrative, where the lines are blurred and each scene seems like a homespun conversation with each character as they share about their lives, losses, crimes, sins, and personal struggles. This use of narrative and context makes the collection very effective for its impact. These stories that we will delve into deal with familiar subjects. But when Springsteen places himself into these characters, the tales become more personal. Each one of the songs is in the first person (except for “Reason To Believe”) where Springsteen becomes the characters he writes about. Tales of murder, robbery, economic unrest, family strife, hope and redemption abound in the album, as Springsteen turns outlaws and outcasts into storytellers.
The American Popular Song has served in part as a canvas for the stories of American culture as told through the voices of its heroes and villains. Through the years, American popular music has grown into more than just a passing fancy; it is even difficult to call all of vernacular music “popular.” A noteworthy example is Marty Robbins’ album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959) which was successful in crossing over the country and pop charts in the early 1960s. Robbins’ album is a contemporary rendering of old West standards coupled with some his own original compositions. One of these originals, “El Paso” is a modern-day gunfighter ballad in the narrative tradition and became a sizeable crossover hit for Robbins in 1960. Other modern American songwriters such as Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Don Henley, have all written works that address issues in American society. In particular, the folk tradition in this country from Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and its most vivid manifestation in the works of Bob Dylan, has proven a sprawling canvas for these stories of social change, unrest, and uncertainty. American society since 1950 has produced a wealth of characters and situations that have served as inspiration for songs––the lives of criminals, outcasts, poor folk and other individuals living outside the mainstream of contemporary society. These songs reflect American culture in its melting pot ideals; they are a blend of blues with its repetition, gospel with its spiritual longing, country with its simplicity and narrative, and folk music with its social consciousness.
The outlaw in America is part of both its history and folklore. As America fought for and eventually gained its independence, its new citizens began their slow migration across the uncharted territory to the West. The unknown territory was a frightening and untamed place. Slowly as the pioneers began to build settlements and towns in the early to mid-1800s, border struggles between other settlers and wars with the Native Americans forged this new America. These towns fostered their own kinds of small-time crime in the forms of bank robbers, train robbers, horse thieves, gamblers, and gunfighters. The Civil War (1861–1865) brought unprecedented strife and division to our nation. Lynching, pillage, and other forms of civil unrest were common especially throughout the South, and unsettled territories of the West. Through the second half of the 19th Century, the gunfighters rose to prominence, as the battle between good and evil was set in small Western towns where saloons, card houses, railroads, country stores, and boarding houses had sprung up. When the famed outlaw Jesse James committed the first train robbery in America (near Adair, Iowa in 1873), the American outlaw era of the old West was in full swing. Within three years, Sioux Indians killed General George Custer at Little Bighorn, Wild West gunfighter/lawman/legend “Wild Bill” Hickok was killed in South Dakota, and the James Gang was run out of Northfield, Minnesota after a bank robbery attempt that went bad and turned into an epic gunfight.
As America became more industrialized, it also became polarized or so it seemed. As business became bigger, it seemed as if the American Dream was out of reach for a segment of the population. After the First World War, the national economy entered a small period of prosperity but times soon turned turbulent. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, banks began to close by the score. The family farmer was in trouble, and the national economy was nearly in shambles. Between the economic status of the country and trends in crime such as bank robbery and bootlegging of illegal liquor, crime in America hit a plateau in the 1920s and ‘30s. Gangsters such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson, ran roughshod over The Midwest and the South, frightening entire communities and making national headlines.
Perhaps as intriguing are the also-rans of society, down-on-their-luck, itinerant individuals and their families. American author John Steinbeck is noted for his portrayal of “Dust Bowl” characters, particularly in “Grapes of Wrath”. His images of the migrant farm worker are indelible, as the Joad family goes from job to job where they encounter various characters including vagabonds and preachers. (Springsteen would visit Steinbeck-esque themes again on his album The Ghost of Tom Joad). These people may be law-abiding, but found themselves in the direst of circumstances due to socio-economic conditions. The rural farm family is most often signaled out as such an example. The family farmer plays a pivotal role in the national landscape, both literally and figuratively. While America is built in large measure upon the family farm, those who work the land know how rural and small-town life can be. These families and communities are in search of hope because of the onslaught of factors they face from year-to-year. Weather, crop/livestock prices, and pest infestations can prove to be a nearly insurmountable combination of factors for many of these. The passage of time wears on for these individuals and their families, where the cycle of life can seem oppressive.
In late 1957 and 1958, a lower-class young man named Charles Starkweather committed murders in Nebraska and fled to Wyoming with his teenage girlfriend Caril Fugate. The news would outrage the nation and later inspire films, songs and commentary. Starkweather’s deeds would earn him the electric chair and a spot in American folklore as a symbol the young man down-on-his-luck who achieves notoriety. These incidents, and many more like them, have occurred in over the years in America outraging our citizens and gradually making them more fearful to live in their own communities. There is something intriguing about the outlaw personality. These individuals feel as though they are outside of the law and perhaps feeling as if their circumstances are what caused them to be this way. In truth, it was probably a combination of factors, which caused the actions of many of these characters. Yet we as citizens are drawn to the newspaper or television, and are both engaged and appalled by these stories. The dichotomy that is the American Outlaw is intriguing when one considers its effect on society in this way. It is in this bleak yet hopeful black-and-white picture that we find ourselves in Springsteen’s Nebraska.
Bruce Springsteen was riding high on a string of acclaimed albums in the late 1970s. As a songwriter, he has always been acutely aware of the struggles of the working class heroes and villains in America. Characters that are on both sides of the American Dream always color his songs. After his album The River (1980), Springsteen began drafting a set of songs about outlaws, lawmen, downtrodden families, and other such characters. Springsteen had grown tired of the tedious recording process and had wanted to find a way to keep the creative process fresh and organic. He had also been reading Flannery O’Connor, and had seen Terrence Malik’s film Badlands (an adaptation of the Starkweather story). Springsteen urged his guitar technician, Mike Batlan, to purchase a small tape recorder for making demos with overdubbing. Batlan went to the local music store and bought a 4-track Teac® cassette recorder that was a portable studio for multi-track tape recording new at the time. In his home near Colts Neck, New Jersey in 1981, Springsteen laid down demo tracks for these songs using only his voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica. Later on, he tried to flesh the songs out with his backup band, The E Street Band, but the full-band tracks did not possess the same energy and spirit as the acoustic demos. So when asked by his record company for the master tapes of the sessions, Springsteen gave them the cassette tape he recorded in his home. The result was Nebraska.
The album is a collection of songs that were rough-around-the-edges but nonetheless very poignant and engaging. It was Springsteen’s intention to create a set of songs that were like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, or Woody Guthrie – “songs that sounded so good with the lights turned off.”2 The songs are also steeped in the narrative tradition and literary characterizations of Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor. Every song on the album tells the story of characters that are downcast, either themselves or family members are on the wrong side of the law. The songs are very raw and unpolished, but instead of hindering the overall effectiveness of the work, the simplicity greatly enhances the collection. The listener is engaged as the songs turn into portraits that are more colorful than any artwork. Much like the black and white photo of a country road through a windshield on its cover, Nebraska is a stark portrait of America by those looking up from the bottom. Springsteen tells of the album and its relation to his upbringing in his Songs text:
The work is framed by a few sets of unique characteristics. First, there are two different lines that each appear in two different songs. “Deliver me from nowhere” appears in “State Trooper” and “Open All Night”, while “I got debts that no honest man can pay” appears in “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99”. These serve to both underscore and unify the work. They underscore Springsteen dark and hopeless-yet-hopeful attitude that percolates through the characters and overall narrative in the work as a whole. Many songs on the collection are of similar structure either musically or lyrically. The narrators in the songs are often in the first-person, and they all use a very vernacular “rootsy” language. These underlying elements help to unify the work; the listener subconsciously hears these themes. Each song is heard as a rough-hewn down-to-earth story that is somehow connected to the other ones.
Songs and Subjects 1: Poverty, Farm Families, and Itinerant Workers
The album can be divided into two groups of songs based on the characters and subject matter. The first group of songs, as outlined below, contains stories of law-abiding citizens in desperate circumstances. These characters all have a resonance to them; qualities that speak to what are good and bad about America and the American Dream. These people are desperately look for a mode of salvation, because they know their present life of despair does not provide that. These songs have a forlorn quality to them, marked by desperate economic or family situations.
The third track of the album “Mansion On The Hill,” is a different style of portrait. The songs characters are lawful, but lower class citizens. As a child, the narrator and his family drive by a large mansion that is perched atop a hill. The representation of the American Dream might seem out of reach to certain segments of society. Yet the Dream can prove to be hollow once it is attained. The second verse reads:
In the day you can see the children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel
Steel gates that completely surround, sir,
The mansion on the hill
A sense of melancholy pervades the song. It is not very terrifying like “Nebraska,” but is as engaging. The word “sir” re-enters in this song as in “Nebraska.” However, here the use conveys a sense of dignity, where in the previous song the word was used more aloofly. The narrator seems somehow enthralled by the mansion on the hill, but is also embittered that it represents a symbol of a life he knows he will never attain. The song resembles a memory or an old family picture that might reside in a relative’s living room, much like what Springsteen mentions in his preface. “Mansion On The Hill” is the memory of a reality from childhood past. By the end of the song, the narrator sees the mansion against the light of a full moon; illuminating it. The narrator knows he may never “see” (live in) the mansion, but has come to terms with the ideal and the dream of it.
“Used Cars” uses a theme similar to “Mansion on the Hill.” In “Used Cars,” the narrator is young boy who is aware that he and his family live in a lower-class part of society. When he travels with his family to purchase a car, he sees that his mother and father cannot afford the car they want to purchase. The young boy makes a vow to himself:
And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could, but he just can’t
Well if I could, I swear I know just what I’d doNow, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again.
Living in poverty for any period of time can make one feel desperate; this feeling pervades the narrative in this song. The young boy as the narrator knows what he sees about his family and how they are treated. Yet he feels powerless to do anything about it. The “brand-new used car” is a metaphor here, in the sense that a used car still seems new to the boy and his family, where it would be just a used car to people in higher social strata.
Springsteen takes an up-tempo turn with “Open All Night”. This song is about a man who works the late hours at a gas station and drives at night to get home. There seems to be a Chuck Berry influence here with the rollicking rhythms and inventive wordplay of the song. The song is loaded with symbolism as our narrator bemoans his situation as his boss makes him work the late shift at his job, which causes him to have to drive all night back to see “his baby.” Springsteen has always been known for his rallying cries of the common man. At the end of the song offers another:
Your eyes get itchy in the wee wee hours sun’s just a red ball risin’ over them refinery towers
Radio’s jammed up with gospel stations lost souls callin’ long distance salvation
Hey, mister deejay, woncha hear my last prayer hey, ho, rock’n’roll, deliver me from nowhere
As we will see in the song “State Trooper”, the line “deliver me from nowhere” occurs here. Whether a conscious inclusion or an editing oversight, the repetition serves two functions. First, it underscores Springsteen’s central theme throughout the album of desperate people in desperate times. These people feel helpless like they are in the “middle-of-nowhere”––physically, emotionally, spiritually. Second, the repetition of the line helps to unify the pieces of the album. After repeated hearings, the listener will, perhaps unconsciously, pick up on the association. Whether Springsteen meant this lyric to repeat across songs or not almost seems immaterial. It may be a “happy accident,” but in retrospect adds weight to the song and the overall collection.
“My Father’s House” is an interesting moral commentary on family structures. The song is in straight-verse form again, and has a decidedly “old country” feel with the triple meter of the music and lyrics. Here, the narrator has a dream where he imagines himself as a child trying to get home before it gets dark. There is something in his childhood that bothers him and has somehow colored his present life. This is never fully revealed in the song, but is alluded to. The dream morphs into real life, when the narrator wakes and decides to drive out to the old house. Somehow, the narrator has not come to terms with whatever it is that he has struggled with these years, and after finding that “no one by that name lives here any more,” he finds that his past might remain unresolved. This idea of family and an unresolved past plays into Springsteen’s overall thrust for the album. As in “Mansion On The Hill” and “Used Cars,” an individual does not have to be a criminal to feel on the wrong side of the law or of society in general. Economic status and family can make a person feel like an outsider. In the song, the unresolved feelings are given moral overtones with the last line. We never know exactly what “demons” the narrator is facing, but they haunt his inner being:
My father’s house shines hard and bright it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining ‘cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned
The piece is resoundingly morose yet longing and hopeful. Springsteen here is speaking to that certain element of loneliness that perhaps existed in families of the bygone era. Rural American families are marked with traditions of fathers and sons who are close and distant at the same time throughout their lives. Words often go unspoken for years between generations of these families, and while there is great love and tradition, there is great emotional distance. This great distance is another echo of the barren landscape on the album’s front cover.
“Reason To Believe” closes the album. The song details several different scenarios with humor and poignancy, all observed by Springsteen in the role of an outside narrator. The line frames each verse/scene “At the end of every hard-earned day, some people find some reason to believe.” The first is a man on the side of the road looking at a dead dog, wondering how it got that way. The next scene is about two young lovers, Mary Lou and Johnny. The two get married, and later Johnny up and leaves his new wife. She waits for him to come back, believing he will against the likelihood of him not returning. The third verse details some scenes a local country church: a baptism and a funeral. The last verse details a country wedding down by the river (another recurring image for Springsteen throughout the years).
With all of life’s trials, people in America still cling to hope that there is something better than their currently situation. Springsteen has taken us through ten sketches of American life. None of them are pretty, but together they provide a vivid reminder of how life can seem on the other side of American life. Once the listener goes through all ten tracks, each story makes sense as a part of the entire story Springsteen is telling in the dialogue. At the end, we have a more vivid mental picture of the culture that he is telling us about. The front cover looks as vivid and colorful as ever as a bookend to these stories.
Songs and Subjects 2: Outlaws
The other group of songs is about criminals, outlaws, vagabonds, and also-rans. These characters have run afoul of the law and seek redemption also. How they get it, or even if they deserve it is an interesting subtext to these songs. Desperation, Redemption, and the American Dream look ever more different to these characters.
“Atlantic City” is the only hit single from Nebraska. The song is somewhat related thematically to a prior Springsteen hit, “Born To Run,” in which a down-on-his-luck young man wants to break out of society. The song is set around gangster activity around in Atlantic City, down to Philadelphia and surrounding areas. The narrator finds himself in the midst of a relationship and tries to make the best out of a bad situation amid all that is going on. He is tired of his life and wants a better one for himself and his girlfriend:
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City busNow our luck may have died and our love may be cold
but with you forever I’ll stayNow I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ endSo honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him
Well I guess everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your hair up nice and set up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Throughout these songs the feeling is that one is in the same room with each character from each piece tells their story. “Atlantic City” in particular is that way. A skewed sense of morality drives the narrator; he thinks that what he is doing is right, but perhaps fails to see that his decision could have consequences. “I got debts that no honest man can pay” appears here, as it will in different context in another song. The juxtaposition is between the idea of “debt” and “honesty”. The narrator tells us that what he carries with him, no man should have to deals with. The song frames the desperation that pervades each piece on the album. The narrator finds himself squarely on the line between good and evil, trying desperately to make choices in the midst of his circumstance.
”Johnny 99” is an energetic tune, a desperate piece about a man who finds himself on the receiving end of law. “Ralph” is laid off from his factory job, and as a matter of happenstance, gets inebriated trying to cope with his misfortune and ends up shooting a store clerk. The city government promptly arrests him and throws the book at him, now christened “Johnny 99.” The judge, a certain Mean John Brown, does not take the allegations lightly and hands down a stern sentence. Springsteen assumes the role of Johnny 99 in the last half of the song, and offers up this telling confessional:
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were takin’ my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my handWell your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead
So if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head
Then sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let `em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line
Whether outlaws are truly born versus created by their circumstances has been an age-old debate. As Johnny 99, Springsteen makes one last plea for the common man who just so happened to suffer through an unfortunate set of circumstances; caused in part by his decision-making. Situations like these blur the line between justification and desperation, as the song points out. The idea of “debts that no honest man can pay” shows up here again, this time as a means of justification in terms of what caused the narrator to do what he did. Justification is something that looks much different when one is on the wrong side of the law. This is a common thread often in Nebraskaand in the idea of the American outlaw.
“State Trooper” follows and is a very haunting tale. The narrator is a man trying to either escape a crime of some kind or his inner demons. Framed by a hypnotic and insistent guitar riff, the song relentlessly chugs on giving the feeling of driving alone on a highway at night. The persistence of the night, loneliness and his conscience slowly drives the narrator to the brink of insanity. He begs a state trooper not to stop him, but an actual state trooper never actually appears in the song:
Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
the only thing that I got’s been both’rin’ me my whole life
Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me
Please don’t stop me, please don’t stop me
Here Springsteen deals so effectively with the internal struggle of a man’s conscience. Throughout the song, he never reveals the dilemma that the narrator faces. Almost like Steven Spielberg in the film Jaws, Springsteen uses angles and other devices to build the tension without ever revealing too much information. The song builds to a frantic crescendo as he nears the edge of insanity. The listener is dragged along for the ride. It is not a stretch for the imagination to follow along and imagine oneself on the road alone at night. As one goes through such a scenario, the mind begins to play tricks on itself. Springsteen as the narrator writes about this paranoia perfectly. Is the man guilty of a crime, or is his mind losing the battle against his conscience? The listener cannot help but feel the urgency in the narrative:
Radio’s jammed up with talk show stations
It’s just talk, talk, talk, talk, till you lose your patience
Mister state trooper, please don’t stop meHey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer
Hi-ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere
The title song of the collection is entitled “Nebraska.” The piece opens with a chilling harmonica riff that is as barren as the landscape on the album’s cover. In this song, Springsteen assumes the point of view of Charlie Starkweather as the song is in the first person. Here, Charlie is speaking from his own experiences as he roamed the state of Nebraska to the badlands of Wyoming with his young girlfriend killing six people in late 1957 into early 1958. The dialogue of the song is very conversational in tone and not in an even meter like a polished song would be. The song starts as Charlie meets future girlfriend and accomplice Caril— “I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.” From here the ride starts, as Springsteen details the duo’s ride through Nebraska and Wyoming. Curiously, throughout the song he addresses the listener as “sir,” giving the song an air of detached sentimentality. Starkweather was noted for his emotional detachment in his crimes, and Springsteen captures that spirit in his narrative here. By the end of the song, Starkweather/Springsteen is ready to go to the electric chair. He is not particularly sorry for his deeds, as Starkweather also was in real life. The telling end to the song reads:
They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
Springsteen calls out the juxtaposition of outlaw detachment and iconic status that law-abiding citizens are alternately fascinated with and repelled by here. The song calmly tells these tales with the feeling of someone telling a story to you from the back porch of their home in the country. The subject matter belies a dark content; the story seems both engaging and repellent at the same time. At the close of the song, the harmonica riff re-enters here like a wayward wind blowing dust across a rural Nebraska road, calling to mind the picture of the road on the album’s cover.
Whether intentional or not, “Highway Patrolman” is in many ways the centerpiece to this collection of songs. More than any song in the collection, this piece sums up Springsteen’s entire thrust of the album. The piece is the longest of the album, clocking in at five minutes and forty seconds. The song is about a certain “Joe Roberts” who works as a state highway patrol officer. He worked as a farmer to get a deferment from Vietnam while his brother Frank served in the war. Roberts settles down with a wife and into a job as a highway patrol officer, while his brother eventually drifts over the line onto the other side of the law. The central theme is the struggle between upholding the law and protecting your family. Springsteen sets the scene with a monotone vocal delievery over a droning chord progression. The narrator knows his brother gets in trouble frequently, but looks the other way (“but sometimes when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way”). Here we see what perhaps the crux of the album is: the struggle of a family on both sides of the law. As the story progresses, Joe’s brother Frank gets in trouble by beating up a man in a local tavern late one night. Frank decides to make a run for it, once his brother Joe gets the call on his shortwave radio. He goes to the bar, where a man lies unconscious and a witness says it was Frank who did it. Joe catches his brother driving outside of town and gives chase, but decides to go only as far as the county line:
It was out at the crossroads, down round Willow bank
Seen a Buick with Ohio plates behind the wheel was Frank
But I chased him through them county roads till a sign said Canadian border five miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear
This song is perhaps the most quietly powerful of the pieces on the album. What makes the piece so engaging is the inner turmoil of the struggle between family ties and law enforcement that the narrator faces. The song itself is a quiet one; all of the tension comes from the engaging story. This is a masterful stroke by Springsteen, how he frames the narrative in the context of a tune. For the first and only time in the album, we see both sides of the law and the human lives that are impacted. Whether intentional or not, it makes the piece the most pivotal on the album. As we see the human effect of the outlaw life on both sides of the same family.
In the 1950’s and 1960s, America was a rapidly changing society. Technology, politics, and economics had all grown and changed radically in the years immediately following World War II. America was growing up, perhaps faster than it was ready to. While the threat of war and the spread of Communism grew abroad, America continued to have problems at home. Crime grew as racial strife and economic polarization came to a head.
With the innovations of people like Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon, not to mention the large shadow cast by the songs of the Beatles, American popular song was changing in the 1960s. AM Radio would soon lose ground to the FM Radio format. Songs were getting longer and more advanced in both musical and lyrical content. It was now acceptable to write with greater depth about relationships, family, political issues, and other topics. Rock re-combined with pop, folk, country, blues, and other styles to create new sounds. Into this new culture stepped people like Stephen Stills, John Fogerty, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Billy Joel, Don McLean, James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen.
Critics and the popular press had long regarded Bruce Springsteen as the “next Dylan” for his popular anthems that resonated with America’s middle class. He came into his own in the 1970s, an era when popular music went into many directions and became a billion-dollar industry. With each subsequent album and tour, Springsteen got more popular and continued to amass more accolades and critical attention. [Imagine the surprise that the executives at Columbia Records must have felt when one of their biggest superstars hands them a demo of acoustic tunes and wants it to be his next album.] Columbia had no idea what to do with Nebraska from a marketing standpoint. The album is a quiet placeholder in Springsteen’s canon. A rough and unvarnished set of tunes about some unsavory characters and situations, the album has grown to be a critical hit, and one of the crown gems of Springsteen’s now-storied output.
Nebraska was not an enormous critical success for Springsteen, who had just had a major hit album with The River. In fact, Nebraska alienated many people, primarily his record company. Here was an album that sounded as bleak as its cover; and it had no marketing potential. But the material was so potent and so real, that it could carry the effort. To this day, Nebraska is one of the stellar moments of Springsteen’s catalog, influencing many artists.
So what of Springsteen’s portrayals and what do they say about the representation of the American Outlaw persona in American popular art? Art does tend to romanticize life’s subjects to a degree. On Nebraska, the sketches are so pointed and powerful that any attempts at extrapolation seem unnecessary. When he assumes the persona of Charlie Starkweather, the listener almost feels as if they themselves are talking with the young Starkweather just before he walks to the electric chair. Springsteen has woven himself into these situations so well; it is sometimes difficult to tell where he ends and his characters begin. He strove to make these songs personal, so we as his audience could really understand these characters on some level or another. That is the substance of his art on this album, and it could be argued that Nebraska is the most successful album of his in that regard.
The impact of Nebraska is difficult to gauge in the years since its release. It was a critical success, and remains a hallmark of contemporary narrative songwriting of this day. Critics, scholars, and eventually teachers and writers, all lauded the work. However, to a certain extent, the record-buying public was not quite sure what to make of the album. The album was not necessarily innovative; in fact, it was summative. Folklore and family story songs and outlaw songs are commonplace in American vernacular music of all genres. What Springsteen did with Nebraska is strip his own art of all of any overblown consumerism, making a statement that was at once very personal and very populist. The timing of the album also contributed to its critical success. Springsteen by 1982 was an established national recording artist and critical success. With his next album Born In The USA, Springsteen made the leap to cultural icon and cemented his place as a spokesperson for his generation. Nevertheless, right in the middle of this part of his most successful oeuvre, Springsteen chose to release this collection of acoustic songs about murderers, gamblers, small-time criminals, downtrodden farm families, and other misfortunate individuals. The album’s success is straightforward; the narrative is so strong that the listener becomes engaged right away. These stories are often engaging and frightening at the same time.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute an artist can have is to receive recognition by his/her peers. In 2000, Badlands: a Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was released. With cover versions by such disparate artists as Johnny Cash, Ani DiFranco, Chrissy Hynde, and Raul Malo (of The Mavericks), the album is a unique twist on Springsteen’s vision showing how far the album’s influence had spread.
America in the years since Nebraska has seen no decrease in the reality of the American Outlaw. School and workplace violence is on the increase, especially in the past twenty years. Events like the shootings at Columbine High School, and numerous domestic violence events are brought right into our homes every night on television. Nevertheless, due to the exposure and saturation of present-day media, we are in danger of becoming desensitized towards it all. In addition, economic trends are up-and-down every few years. The family farmer is sometimes in trouble with increasingly fickle weather trends and fluctuating crop prices. Conversely, people are now more than ever looking to faith and religion. The American Outlaw is equal parts myth and fact, substantiated by our near-insatiable quest for information and spiritual enlightenment.
In this collection of ten songs, Springsteen tells stories of characters that often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, or walk the line right down the middle. The songs have a folksy quality to them. The simple delivery and song structures leads into narrative tales that are direct and unsparing, much like the subjects they portray.
Perhaps most telling is that Springsteen assumes the dual nature of his characters in these songs, as well as injecting some of his own persona. This gives him a unique perspective on the stories because he is inside of them, telling them to us from the first person. American culture, on some level, seeks to understand the outlaw characters in terms of causation. By putting himself into these scenarios, Springsteen is able to drive home the stories in a real and sometimes frightening way. He does not seek to justify their deeds; instead the listener gets an opportunity to see the thoughts behind the action.
Crime and Punishment, Redemption and Justice are all dualities in the American Outlaw and they are found in abundance in Nebraska. The outlaw character is often (perhaps unwittingly) looking for justice and redemption as if society owes him/her something in return for their situation. Throughout Nebraska, this desolation is felt as much as it is spoken about. These characters live lives of desperation. While it is a dark album in many respects, Nebraska is ultimately a work of hope and longing. By the end of the song cycle, the listener has heard ten stories of characters in desperate need for hope. Springsteen had achieved a work of cinematic depth with just words and music. By bringing a personal touch to the characters in each story; he has brought these tales into our homes as plain as conversations at the kitchen table. These are stories of American lives, perhaps forgotten like an old family picture.
“I always done an honest job; as honest as I could”
—Bruce Springsteen, “Highway Patrolman”
1 Referring Terence Malik’s film Badlands, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen: Songs (New York: Avon, 1998).
2 Springsteen, Songs, 138.
3 Springsteen, Songs, 137.
Ryan Sheeler is an adjunct instructor in the Music Department at Iowa State University, where he co-teaches The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He is also on the faculty at the Iowa School of Rock. He holds the M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Iowa State, where he studied with music with David Stuart, Jeffrey Prater, Michael Golemo, and James Hannon, as well as creative writing with Debra Marquart and Neal Bowers. He is co-author of From Bakersfield to Beale Street: A Regional History of American Rock ‘n’ Roll with David Stuart (Kendall-Hunt, 2006). He is a noted composer, arranger and songwriter who has received awards from ASCAP, The Iowa Motion Picture Association, and The Paramount Group of Nashville Tennessee. His debut solo CD Prayers and Promises was released in late 2006.