I was raised on the Promised Land, on the slam of the screen door, and the call of Thunder Road. Bruce Springsteen’s musical highway has guided much of my life. As a small child I requested “Humpy Heart” unaware the lyrics were actually “Hungry.” As a teenager I once sat in the car listening to Born in the USA and vowed that I would live here, unaware of course of the true horror of those lyrics. As an adult I drove across America casing the Promised Land.
Much like the American Dream, the beauty of Springsteen’s highway is its flexibility. As scholar Stephen Hazan Arnoff has observed Springsteen’s landscape is geographically inaccurate. More of a metaphor than a real location, the highway becomes real through the lives and stories of Springsteen’s fans. Last year I traveled down that highway to Wembley Arena, London, and got to see “The Boss” in concert. It was the stuff of dreams.
Like Moses’ exodus a Springsteen concert is a pilgrimage to the Promised Land. From Boston, New Jersey, and London, our group of friends and family came together to see the Bard of Asbury Park. Jon Stewart once observed of Springsteen, “he empties the tank.” On stage in London, he emptied that tank, providing four hours of life-affirming, soul wrenching rock and roll heaven. With Thunder Road he rekindled youthful hope in the eyes of middle-aged men. Asking Mary to climb in, he ignited teenage passions in women throughout the arena. Screaming along to “Born To Run” with my boyfriend, my Mum, and Uncle, I felt the euphoric sense of community and possibility that Springsteen’s music celebrates. Arms round each other, jumping up and down, punching the air with every “Oh,” we left our ordinary lives behind, and joined the quest for that runaway American Dream.
Last month Springsteen’s highway took me to a classroom in Boston, when my Mum, the one who raised and schooled me on The Boss, came to my undergrad class on Springsteen and the American Dream. She has never seen me teach before, and flew in especially to see me in action. I have taught this subject for several years now, however, the night before I had serious butterflies. After finding her a seat in the front row, I began my class and the nerves dissipated. Our topic of the week was Springsteen and the Promised Land, and the first class was dedicated to Springsteen’s discussion of the road. Looking at images of Springsteen, we considered how prominently cars and highways feature in his photos and album covers. We discussed Springsteen’s own Jersey upbringing, in which cars were both status symbols and a route out. Listening to Thunder Road we discussed redemption and rebirth, and in The River the class observed that Springsteen’s highway did not need to be literal.
In the front row Mum took copious notes and nodded encouraging agreement. She was the ideal student and I could see her itching to contribute to class discussion. At the end of class once all the students had left, Mum walked up to me with a huge smile and a hug, it was one of my proudest moments. Heading to the North End for celebratory cannoli we talked about the highway, the car, and The Boss in greater detail. We discussed her notes, and the ideas class had sparked, we spoke about my students’ contributions, and their strong analysis of Springsteen’s work. She praised my teaching, my students, my University, and the possibility of the American Dream demonstrated in a classroom of students of varying races, creeds, and backgrounds.
Two days later we returned to the classroom. This time Mum sat in the back as we discussed the Promised Land in terms of US immigration and religion. After watching Bruce speak about immigration in an awards ceremony at Ellis Island, the class analyzed American Land, a raucous jig detailing the hardships of 19th Century immigration. Turning from immigration to religion, we looked at Catholic imagery in Thunder Road, and discussed Springsteen as a religious storyteller. Finally, we considered the idea that Springsteen’s performances could be read as religious gatherings, with Springsteen as priest. I told my students about my experience at Wembley and we watched footage of the show, analyzing the religious elements to his performance. And so my Mum watched as our lives became lecture.
Springsteen once described himself as a “hopeful wanderer,” and through his music he has engendered hope and desire to wander in fans throughout the world. The Rattlesnake Speedway isn’t in Utah, as his song The Promised Land claims, it is in Nebraska, but such inaccuracy doesn’t matter. Thunder Road isn’t literal, but Springsteen’s highway is real. I saw it in Wembley, I saw it through my Mum’s eyes in my classroom, and I travel on it whenever I listen to a Springsteen record.
I doubt Mum ever guessed the little girl singing “Humpy Heart” would one day lecture on it. Having my Mum in class meant more than any graduation or qualification. Watching her beam with pride meant more than any student evaluation or teaching assessment. If the American Dream and the promise of the open road are about generational progress and the possibility to dream big, then in my classroom we both reached the Promised Land.