After the collective soul-search that we the people just lived through, it’s time for a victory dance, and I hereby nominate “American Land,” the decidedly bipartisan, Irish fiddle-fueled, high-point “bonus track” on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s uplifting and important “Wrecking Ball” as the national jig of the moment and beyond.
I can’t help but think that Joe Strummer would’ve loved singing this paean to working and dreaming during his stint with the Pogues. And Sunday and Monday in St. Paul when Max Weinberg’s thundering ceili-worthy bodhran beat kicks up and the guitars, fiddle, and tin whistle come in and Springsteen starts growling his immigrant song for the ages, I predict the Xcel Energy Center comes off its hinges a bit, sends a shudder through the jerseys of the striking NHL teams hanging in the rafters, and helps heal the hangover left over from the most divisive political season of our lives.
Inspired by “He Lies In the American Land,” a poem by immigrant steelworker Andrew Kovaly and set to music by Pete Seeger, “American Land” was originally recorded acoustically and included on Springsteen’s 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” The band version is almost an afterthought on “Wrecking Ball,” but its magnificence is surely meant to be experienced live, standing shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart with would-be strangers looking for a little melting-pot communion.
The McNicholas, the Posalskis, the Smiths, Zerillis too
The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
[In concert, Springsteen has ad-libbed “Arabs and Asians” and most every other nationality this side of the “Star Wars” bar.]
They come across the water a thousand miles from home
With nothing in their bellies but the fire down below
They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re still dying now
Their hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.
On many tour stops this year, “American Land” has been the last song of the night, but Springsteen hasn’t played it since the election. People, get ready: The St. Paul shows are the first post-election concerts by Springsteen (and the first area appearances since the death of E Street Band saxophonist and spiritual guru Clarence Clemons) who in recent weeks stumped for President Obama, performed at Hurricane Sandy relief benefits, and built bridges between strange political bedfellows.
Empathy is often at the core of great music, and it was certainly at the heart of the Democratic landslide, which is why Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” became the unofficial Obama campaign anthem, and its writer credited by many with winning the election. But somehow Springsteen is still a desperado at heart, with more in common with teenage garage bands than middle-aged political advisers, and “American Land” soars and inspires beyond all conventional wisdom or jingoism. It’s a blast, in other words, and strikes the same nerve as Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Five years ago at the X, George Bush was president, the GOP was practicing a privileged version of patriotism, and then Springsteen encored with “American Land.” It left my legs weak, my soul giddy, and my spirit, yes, hopeful. I wrote as much for the long-lost local online magazine Reveille (sorry, links have expired), and a few weeks later, I had my Chris Christie moment when I received a card in a FedEx envelope with a New Jersey return address that read:
“Someone passed on to me your piece on our show. They don’t write ’em like that anymore! Every night we step on stage we aspire to tear loose those feelings of strength and connection and joy. We hope to leave our audience a little stronger, happier, and wised-up. Besides untold riches and glory, it’s the only real reason for continuing on. But it’s a good one.
It is a good one, and hell if it doesn’t work. In these times of “recovery” and seemingly never-ending national existential angst, Springsteen’s never-say-die commitment to rock ’n’ roll above all else is nothing short of transformative. And come Tuesday morning, long after the strains of “American Land” have faded, its power to leave the melting pot “stronger, happier, and wised-up” is sure to rave on for generations to come. Everybody, now:
There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song
Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard-working man
Who’ll make his home in the American land
Who’ll make his home in the American land
Who’ll make his home in the American land.