MY relationship with Bruce Springsteen, the man, his band(s), and his music began thirty years ago. I had purchased the Born to Run album at the Haverhill Music Center and foolishly decided to loan my record to a boy I had a crush on. The album was a coveted item when I was a freshman in high school and the gesture was intended to impress him. My mother had warned me about lending things out to people, especially things of sentimental value. “A borrower nor a lender be,” she would say. Her prognostication that I would lose my first collection of Springsteen’s music was accurate and it was a long time before I was reunited with the album. It was recovered in a wedding trunk when I married that same boy in 1979.
My husband and I have traveled to over sixty shows to see Bruce. We have watched him explode into the world as a musician, performer, poet, activist and songwriter.
Integrating Bruce into the Curriculum
Integrating Bruce into the curriculum seems both natural and logical to me. He is an individual whose music profoundly shaped a generation of Americans, who now have children of their own. These children are my students. Implementing an educational curriculum and synthesizing what will be included, in a world of endless material, is not based on personal taste. There needs to be an evaluation of an artist’s musical accomplishments and their place in the goals of the music curriculum. The idea is to set the benchmarks and standards of what students need to know to acquire musical literacy and appreciation and then hope you have hit your mark. Bruce embodies so many of the ideals of what a comprehensive music program hopes to realize. He exemplifies what it means to use music as a tool to educate, liberate, heal, unify, and clarify.
In the months following 9/11, there were limited outside resources to provide children with the support and clarification they needed to come to grips with what was a confusing and horrifying time. I found myself in a situation where I was instructed by educational administrators to be very cautious when dealing with issues around this subject. We were encouraged to avoid conversations with the younger population whenever possible. Our school, like countless others, became cloaked in sadness, despair, helplessness, and paralysis. Because American Airlines Flight 11 originated in Boston, our community suffered significant personal losses. It was not only the images on television that these children were bombarded with, but the knowledge that some members of the community had lost members of their families.
Then came The Rising. It was the first significant musical contribution that answered the call to make sense of the events of September 11th. I knew as soon as I heard the first song that this body of music had the potential for initial healing and, far more important, it would tell the stories. It became invaluable in helping a fragile population sort out the unimaginable in language that was both poignant and sensitive. The Rising represented what each and every child needed–hope. They longed to be assured that the pervasive air of fear, grief, and profound sadness would in time pass and give way to a rising of unification, renewal of spirit, and light. Bruce gave us that. As a gifted lyricist, he has an uncanny talent for conjuring up powerful metaphors to frame events in history or to simply describe a contentious situation in words of the common man.
In 2005 came the next significant Springsteen curriculum contribution, the Seeger Sessions. The music of Pete and Ruth Seeger helped shape my own musical career and I in turn considered it my professional obligation to introduce this same folk music to my students. I was thrilled when I heard that Bruce would be involved in paying tribute to an individual I consider a national treasure.
When Bruce and his newly appointed band of musicians hit the airwaves at our school, the electricity was akin to that of The Beatles at Heathrow. I am not exaggerating. There was not a single student who failed to be swept up in the excitement of the music and hungry to learn the lyrics. The term folk music, formerly uninteresting, old, and boring, became bold, hip, and most of all, really fun. The biggest draws to the Seeger Sessions album were the participatory nature of the songs, the great refrains, and most importantly, the stories. The kids loved hearing about the heroism of John Henry, the romance of Jesse James’s philanthropy, and the sentimentality of a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Everyone loves a great tale, and if there is any chance that there is a degree of truth to it, it becomes irresistible. Add to that Bruce’s incredible arrangements, profound musicianship, and a bit of American folklore, and you have something kids can get very excited about. And that’s what happened. In the halls, playgrounds, ball fields, and cafeterias, the stories of American characters filled the air. The topper was that when the kids went home to tell their parents about this great new music they had heard, the parents were able to chuckle and say, “Hey, I know that music. That’s my music and now it’s your music.” Isn’t that what it’s all about? The primary thing I learned as a music educator when I introduced my students to the Seeger Sessions was that I could never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.
I am generally not in favor of actors, musicians, and sports figures lecturing me on political issues unless I actually see them doing something to bring about significant change. It is only then that I take notice. Bruce doesn’t just talk about change, he works to bring it about. The message in his music bids one to take responsibility, take pride locally and globally, and most of all, know that we are stronger as a group than we are individually. He does this, not as an exception but as a rule, in his music, his personal life, and through countless work initiatives.
Bruce’s work ethic has inspired me to offer students the same encouragement to work a little harder, care a lot more, and look out for the other guy whenever possible. I am fortunate to hold a position where I am able to take that lesson and pass it on to a new generation of citizens who will very soon have the greatest impact on our future. Bruce’s devotion to chronicling political and social injustice, particularly of the working class, has both endeared him to the American public and provided political retractors with ammunition. He has stood undaunted, caring more about singing about what he believes in and conveying his message, that we are all responsible to take notice of what is going on in our own country, than about musical ratings.
An opportunity to utilize Bruce’s music presented itself during a theater production in which young students were learning about the plight of factory workers in the Northeast. Students were working on a play they had written about a very young labor activist named George McNeill. George was a fourteen-year-old boy who in 1862 organized the now famous Derby Strike at the Amesbury/Salisbury Woolen Mill, a factory in the town where the students lived. The young boy cast as George McNeill had been through a very difficult time recently, and I was very grateful to have him working on something that would take his mind off problems far too lofty for a nine-year-old. He requested a solo in the production, and the song he selected, after hearing several options, was “Factory” from Darkness on the Edge of Town. He felt that the song really captured the plight of the working man and presented a palatable image of the agonizing pain and hopelessness of the factory worker. He liked that Bruce talked about the ability of the factory to both give and take life. It hit him hard, as it did the rest of the audience. It ended up becoming the anthem of the play, and the kids were deeply moved by the riveting images evoked by the lyrics of the song.
As to how parents have responded to my exposing their children to Springsteen’s politics, I would say the response has been positive. I believe when a program is structured in an appropriate manner and children learn material within the context it was intended to be taught, the casualties of misunderstanding are minimized. Having presented learning objectives in that manner has afforded me the luxury and privilege of utilizing the musical genius of Bruce Springsteen with little opposition. I have been able to use Springsteen’s work to provide students with opportunities to think analytically and move outside their comfort zones. They are asked to stretch themselves with regards to their preconceived notions and look and listen with new eyes and ears.
This story was first published in the limited edition book For You, Original Stories and Photographs by Bruce Springsteen’s Legendary Fans, 2007