Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part IV: Learn To Live With What You Can’t Rise Above

It’s a little-noticed verse of a song buried in Bruce Springsteen’s biggest studio album:

Now, honey, I don’t wanna clip your wings
But a time comes when two people should think of these things
Having a home and a family,
facing up to their responsibilities

They say in the end true love prevails
But in the end true love can’t be no fairytale
To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong
But maybe, darlin’, I could help them along

It’s from “I Wanna Marry You”, from The River.  It’s a nice, simple, romantic little trifle.  Given Springsteen’s personal life over the past 25 years, it’d be easy to call it “ironic”…

…but again, the series isn’t about any artist’s personal life, or personal beliefs.  It’s about the resonances his audience finds in the music.

The next tenet of conservatism we’re covering is that conservatives adhere to custom, convention, and continuity (provided ones customs and conventions continue things that are worth continuing – which we’ll get to later on in the series).

And shelve the past twenty-five years of history – because this is about as customary, conventional and continuous as one gets:

Little girl, I wanna marry you
Oh yeah, little girl, I wanna marry you
Yes I do, little girl, I wanna mary you.

My daddy said right before he died
that true, true love was just a lie.
He went to his grave a broken heart
An unfulfilled life, darlin’, makes a man hard

No apple-carts upset here, right?

Of course, there’s a lot more to custom and tradition than that.

Adhering to custom and convention doesn’t mean not examining them, or – as humans do – wondering about, challenging and falling short of them.   It’s through examining and challenging ones beliefs, customs and traditions that one validates them.  It’s something every thoughtful conservative has done, and done to exhaustion – because conservatism is not an easy path…

…either in life, or in the customs that Springsteen, in his best music, examined.

The customs and traditions we’re raised in can feel, when unexamined, like a straitjacket.  Pop music for the past fifty years or so has been pretty adept at telling the listener “Hey!  Look! Tradition is a straitjacket!”.

As has Springsteen; leaving aside the caustic anti-Catholicism of some of his earlier music, the idea that custom and tradition, or at least mindless repetition, can be lethal to the spirit occurs all over the place, as in Darkness On The Edge Of Town’s “Factory”:

Early in the morning, factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed, and puts on his clothes.
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
it’s the working, the working, the working life.

Through the mansions of fear,

and the mansions of pain,
see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain.
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life.
It’s the working, the working, the working life.

Bleak?  Sure – but it’s the sound of people taking care of the essentials.  Reinforcing the moral order.  Dad putting himself behind the need to take care of the family.

In “Tunnel of Love” – the title cut from one of Springsteen’s most underrated albums – the narrator writes:

It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And youve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise
bove if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love

The narrator was Springsteen himself, in the most autobiographical album he wrote until The Rising – and custom, in this case the custom and convention of marriage, is hard.  One does need to bend, lest they break – for something that is supposed to be bigger than you are.

Another song where the narrator – this time a fictional one – confronts custom and tradition – is the title cut for “The River”.

The song oozes “custom and convention” from the first lines:

I come from down in the valley where mister when you’re young,
they bring you up to do like your daddy done.
Me and Mary, we met in high school when she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of that valley, down to where the fields were green.

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

And then custom and convention got serious:

Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote.
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We went down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest.
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle,
No flowers no wedding dress.

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
oh, down to the river we did ride…

It’s one of the unifying “customs and conventions” through all of human history; you take care of the baby first.

It’s not about you anymore.  While one may rail against the custom and the convention, in the big picture it’s about something much bigger than you:

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy.
Now all them things that seemed so important,
Well mister they vanished right into the air,
Now I just act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care.
But I remember us riding in my brothers car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse

that sends me down to the river though I know the river is dry
Down to the river, my baby and I,
Oh down to the river we ride

Custom and convention, like the enduring moral order that conservatives believe in, are hard and unyielding.  They are not about you; they are about a much greater good; taking care of your significant other, your kids, the next generation, society as a whole.

Barack Obama mocked this idea in his “bitter gun-clinging Jebus freaks” jape – the idea that there is comfort to be taken and nobility to be found in adhering to tradition, and to acknowledging and upholding an enduring moral order – which is why, four years later, among all of the President’s Obamateurisms, that may be the the one that still rankles conservatives the most.  It embodies the left’s conceit, that customs and enduring orders are tokens for the simple-minded, to be chanted mindlessly.  To the thoughtful cultural conservative, they are deeply complex challenges.

And sometimes we fail.  Our personal lives rarely match our ideals or principles.  Some traditions go wrong; some marriages fail; some families turn toxic.  People are imperfect.  Conservatives see this as an inevitable part of the human condition; you fail, or you compromise, or you just learn to live with what you can’t rise above.

The fact that Springsteen’s best music is so full of people running into, living under, railing against, and living with these customs, traditions and conventions is one of the reasons the music resonates with us.


Of course, if you’re a conservative, you believe there are some things so self-evident and time-tested you don’t just “rise above” them.  We’ll come to those next time.

6 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part IV: Learn To Live With What You Can’t Rise Above

  1. While cheering Springsteen as America’s formost conservative songwriter is a worthy cause, any chance conservative also-ran Rep.Mary Franson would get an atta girl today for her recount victory?

    I can almost hear the banging of heads on desks at the UpTake!

  2. I’ve long considered The River (my first Springsteen album) to be a brilliant conservative record. Mostly, the album reflects growing up and making a commitment to something larger than yourself, in most cases here, to family. In the title track, the protagonist holds on to his memories of when life was good and simple, but stays with his wife and child, his unfulfilled dreams notwithstanding. He understands that his actions had consequences, and is paying them for a good greater than the pleasure of hanging out down at the river. (Incidentally, this is what the marriage debate is – or should be – about. Marriage was about more than the personal fulfillment of the people involved, it’s about establishing an important order in society. ((for the millionth time, I don’t believe that precludes gay marriage). He could find ways to be happier, but not more important. this is further reflected in the wonderful “Price You Pay,” a lament about consequences, but without self pitying and an unusual rock song allusion to Moses.

    Other songs, “Jackson Cage, I’m a Rocker, Ties that Bind, and Sherry Darling (I had a girlfriend named Sherry back then, fortunately without the accompanying mother). Staying in the same situations, promising to do his best (or her best), always hoping for something better, never sure it will come, and certainly never feeling entitled to a better life – just hoping, always hoping.

    And sometimes we fail. Our personal lives rarely match our ideals or principles. Some traditions go wrong; some marriages fail; some families turn toxic. People are imperfect.

    Hence “Independence Day.” Moving on past childhood dreams of white picket fences. After confronting the established authority, he determines his own way, and is willing to do what is necessary, despite obvious disagreement from his father. No requests for a lifetime of support, not leaving to go on an extended adolescence. Just going to work and moving on with life, on his own, but knowing it won’t be easy.

    And Cadillac Ranch, because fuck it, everyone needs a cool car at some point in their life. That comes from no less a luminary than Edmund Burke.

  3. And Cadillac Ranch, because fuck it, everyone needs a cool car at some point in their life. That comes from no less a luminary than Edmund Burke

    I gotta use that. Thanks!

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