Thursday, March 01, 2012

Memory Train: Springsteen's Land of Hope and Dreams

by Gregg Chadwick

Land of Hope and Dreams
(Song by Song Review of Bruce Springsteen's New Album - Wrecking Ball)

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
-Curtis Mayfield, People Get Ready

Central Railroad of New Jersey Steam 4-6-2, Jersey City, New Jersey, February 06, 1954 

My grandfather on my mother's side spent his working life as a train engineer on the Jersey Central Line. That itself sounds like a Springsteen lyric and explains part of my great love for Land of Hope and Dreams. (Listen Here) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band first performed the song during the reunion tour in 1999, a live version was released on  Live in New York City in 2001 and also on The Essential Bruce Springsteen in 2003.  

The version of Land of Hope and Dreams featured on Wrecking Ball is the first studio recording of the song and poignantly includes one of the last recorded performances by E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in June 2011. 

The inclusion of this song at this point in this album is cathartic. Up to now, hope has been yearned for in Wrecking Ball but fear and doubt have threatened to overwhelm the lives of those living in the songs. 

The album version of the song begins with a soloist from The Victorious Gospel Choir spiritualizing an echo of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready:

Oh, Oh, Oh, This Train

The full choir joins in with banjo and organ accompaniment:

Don't you want to ride?
This train, this train, this train,
Get onboard, Get onboard, Get onboard

An August Dream

Gregg Chadwick
An August Dream
20"x36" oil on linen 2011

Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready was directly inspired by the Civil Rights March on Washington in August 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have A Dream speech which was given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the event.

By using the metaphor of the train of salvation, Mayfield's inspiring song continues a tradition of American folk music that began with African American Spirituals referencing the Gospel Train and the Underground Railroad that was then continued by Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash.  As Juan Williams writes for NPR:

"The train that is coming in the song speaks to a chance for redemption -- the long-sought chance to rise above racism, to stand apart from despair and any desire for retaliation -- an end to the cycle of pain."

The amazing thing that speaks to the depth of Springsteen's inspiration is that we are only 30 seconds into the studio version of Land of Hope and Dreams and this much history has been evoked. 

I suggest that you put on a pair of headphones and listen to the song with the music up loud because at this point the musical train thunders in with rumbling guitar, drums, mandolin and swirling keyboards. Every time I listen to this moment in Land of Hope and Dreams, I remember a photo of me as a little kid standing next to my grandpa Desch as he guides a Jersey Central steam engine down the tracks. It was in the 1960's, but the photo is in black and white tones that give the image a timeless quality that hovers somewhere between memory and dream. 

Springsteen urges us onboard:

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder's rolling down this track
You don't know where you're goin' now
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Well, Big Wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

JMW Turner
Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway
36"x48" oil on canvas 1844
National Gallery, London

I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side

I also think of my Dad's parents and the time we took a road trip deep into the South during the Civil Rights era. At a road stop somewhere along I95, in Georgia I think, my Grandma Chadwick saw me staring at a crude racist, epithet scrawled on a sign. She put her arm around me and said to me "Don't mind about those words. Those words aren't true. God loves everyone one of us - equally."
It was one of the first, and one of the best lessons about civil rights and equality that I have ever learned. 

As Springsteen sings:

You'll need a good companion now for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Well, Tomorrow there'll be sunshine

And all this darkness past

I think of the more recent past and how much I needed to hear this song when I saw Springsteen and The E Street Band on the Reunion Tour in 1999. I took BART in from San Francisco to Oakland with a copy under my arm of Eric Alterman's recently published, It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce SpringsteenOn the train over, I read the epilogue about a new song that Springsteen had written which was the initial live version of Land of Hope and Dreams. A relationship that I had thought was real was ending and I found myself in a place similar to the despair found in Michelle Moore's rap in Springsteen's Rocky Ground. I needed to get on board. That night in Oakland, my faith was rewarded in Land of Hope and Dreams. I was one with the crowd and the band carried us along.

Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen
from the Born to Run cover shoot
June 1975
photo by Eric Meola

The next time I heard the E Street Band play Land of Hope and Dreams, the whole country needed the spirit that Springsteen's music at its best can provide. The Rising, with its call to national unity after the horrors of the September 11 attacks had been released in July 2002 and a month later I stood close to the stage by Clarence Clemons throughout the entire concert in San Jose. I had met Clarence at a private dot com gig in San Francisco a few years before and warmly remembered the giant hug he had given me after the event. In San Jose, during the bands homage to Amadou Diallo - "American Skin", Clarence Clemons' face was streaked with tears as he intoned the refrain "41 shots". The music roared that night. The crowd around knew the words to every song and sang them as if their lives depended on it. And maybe they did? 

That August night in San Jose, the concert ended with a gospel fueled, steel engined, crowd propelling version of Land of Hope and Dreams. Now as I listen to the recorded version, with my headphones on and the music up loud, I can still see Clarence but the tears are mine as I listen to his last sax solo. 

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'

As Clarence Clemon's last recorded solo fades, Springsteen slides into Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready. As the train pulls into the final station, The Victorious Gospel Choir joins in with a musical epitaph for the Big Man.

All lyrics from Land of Hope and Dreams -  Copyright © Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP)

More Song by Song Reviews of Wrecking Ball:

More at:

"Bruce Springsteen's widescreen vision of America on Wrecking Ball is filled with terror, tension, tenacity and above all else, triumph which may not replenish your bank account, but it will replenish your soul."
-Anthony Kuzminski, Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball, antiMusic
All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
The Working Man's Voice - The Wall Street Journal
Parsing the Samples and Quotes on Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen, Théatre Marigny press conferenceParis, February 2012

Don't Miss This Upcoming Event on NPR:
NPR Music will broadcast Bruce Springsteen's keynote speech from the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. The live webcast of that address will take place on NPR Music on March 15 at noon Central time.

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