Friday, October 28, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, "Youngstown"

I am currently reading and greatly enjoying Bruce Springsteen's memoir. This has prompted me to do a deep dive into his back catalog, especially albums that I have neglected as of late. One of those records is The Ghost of Tom Joad, a mostly acoustic, political album in the vein of his more famous Nebraska. Ghost came out in 1995, years after the Reagan ascendance that the earlier album decried, but in a nation still marked by its inequities.

Like on Nebraska, Springsteen tells stories from the point of view of the marginalized. There are multiple songs sung from the perspective of undocumented immigrants, and one narrated by a former convict. Of all the songs, "Youngstown" sticks with me the most. The Boss's hometown of Freehold is in the Central Jersey mini-Rust Belt, and while this song references Youngstown specifically, it is a lament for the Rust Belt as a whole. At one point Springsteen speaks of a vast land, from the Monoghahela River to the Masabi Iron Range to Appalachian coal mines, that's facing extinction. He defines the Rust Belt as a nation within a nation, once glorious and now dying.

The tone is ominous, set by a scratchy fiddle, dark synthesizers like black clouds on the horizon, and a steel guitar like the wind blowing through a broken windowpane. Those instruments come in after the first verse, descending like the vultures of deindustrialization. Springsteen talks of the fiery furnaces of Youngstown's steel mills making the cannon balls that won the Civil War, and the steel that built the nation up after. But later its working class boys were sent off to die in Korea and Vietnam, and now the town lies in ruins, forgotten. In the words of the song, "Once I made you rich enough/ rich enough to forget my name."

This election year we've been hearing a lot about Youngstown, as it fits the vision of America that Donald Trump wants to exploit: jobless and resentful. It's a much more complicated place than that, obviously. Before the orange grifter showed up, the Rust Belt had been hurting hard for four decades. Trump's just another rich asshole hoping to rob the people there blind once more. I hope come November they listen to Springsteen, a true son of the Rust Belt, not a phony billionaire.

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