I got an email from MPR the other day. It was actually a combo email from MPR News and “The Current” asking what song we thought best summed up the state of the nation during this election season.
I wrote back with my suggestion – a song that has layer upon layer of significance to our nation, our society, our zeitgeist and the election itself. A song that’s all about dreaming a big dream, and having those dreams run up on the rocks, and hitting that moment where you have to think “was that a dream or was it a mirage?”. A song about that moment when you have to decide – do I drown, or do I sack up and carry on?
A song about truth and consequences. A song that, on a work week after a long trip across the prairie, reminds me of the huge swathe in the middle of this country, the square states full of bitter gun-clinging jebus freaks like me that are, in fact, my home and background and blood and my past. And that is, with a blessing and a tailwind, may be our nation’s future.
The song is “This Hard Land” by Bruce Springsteen.
It’s a song he wrote during a John Steinbeck jag, for Born in the USA, and that should have been on the album (be honest – would anyone miss “Downbound Train?”) and was in its day one of the most sought-after bootlegs in Springsteen’s oeuvre.
So many layers to this song, and to the reasons I chose it.
Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds Ive sown
Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown
They’ve just blown around from town to town
Till they’re back out on these fields
Where they fall from my hand
Back into the dirt of this hard land
Thomas Hobbes, the 18th-century British intellectual who was one of the patron saints of conservatism as we understand it today, couldn’t have expressed better the fundamental conservative ideal that “life’s a bitch”, that there are forces that are bigger and more powerful than men and their dreams.
But well return to that.
Now me and my sister from germantown
We did ride
We made our bed sir from the rock on the mountainside
We been blowin around from town to town
Lookin for a place to stand
Where the sun burst through the cloud
To fall like a circle
Like a circle of fire down on this hard land
America is a land of myths. Mostly big and glorious ones – like the ones that drew our forefathers, like the singer and his sister, from their old homes, the Germantowns and Norwayvilles and Saigon Centers, to This Hard Land. Much of what America sees as its own self-image – whether the wilderness of the Badlands or the wilderness of the tradiing floor or the inventors garage or the moon or the neighborhood or the entrenched beliefs of the human heart – is about the epic American dream of going where your ancestors have never gone before, of being something they weren’t.
And over the past seventy years, it’s become about the marketing of those dreams, whether via John Wayne or “Hope and Change”.
But like all dreams – and their cousins, the myth and the chimera – they run afoul a brutal reality:
Now even the rain it don’t come round
It don’t come round here no more
And the only sound at nights the wind
Slammin the back porch door
It just stirs you up like it wants to blow you down
Twistin and churnin up the sand
Leavin all them scarecrows lyin face down
Face down in the dirt of this hard land
The prairie is dotted with the remains of old farm homes from families that just didn’t make it, flindered remains of their back doors still slamming in the wind. Just as America is dotted with businesses that tried and failed, leaving behind empty buildings, rusty frames, doors drifting back and forth in the desultory breeze. And yes, the wreckage of government initiatives like the one that’s dominated our political life this past presidential term, a dream – a chimera from a brief majority four years ago – of an undertaking that, despite the fervency of its dreamers’ beliefs, has failed as completely as the sodbuster in the song. Whether through poor design, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being fundamentally wrong or – like the singer and his sister – just from suffering a bad run of luck in the face of a merciless and uncaring Nature, all of human existence is a tough grind dominated by forces we don’t, by ourselves, control.
Being human, we attempt to control them anyway – to bring order to the chaos, and to tame the untameable:
From a building up on the hill
I can hear a tape deck blastin’ ”Home on the Range”
I can see them Bar-M choppers
Sweepin’ low across the plains
Its me and you, Frank, we’re lookin for lost cattle
Our hooves twistin and churnin up the sand
Were ridin in the whirlwind searchin for lost treasure
Way down south of the Rio Grande
Were ridin cross that river
In the moonlight
Up onto the banks of this hard land
It’s human nature to try to bottle up and contain Nature, whether the nature around us or the nature inside us.
And it’s one of the great dividing lines in human nature, the one between those who are content for their “home on the range” to come recorded, to have the almighty Bar-M or The Almighty or The One out looking for the strays, for those who are just fine being “Julia“…
…and those whose dreams, or mirages, embrace the chaos that ensues where life and Nature, natural and human, are in conflict.
And the last verse is for them:
Hey frank wont ya pack your bags
And meet me tonight down at liberty hall
Just one kiss from you my brother
And we’ll ride until we fall
Well sleep in the fields
Well sleep by the rivers and in the morning
Well make a plan
Well if you can’t make it
Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive
If you can
And meet me in a dream of this hard land
Whether it’s the pioneer seeking more elbow room from all the other settlers and their choppers and tape decks, or from bouncing back from a failure, or a big part of a nation taking a deep breath and saying “this is not the path we want”, or, I dunno, Atlas shrugging for all I know, this verse – with allusions to Okies loading up their trucks and bidding their relatives goodbye, or immigrants climbing on the boat and wishing their old lives auf wiedersehen, or men kissing their wives and kids and mustering down at Liberty Hall as the drums and the hobnails rattle on the wind, or a people saying “thanks, Julia, and all the best to you and that mysterious niece and/or nephew that appeared a few frames back, but I’m looking for something a little more…epically mythical” - is the American myth; the idea that we are a restless pack of strivers looking for a newer, better, freer horizon.
Beyond that, in terms of politics today? Every generation dreams of leaving a better world to their kids, as I do for my kids and my new granddaughter. We have a distinct chance, as things go, of leaving them a world that my ancestors in the Dust Bowl would look at and whisper “there but for the grace of God…”. And unlike the the Okies, our immigrant forefathers and protagonist in “This Hard Land”, this time there’s noplace to ride away to to start over. We’re stuck with this hard land.
More on this after the election.
Anyway – ask a question, you’ll get an answer. Usually.
UPDATE: Hobbes, not Hume. Sigh. It’s been a few years.
UPDATE 2: Welcome, Bob Collins’ readers!
(PS: Wanna argue music and music criticism? Be my guest. I’m not in the mood to defend my taste in music, and so I won’t. Fair warning).