One of the fundamental tenets of the “classical liberalism” that is the basis of modern conservatism is the idea first recorded by John Locke – that men form governments to protect life, liberty and private property; that private property was in fact a cornerstone of real liberty, and that protecting it against the depredations of government and of other people is a key justification for having a government. To put it in Andrew Sullivan’s words – because it’s his definitions of “classical conservative” that I’m using as the basis for this exercise – “Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked”.
If we have no property rights, then we have no rights.
Now, John Locke isn’t a common theme in the history of rock and roll. And private property has had a mixed history in popular music; it’s been a metaphor for rites of passage (Jan and Dean’s “409”), or the high life (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads” by everyone from Eartha Kitt to Frank Sinatra) and a yardstick for swagger (“Beamer, Benz or Bentley” by gangster-rapper Lloyd Banks), but also for evil (“I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years’ After’s called us to “Tax the rich, feed the poor, ’til there ain’t no rich no more”).
And you can look in vain for references to Locke or Payne or Franklin – in Springsteen’s catalog, and can find plenty on his later albums and his real life as re politics that contradicts them all.
But this series isn’t about proving Springsteen is, personally, a conservative (faith-based blogger Dog Gone’s endless repetitions notwithstanding); it’s about explaining why his music resonates with conservatives.
In Springsteen’s catalog, there are plenty of characters that suffer for lack of any property – choices, good or bad or neutral leaving them on the outside looking in, like the guy in “Darkness on the Edge of Town” noting his former girl “has a house up on Fairview, and a style she’s trying to maintain”.
But as to the value of having private property, and its measure as a symbol of freedom?
There are plenty of little, almost drive-by, examples. The “’69 Chevy” in “Racing In The Streets” – and even moreso “The Challenger”, from the long-unreleased “The Promise” – certainly were private property that symbolized freedom and ones’ hopes and aspirations (and, of course, the difficulty of keeping either; the Chevy drives the singer and his girlfriend apart; having to sell off the Challenger is a key moment in “the Promise” going unfulfilled).
And the young buck in “Badlands” notes that property is a goal, an obstacle and a mirage (“Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied until he rules everything”) and beyond all that a yardstick (“I’m gonna go out tonight, I’m gonna find out what I’ve got”).
Property and freedom are closely linked – and in more than just philosophical or economic terms. Morally, they’re linked, too; both are immense responsibilities; both can be incredible burdens.
For my money? The best song to illustrate this is the one that started this whole series, last November on “The Current’s” pre-election special on songs that symbolize America’s current state; “This Hard Land”.
It’s a land where freedom, and property, are no guarantee…
Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve 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
…but both are still a goal with almost mythological importance:
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
Both are a risk…:
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
…because true freedom means there’s nobody to assure you an “equal outcome”.
And yet it’s something humans instinctively seek – especially when either, freedom or our property, intertwined as they are, are encroached on:
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 were 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.
We’re ridin’ cross that river in the moonlight
Up onto the banks of this hard land
And so we keep trying to find, and secure, both; the property that enables freedom, and the freedom that makes property worth having:
Hey Frank wont ya pack your bags
And meet me tonight down at liberty hall
Just one kiss from you my brother
And well 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
In it’s own way, it’s one of the most conservative songs ever written.