Story of the Song: Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

From The Independent archive: Robert Webb on the Boss’s anthemic protest song

Saturday 12 June 2021 01:41
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<p>Springsteen on stage in 1988 during an Amnesty International concert in Abidjan</p>

Springsteen on stage in 1988 during an Amnesty International concert in Abidjan

Far from being a jingoistic flag-waver, “Born in the USA” addresses the mixed feelings of American soldiers when they returned home from Vietnam in the Seventies. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s “This Land is Your Land”, Woody Guthrie’s 1940 condemnation of US institutions. Like Guthrie, Springsteen’s protagonist is proud to be American, but he’s witnessed his country’s shortcomings. “In order to understand the song’s intent, you need to invest a certain amount of time and effort to absorb both the music and the words,” Springsteen said. “But that's not the way a lot of people use pop music.”

The song’s origins go back to 1981, when the film director Paul Schrader sent Springsteen a script entitled Born in the USA, and asked the Boss to do a soundtrack for his prospective film. It gathered dust on Springsteen’s desk for a year or so, until he glanced at it while writing a new song, tentatively called “Vietnam”: “I looked over and sang off the top of Paul’s cover page,” he recalled. The song took shape as an acoustic number, but was canned when it failed to make Nebraska, Springsteen’s 1982 unplugged collection. Two years later, beefed to the max with the help of his bandanna’d lieutenant Steve van Zandt, and a battalion of East Street musicians, it became the title track of his next album. The synthesiser riff, air-punching chorus and panel-beating drums are mixed as loud as Texas: “Martial, modal and straight ahead,” as Springsteen put it.

“The first guy I played ‘Born in the USA’ for was Bobby Muller, a veteran and then-president of the Vietnam Veterans of America,” said Springsteen. Muller sat down at the console and Bruce nudged at the volume: “Got in a little hometown jam/ so they put a rifle in my hand /sent me off to a foreign land /to go and kill the yellow man.” “He sat there listening for a moment to the first couple of verses,” Springsteen said. “And then a big smile crossed his face.” For years after its release, Springsteen would be bothered by children at Halloween knocking at his door with trick-or-treat bags and singing the song back at him. “They weren’t particularly well versed in the ‘Had a brother at Khe Sahn...’ lyric,” he grumbled.

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