Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part III: The Ties That Bind

In the song “Darlington County” (from Born in the USA), a couple of ne’er-do-wells drive south to find a little work and raise a little ruckus:

Hey little girl standing on the corner,
Todays your lucky day for sure, all right.
Me and my buddy we’re from New York City,
we got two hundred dollars, we want to rock all night.

Girl you’re looking at two big spenders,
Why the world don’t know what me and Wayne might do
Our pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers,
For a kiss and a smile I’ll give mine all to you…

At the end of the song, we find out how it went:

Driving out of darlington county
My eyes seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
Driving out of darlington county
Seen Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford

It’s comic trifle – the whole song is, really.  But it hints at a theme conservatives believe as a part of being conservative; that the world has an enduring moral order.  That there is a battle between right and wrong, Yin and Yang, good and evil – and that right and good are better, and should be exalted, or at least striven for.

“Wayne” ran afoul that order – with comic results, unless you’re “Wayne”, I suppose.

But it’s usually a lot deeper than that.

The existance of an enduring moral order is a key tenet of conservatism, notwithstanding that people just plain fall short of it, most of the time.  The battle with, and within, that order is a key theme in all conservative intellectual tradition.  And Springsteen’s discography is full of characters encountering that moral order, and often as not coming up wanting, but in any case wrestling with the consequences.

The Nebraska album is jammed with these stories; the casually-demented Charlie Starkweather character in the title cut:

They declared me unfit to live,
said into that great void my soul be hurled
They ask me why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

Viewed purely on the surface – as many conservative non-fans make the mistake of doing – the line could be read as a nihilistic declaration; “the world’s an ugly place, what does a little spree killing matter?”.

It’s just the opposite, though; the killer in Nebraska” (like the similar character in “Johnny 99”, who kills a night clerk and demands the death penalty rather than 99 years in prison) runs smack into the enduring moral order.

And sometimes moral orders conflict, contradict and confuse.  And given that we have free will, sometimes we make choices that are wrong, or troubling and ambiguous – as “Joe Roberts” in the song “Highway Patrolman”

WELL The night was like any other, I got a call ’bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin’ on the floor lookin’ bad, bleedin’ hard from his head
there was a girl cryin’ at a table,
it was Frank they said

Well I went out and I jumped in my car,
and then I hit the lights.
I must of done 110 through Michigan County that night.
It was out at the crossroads, head down around Willow bank
Seen a Buick with Ohio plates,
behind the wheel was Frank

Well I chased him through those county roads till a sign

aid Canadian border 5 miles from here.
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”

I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would.
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good

Patrollman Roberts just let his brother get away with assault – violating one moral order to uphold a different one.  Is he a better person for it?  The song lets the listener figure it out – and a conservative might well, and rightly, judge the Patrolman harshly…

…but the point is that there is a moral order – one with contradictions (you should take care of  your family!) and contradictions (but not at the cost of violating the law, especially where others are hurt), and choices (Roberts certainly could have lit his brother up and hauled him to jail) that we, as frail, imperfect humans, get wrong (but he didn’t) and consequences, unstated and left as blanks for the listener to fill in…

…pretty much as humans always do when butting heads with an enduring moral order that demands much and gives little in the way of leeway.

Which is, of course, a fundamentally conservative way of looking at the world; the moral order ain’t easy, and most of us fall well short of it, and it’s through examining how we do that we, slowly and painfully, learn.   Maybe.

And you can play all the Barack Obama benefits you want – but that’s a theme that should , and usually does, resonate with conservatives.

Coming up next – Springsteen and the principle of continuity.

10 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part III: The Ties That Bind

  1. Mitch, I think that you might want to add Woody Guthrie to your list of Great Conservative Songwriters, the fact that he claimed membership in the Communist Party notwithstanding.

  2. Feel free to make the case that his music has some resonance with conservatism.

    You know where to find me.

  3. “Wreck of the old ’97”? “Reuben James”? “Ballad of Billy the Kid”? “Blood of the Lamb”? “When the Yanks Go Marching In”?
    Woody wrote the original “Tom Joad”, fer goodness sake.

  4. All fair points.

    It opens up the possibility of a larger “conservatism in popular music/entertainment” topic.

    But one subject a time. I’ll be lucky if I get this whole mess done!

  5. Funny, I always figured the charge in Highway Patrolman would’ve been murder.
    The song, in my view shows not only that there is a moral order, with consequences, but the difficulty in determining which “code” to follow. Clearly, consequences for the bar fight (and the life of trouble for Frankie) will be significant, but the larger question for Patrolman Roberts is, finally: to whom does he owe his loyalty? The State or his brother? He can be judged harshly for his ultimate decision, but should he? Does loyalty to your job or the State mean you turn your brother in on a capital murder charge?

    These dark questions stem not from Joe’s actions, but Frankie’s. It’s the price of loyalty, paid by Joe. Loyalty is worth less when it is difficult, but is it justified?

    Those are the questions I have about the song’s themes: Loyalty and duty, and what do you do when they conflict? Of course a State worshiping lefty wouldn’t even see the conflict.

    And I’ve always seen Darlington County that way. You have fun, but you’ve got to pay the piper in the end. Reminds me of a song: “You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take.”

  6. Pingback: Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part IV: Learn To Live With What You Can’t Rise Above | Shot in the Dark

  7. Pingback: Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VII | Shot in the Dark

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