Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics describe an America big enough for immigrants and immigration, decent enough to remember that those who come here are driven by their desperate faith in the American Dream, and hopeful enough to acknowledge that though this country can at times be a very hard land, American joy, goodness, generosity, and heroism are real.
Why shouldn’t we condemn and fear illegal aliens? Two reasons, says the boss: they are just so American, and nativist rhetoric is not.
Ghost of Tom Joad: Springsteen’s early ’90s album describes the illegal immigrant as a “ghost of Tom Joad.”
Tom Joad is the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath, an “Okie” driven from his home by the Dust Bowl toward the dream of California. Because he is on parole when he leaves Oklahoma, he is an illegal migrant. The CD is a reflection on Springsteen’s belief that today’s immigrants are no different from the Okies–desperate, driven, unwanted, but unbroken. Indeed the title track suggests that the real ghost of Tom Joad is the human spirit in all of us that keeps pushing, struggling, straining, and refusing to give up, no matter the odds. How American.
Joad’s ghost becomes Hispanic in a number of songs on the CD. Most notably, In “Across the Border,” a young man dreams of life in America, where he can “leave behind my dear pain and sadness we’ve found here.” America is the land of milk and honey, steady work and happy families.
Springsteen answers the question of why a person might want to come to a place where he’s not wanted, why dream, why not just stay put, obey the law if the law says no you can’t come, and make the best of things:
For what are we without hope in our hearts?
that someday we’ll drink from blessed waters
and eat the fruit from the vine,
I know love and fortune will be mine,
there across the border.
The thing that makes one human is the will to not give up. That same will drove our ancestors across the oceans and then across a continent, and it drives those who come here now.
In “Metamorous Banks” Springsteen takes the same young man to the Rio Grande but kills him there. He tries to cross but doesn’t make it. His last thoughts are of his wife or lover waiting on the other side. Again, one thing is on the mind of the immigrant: the dream of a better life for him and those he loves, and this dream is one worth dying for. How American.
In his recent “American Land” Springsteen begins by asking: “What is this land America so many travel there?” So much rides, so many fates hang, he insists, on the answer to this question.
Is being American most essentially about being born in the right place? Having the right papers? In this song the answer is emphatic hyperbole: narrow, exclusive, small-hearted, defensive America doesn’t stand a chance. America is a place bigger than life, a land of hope and dreams that the outsider yearns for with wonder:
There’s diamonds on the sidewalk,
there’s gutter lined in song!
Dear I hear the 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!
The America of the immigrant’s dream is a place so big that nativism seems unimaginable. America is a dream itself, beckoning and binding unlikely brothers like “the blacks, the Irish, Italians, Germans and the Jews” by their faith in its promise. Springsteen reminds us of reality: “they died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re dying now, the hands that build this country we’re always trying to keep out.” But hard reality is drowned out by the dream in the chorus, rather than the reverse.
Springsteen is currently closing his concerts with “American Land.” If you want your favorite, your own American anthem, he seems to tell the audience, you’re gonna have to dance to this one too. Like the country of which it sings, the song is big and grand, awesome in its power. It is a song of faith, fierce in the hope that ultimately the America of our dreams, the ideal America, the beacon America, the fearless America, provides us with a vision with which we can and shall overcome the angry and fearful country we can sometimes be.
Sean McKenzie, who teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga., recently attended his 10th Springsteen concert in St. Paul, Minn. He will go to his 11th when Springsteen plays Atlanta in April.