January 20, 2021: From Amanda Gorman to Bruce Springsteen

In his weekly column at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tony Norman reflects on Biden’s inauguration day. Here is a taste:

Much has been made of the final lines of Ms. Gorman’s poem delivered with what we pray isn’t a futile hope given how polarized we are: “The new dawn blooms as we free it./ For there is always light,/ if only we’re brave enough to see it./ If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

It was a stunning five-minute performance. You could almost hear the applause coming from every other house up and down our American streets. It was the proof we needed that there was no longer the automatic expectation of drooling idiocy at a political event and that room has once again been made for the presence of grace and beauty.

Not every speech or segment delivered on Wednesday was as impactful, but Ms. Gorman did establish a bar that many will seek to surpass at future inaugurations, if only as a point of professional pride. Her speech, like Mr. Biden’s, was the opposite in tone of the infamous “American Carnage” inaugural address. Both served as welcome antidotes to the overwhelming stupidity and vulgarity of political discourse in the age of Trump.

By the time Bruce Springsteen stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a solo acoustic performance later that evening, I was already convinced that our culture was emerging from the toxic winter fine and dandy.

Mr. Springsteen broke into a fierce, but abbreviated rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams” that leaned heavily on its Woody Guthrie influences and Gospel images to express American optimism in the face of the task at hand: “I will provide for you/ And I’ll stand by your side/ You’ll need a good companion/ For this part of the ride/ Leave behind your sorrows/ Let this day be the last/ Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ and all this darkness past.”

But it is the chorus, sung through clenched teeth that never fails to break my heart because of the way it captures our uniquely American contradictions: “Big wheels roll through fields/ Where sunlight streams/ Meet me in the land of hope and dreams/ This train carries saints and sinners/ This train carries losers and winners/ This train carries whores and gamblers/ This train carries lost souls/ I said, this train dreams will not be thwarted/ This train faith will be rewarded/ This train hear the steel wheels singin’/ This train bells of freedom ringin.’”

Read the entire piece here.

Bruce Springsteen will perform at an inauguration event on the evening of January 20

Obama loved Springsteen. So, apparently, does Joe Biden. On November 7, 2020, Biden came jogging out into the Wilmington, Delaware night to the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.” The New York Times is reporting that Springsteen will perform on January 20 at a televised event called “Celebrating America.” A taste:

Bruce Springsteen, John Legend and Foo Fighters will perform during the prime-time special that will cap the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the actors Eva Longoria and Kerry Washington will also have roles to play in the program, the Presidential Inaugural Committee said on Friday.

The announcement added yet more stars to “Celebrating America,” an event scheduled for the evening of Jan. 20. This week, Mr. Biden’s inaugural committee unveiled plans for the program, saying the actor Tom Hanks would host while artists like Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi and Demi Lovato would perform.

Officials have said that the 90-minute event will also include remarks from Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Biden’s speech tonight

This morning Joe Biden became the president-elect. Tonight he celebrated. Kamala Harris spoke first and then introduced Biden.

I live-tweeted:

Harris began with John Lewis. Who is John Lewis? Get up to speed with these posts.

Harris gave a shoutout to the real heroes of this election. Democracy survived this week because of the work of these women and men:

Kamala Harris was wearing a white pantsuit, presumably to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Here is historian Chris Gehrz:

Kamala Harris is the first woman VP in American history. I am the father of two daughters:

There was a pro-family vibe tonight that I have not seen since Obama:

Biden came out looking fit and ready to go. And yes, Springsteen was involved!

I wrote a piece about this Springsteen song back in 2012:

A great day for educators, especially those of us who study and teach in the humanities. Jill Biden is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. She plans to continue teaching during Joe’s presidency. One of our own is in the White House!

There was a lot of historical references–direct and indirect–in tonight’s Biden speech:

And some American civil religion:

Biden wants to bring the country together. He will have his work cut out for him:

In addition to Ecclesiastes, Biden referenced this popular Christian song:

And yes, this was sung at my wedding in 1994.

Evangelicals liked this song too, Kevin! 🙂 It was a fixture of the evangelical “praise song” movement:

It was a good day for the United States of America

Song of the Day

“We Take Care of Our Own”:

Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about this song at my old Patheos column:

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”

Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.

But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.

At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.

Springsteen asks:

“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?

“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”

“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?

“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”

Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.

Donald Trump is a rainmaker

From Springsteen’s album, Letter to You:

Rainmaker: “person who produces or attempts to produce rain by artificial means.”

The Rainmaker (1954 play): “Set in a drought-ridden rural town in the West in Depression-era America, the play tells the story of a pivotal hot summer day in the life of spinsterish Lizzie Curry. Lizzie keeps house for her father and two brothers on the family cattle ranch. She has just returned from a trip to visit pseudo-cousins (all male), which was undertaken with the failed expectation that she would find a husband. As their farm languishes under the devastating drought, Lizzie’s family worries about her marriage prospects more than about their dying cattle. A charming confidence trickster named Starbuck arrives and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. His arrival sets off a series of events that enable Lizzie to see herself in a new light.”

Here are the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Rainmaker”:

Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun
We’ve been praying but no good comes
The dog’s howling, home’s stripped bare
We’ve been worried but now we’re scared

People come for comfort or just to come
Taste the dark sticky potion or hear the drums
Hands raised to Yahweh to bring the rain down
He comes crawling ‘cross the dry fields like a dark shroud

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white
Says night’s day and day’s night
Says close your eyes and go to sleep now
I’m in a burning field unloading buckshot into low clouds

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Slow moving wagon drawing through a dry town
Painted rainbow, crescent moon and dark clouds
Brother patriot come forth and lay it down
Your blood brother for king and crown
For your rainmaker

They come for the smile, the firm handshake
They come for the raw chance of a fair shake
Some come to make damn sure, my friend
This mean season’s got nothing to do with them

They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain
Of another long hot day of no rain
‘Cause they don’t care or understand
What it really takes for the sky to open up the land

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker

The takeaway:

  1. Ordinary Americans were hurting economically. They were “scared.”
  2. Trump came along as a figurative rainmaker. He would save them. He promised “comfort” with his “dark sticky potions.” He said that he came in the name of “Yahweh” as he crawled “across the dry fields like a dark shroud.” The evangelicals believed in him. He was God’s anointed one.
  3. People flocked to the rainmaker. They believed he was the answer to their prayers. He made promises to those who needed “to believe in something so bad.”
  4. The rainmaker is a liar. He says “white’s black and black’s white.” He says “night’s day and day’s night.” Trump tells them not to believe in what they can see. He tells them to distrust science and facts.
  5. The rainmaker is a reality television star. People come to see him smile, to shake his hand, to have their sense of victimhood affirmed. But in the end they don’t understand “what it really takes for the sky to open up the land.”

UPDATE: I failed to mention that Springsteen actually wrote this song a few years before Trump became president.

David Brooks on Springsteen’s *Letter to You*

Here is a taste of Brooks’s piece at The Atlantic:

It’s the happiest Springsteen album maybe in decades. “When I listen to it, there’s more joy than dread,” Springsteen told me. “Dread is an emotion that all of us have become very familiar with. The record is a little bit of an antidote to that.” The album generates the feeling you get when you meet a certain sort of older person—one who knows the story of her life, who sees herself whole, and who now approaches the world with an earned emotional security and gratitude.

And this:

Even in his 70s, Springsteen still has drive. What drives him no longer feels like ambition, he said, that craving for success, recognition, and making your place in the world. It feels more elemental, like the drive for water, food, or sex. He talks about this in the movie: “After all this time, I still feel the burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks alongside of me throughout the day … Over the past 50 years, it has never ceased. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know, it is one of the most consistent impulses of my life.”

Read the entire piece here.

Springsteen’s “House of 1000 Guitars”

Letter to You is here. My favorite song so far is “House of 1000 Guitars”:

I am sure people will interpret this song in different ways, but my interpretation starts with Springsteen himself. Here is a taste of Brian Hiatt’s recent Rolling Stone piece:

The album’s only actual reference to current events is in one line, a glancing reference to a “criminal clown” who “has stolen the throne” in a song that otherwise transcends politics, the sweeping anthem “House of a Thousand Guitars,” in which [Roy] Bittan’s E Street-redux piano looms large. That song, which paints a beguiling picture of a rock & roll heaven on Earth, a place “where the music never ends” and fellowship reigns, a destination not far from his “Land of Hope and Dreams,” is important enough to Springsteen that he dashes into the house and grabs his MacBook so he can listen to it again before we discuss it.

Once he’s back at the table, he plays the song over the computer speakers, eyes shut, head nodding to [drummer Max] Weinberg’s beat. “It’s about this entire spiritual world that I wanted to build for myself,” he says, “and give to my audience and experience with my band. It’s like that gospel song ‘I’m Working on a Building.’ That’s the building we’ve been working on all these years. It also speaks somewhat to the spiritual life of the nation. It may be one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It draws on everything I’ve been trying to do for the past 50 years.”

I disagree with Hiatt. This song doesn’t “transcend” politics. It’s all about politics. It is about a politics of hope. It is about citizenship in an alternative political community that speaks power to the “criminal clown” who “has stolen the throne.” This prophetic community is defined by friendship and fellowship and beauty and art and the search for meaning and the things that bind us together.

Springsteen is telling us not to worry–“it’s alright yeah it’s alright.” He urges us to keep announcing this community of hope from the small town bars and the large stadiums, or wherever you have a platform and voice.

Right now we “tally” our “wounds and scars,” but we belong to a place “where the music never ends.” There is a “now” but “not yet” quality to the song, not unlike the way Christians understand the Kingdom of God.

The song goes very well with “If I Were a Priest,” a song that chronicles Springsteen’s call to forge such a community among his followers.

Tonight’s debate

Some thoughts on the final debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

On the format:

The mute button definitely worked. Kristen Welker did a solid job as moderator. Trump was under control. He started-out very mellow:

Symbolic gestures are important, especially in a pandemic:

This continues to be the essence of Trump’s approach to the coronavirus:

I have no idea what Trump meant when he criticized Biden for “selling pillows and sheets”:

Trump focused on Hunter Biden’s laptop, Burisma, and Biden’s houses (he owns two). No one cares unless you watch Fox News:

Seth Cotlar gets it right:

When Trump attacked Biden’s family, Biden did not get into the mud. (There is a lot of material about the Trump family he could have used). Instead, he appealed to American families:

When Biden talked about American families and their “dinner table” concerns, Trump accused him of being a “typical politician.”:

Trump kept pushing lies about Biden’s positions on health care and fracking:

In one the better moments of the debate, Biden said that Trump was confused about the identity of his opponent in this election, especially as it relates to health care. Biden does not support socialized medicine. He actually won the Democratic primary against the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who do favor socialized medicine. He reminded the viewers who Trump was running against:

The moderator, Kristen Welker, asked Trump about how his administration manage to lose the parents of 545 immigrant children. Trump claimed that they these children were brought to the country not by their parents, but by “coyotes.” Biden pushed back hard, saying that these children came to the United States with their parents and they were separated. Trump’s failed to exercise any degree of empathy for these children. It was painful to watch.

As a side note, I had interesting exchange on Twitter on this issue with court evangelical and GOP operative Ralph Reed:

I am not holding my breath about Reed’s decision to revisit this issue 10 days before an election.

Welker asked Biden and Trump about “the talk” African-American parents give their children about the dangers they will face in a racist society. Bruce Springsteen summarized this well in his song “American Skin”:

Here is the lyric:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

Biden responded to this question with a clear statement about systemic racism, lamenting that such a “talk” is necessary in the United States of America. Trump never answered the question. Instead he said this:

Trump claimed he was the “least racist” person in the room. Then he backpedaled a bit, saying he couldn’t be entirely sure that he was the “least racist” person in the room because the lights were too bright and he was unable to see everyone.

Trump then went after Biden for his role in drafting the 1994 Crime Bill. This bill was controversial because it increased incarceration in an attempt to stop crime. It led to more prison sentences and aggressive policing that hurt people of color who are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated.

Biden has said that his support of the 1994 bill was a mistake and he regrets it. He said the same thing last night. But what confuses me is why Trump always criticizes him on this front. Wouldn’t a “law and order” president like Trump who does not believe in systemic racism be in favor of such a bill? After Trump’s response to racial unrest this summer, one might think he would have been chomping at the bit to support such a bill. Biden lost a chance to point this out.

New York Times columnist David Brooks weighed-in on the debate:

Biden said that he wanted to phase out the oil industry because it is bad for the environment. Trump implied that Biden’s statement alienated people in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Ohio. Perhaps it did, but Biden stood his ground. Historian Andrew Wehrman put it succinctly:

Biden’s claim to be the president of all Americans reminded me of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address:

Trump did fine. As CNN’s Dana Bash put it, the “bar was very low” for Trump and he managed to clear it.

Biden did fine as well. He had some nice moments.

I don’t think the debate changed much, especially since Trump is probably going to stay some more stupid stuff tomorrow and everyone will forget about last night’s debate.