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Bruce Springsteen’s Charity Bawl

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While reading the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, I came across an article and two opinion pieces that, each in their way, told a story far different than one rendered in Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.

At first listening, Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”  chugs along with some of the best of the Boss’ rock anthems. But the song’s lyrics convey a deeply cynical despair about our nation’s charitable nature. Springsteen says we in the United States simply don’t do enough to tend to the less fortunate. And, in his Albert Schweitzer meets Florence Nightingale way, he invokes our nation’s predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage.

In “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen lyrically conjures God’s sacrifice of Christ for humankind’s redemption. “I’ve been knocking on the door” – a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – “that holds the throne,” presumably the one occupied by God. “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never  mind that Springsteen inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved with those good intentions.

“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.” In this verse, Springsteen conveniently ignores the churches, faith-based relief agencies, private companies and millions of individuals who opened their hearts and wallets to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Listening deeper into the song, the audience may discern biblical allusions – the cavalry representing the location where God sacrificed his only Son, and the bugle no one hears belonging to Gabriel. In other words, for all of our religious talk in the United States, according to Springsteen, we simply don’t put our money where our mouths are.

Springsteen’s manager told Rolling Stone that his new LP has “social overtones” and a “very pronounced spiritual dimension.” The magazine cited another source who confided that the rocker “gets into economic justice quite a bit.”

But is Springsteen’s “economic justice” based on sound “spiritual” footings?

In the issue of the January 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes: “[T]he Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that ‘Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.’ Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.”

If Springsteen missed the Rabbi’s essay, he might’ve read Warren Kozak’s opinion piece in the Journal, which appeared on the same page. Kozak writes that the “U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs.” Kozak quotes 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal that nearly 50 million U.S. citizens are classified as poor. However, the Census Bureau also finds that 96 percent of poor parents assert that “their children were never hungry” and 83 percent “of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82 percent of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.”

One hopes these statistics, in part, answer Springsteen’s closing questions in “We Take Care of Our Own”: “Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see/Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy/Where’s the love that has not forsaken me/Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free/Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me/Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”

If not, perhaps the following facts may reacquaint Springsteen with the spirit of American giving. Left unmentioned in Kozak’s essay are the results of the 2010 Charities Aid Foundation global survey, which, like many other suveys, singles out the United States as one of the most generous nations in private giving and volunteer activity.  Of the 150,000 citizens from 153 countries surveyed by the Gallup organization, 65 percent of Americans donated money; 43 percent of Americans volunteered their time; and 73 percent of Americans helped a stranger.

Maybe Springsteen doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, or avoids newspaper opinion pieces altogether. Had he read a straight news story in the same issue of the Journal, however, he may have learned something new in an article titled “Charities Ended 2011 on High Note.” Journalist Melanie Grayce West reports that The Salvation Army raised $147.6 million in its Red Kettle campaign – up nearly 4 percent from 2010 and 6 percent from 2009.

Alas, this amount is still $100 million less than Springsteen’s estimated net worth. While the rocker is recognized often for his generous charitable giving – I did that too  in an Acton Institute article in 2004 – it’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our “fair share” by an extremely wealthy American celebrity.

Springsteen is entitled to his opinions and all that, and, further, he is guaranteed the freedom to publish whatever agitprop he wishes — especially if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But “We Take Care of Our Own” just doesn’t pass muster with the information readily available on any given day in any reputable news source.

At some point in the past few decades, Springsteen began patterning his songwriting on the supposed social consciousness of folksingers Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Ochs once recorded an album titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Springsteen would perform a tremendous favor to the better-informed members of his enormous fan base – this writer included – by actually reading a newspaper.

Bruce Edward Walker writes on the arts from Midland, Michigan.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.


  • Rich

    Sorry Bruce does know there are many Charities and he is not as stupid as the writer makes him out to be. The song reminds us that there is more to do. Particularly the line about needing jobs not just hand outs. And where is Gods mercy? That is a great Question because I don’t see it.

    • Bruce Edward Walker

      I never assume anyone’s “stupid” or ignorant, Rich. Neither do I assume any songwriters’ take on any given topic is infallible, unless it’s Bob Dylan: “Don’t follow leaders, and watch the parking meters.”

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  • Improper Bostonian

    Mr. Walker
    could “perform a tremendous favor” to his readers by waiting until he
    has actually heard the album before trashing it and Mr. Springsteen.

    We already
    know from live performances that the title track, “Wrecking Ball”
    centers on the destruction of New Jersey’s Giants stadium. “American
    Land” is about the hope and wonder that our grandparents generation held
    as they dreamed of the promise of America. “Land Of Hope &
    Dreams” shows us Bruce pledging to stand by a friend or lover as they
    board a mythical train to a better tomorrow. Nothing too radical going on there

    premise seems to be that you’re intelligent and well informed and Mr.
    Springsteen is a naive idiot. You have a ridiculously high opinion of yourself.
    Bruce not only reads newspapers, the New York Times in particular, but he has
    penned several well written and well received opinion pieces too. He has
    traveled  the world for the past thirty-five plus years, filling arenas
    and stadiums and selling millions of records along the way. Bruce Springsteen is clearly
    worldly and wise…you, not so much. Try as you may to paint him as a dolt, you only serve to make
    yourself look egotistical and foolish.




    • Bruce Edward Walker

      I didn’t “trash” the album, nor did I trash the song that is the focus of my post. My “premise” isn’t that I’m smarter, less-naive, and not as doltish as Springsteen, only that I disagree with his premise that the U.S. doesn’t take care of its own when it most certainly does. Springsteen may be worldly and wise in your book, but, as far as the one song discussed in this post goes, intellectually dishonest in mine.

  • Rich Irwin

    “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good
    intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never  mind that Springsteen
    inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved
    with those good intentions.

    Had Springsteen intended to discuss the road to hell, he would have written a lyric about it.

    Instead, Bruce chose to change the quote to reference the good qualities (charity and mercy) that many Americans hold dear.

    Good article though.  Nothing like discussing Springsteen and his music (even if the writer clearly doesn’t know much about either) to draw traffic to a “blog.”

    • Bruce Edward Walker

      <— doesn't know much about Springsteen and his music? But, I read Rolling Stone and have read both hagiographies by Dave Marsh! Sorry, I have to stand by my interpretation of Springsteen's lyrics re: road of good intentions. It's sloppy writing because it's inconsistent and inaccurate read/listened to in context with the preceding lyrics.

  • Libertarian Joe

    This commentary on holier-than-thou, mega one percenter Bruce Springsteen shows how the Boss sucks in oh so many ways. Another preachy liberal looking down his nose at the most giving and generous people on earth.

    Bruce, you are an entertainer. Cut out the preaching when you are pulling down millions for a night’s work. The fans just want to have a party. When they want moralizing they will go to Church. When they want intellectual depth, they can read a book.

  • Lucy

    Perhaps Mr Walker could look up ‘cavalry’ a word derived from the French  for soldiers on horseback. After that perhaps Mr Walker could read a bible…Calvary is where the crucifixion of Christ took place. Different words, different meanings. 

    • Bruce Edward Walker

      Ummm…yes, Lucy, which is why I wrote of an allusion, which is a poetic device that leads one in more than one direction beyond immediate definitions. It’s not too far-fetched to credit Springsteen with employing a conceit to carry through on an image that resonates with the preceding lines.

  • john dale dunn

    Bruce Walker exposes Bruce Springsteen, an overwrought “artiste” in french way if there was one.  My goodness, Walker’s biggest problem is he likes Bruce Sprinsgsteen and his tortured blue collar posing too much, like so many who grew up worshiping the boss and his schtick.

    Bruce Walker should just kick the pompous man’s ass, point out he’s been a pampered celeb for so long he can’t remember when he was a tough guy, and remind him of the definition of poseur.  Bruce Springsteen is a poseur, and he displays the usual level of ignorance of the spoiled elites.  He might give to charity, but imagine how arrogant his gifts might be. 

    Good Grief, he has no commonality with the poor or the hard life people–that doesn’t come from sneering and snarling and wearing jeans and claiming some kind of down home thing with the people.  For decades now he’s a star who would pretend he wants egalitarianism and would promote “social justice” as long as he can be what he wants to be, A STAR. 

    Paul Johnson wrote a book about intellectuals and Springsteen could be in a minor ring–all about himself, all about hating the current institutions and traditions, all about Bruce.  The more prominent ring of “intellectuals” that Johnson wrote about were misguided superficial, amoral, arrogant, self centered?  considering he’s so damn anxious to be anti american, how many of those characteristics would describe the BOSS.  Incidentally he’s a guitar player and a songwriter–BOSS of what?  Oh, I forgot he’s really forcefull on stage and very assertive–guess that’s what makes one the BOSS.

    He is Bruce–all hail Bruce–the artiste and intellectual who sings in his monotone driving voice a dirge condemning the best country and people ever in human history– but hasn’t he been doing that for a long time? 

    Isn’t he a singing Noam Chomsky, could he be a self hating American?  Why sure enough,he is.  He is a singing Alec Baldwin or Brad Pitt, or so many other elites who promise and never deliver on leaving the country.

    Let’s have a drum and guitar riff–wonder if Bruce ever composed something beyond the solopsistic story song?  He has his limits, apparently unless it’s about politics and the audience is ripped teenagers and ever young adults. 

    We can be assured his fans will defend his political riffs.

    Of course we can we be assured that his riffs would never achieve the level of cadenzas.  After all a blue collar man of the people never does cadenzas. 

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