Tuesday, March 06, 2012

We Are Alive

by Gregg Chadwick

We Are Alive
(Song by Song Review of Bruce Springsteen's New Album - Wrecking Ball)

"Also, those are voices from history and other sides of the grave. If you listen to the record, I use a lot of folk music. There’s some Civil War music. There’s gospel music. There are ’30s horns in “Jack of All Trades.” That’s the way I used the music — the idea was that the music was going to contextualize historically that this has happened before: it happened in the 1970s, it happened in the ’30s, it happened in the 1800s… it’s cyclical. Over, and over, and over, and over again. So I try to pick up some of the continuity and the historical resonance through the music."
-Bruce Springsteen, Théatre Marigny press conferenceParis, February 2012

Gregg Chadwick
Ciudad de la Memoria 
38"x38" oil on linen 2005
Michael and Renee Hertzberg Collection, Beverly Hills  

The final track on Wrecking BallWe Are Alive  (Listen Here), is a folk hymn that weaves together death, sacrifice, memory, and transcendence. The song opens with the sound of a record needle scratching across vinyl - a nostalgic warmth that conjures up the history of recorded music. The sounds of We Are Alive  bring us from Edison's wax cylinders to vinyl LP's to digital tracks. The words of We Are Alive lead us through the history of the struggle for human rights in the United States. Like a folk spirit cut loose from Dicken's A Christmas Carol,  the singer of We Are Alive touches down in three stages of our country's life: the historical past of the 19th century, the recent past of 1960's Civil Rights era, and the contemporary reality of new immigrants trying to reach this land of promise.  

We Are Alive's melody channels the trumpet riff from Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire as we open cinematically upon a dark scene:

There's a cross up yonder up on Calvary Hill
There's a slip of blood on a silver knife
There's a graveyard kid down below
Where at night did come to life
And above the stars, they crackle in fire
A dead man's moon throws seven rings
Well, we put our ears to the cold grave stones
This is the song they'd sing
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Mitchell Friedman
The Path Between
43" x 31"
courtesy Mitchell Friedman*1

More than any other of Springsteen's songs, We Are Alive suggests a Southern Gothic world. The lyrics set us in a land neither living nor dead bringing to mind Edgar Allan Poe's haunting short story The Premature Burial. In Poe's story the main character is afflicted by a condition, catalepsy, in which he randomly falls into a death-like trance, and thus carries with him a continual fear of being buried alive. 

Throughout the album Wrecking Ball, Springsteen tries to wake us from our national spiritual catalepsy. We, as a people, are asleep but not dead and need only to rise again to continue the struggles for labor rights, immigrant rights, and civil equality throughout our land.

 Springsteen sings :

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand

Sixth Regiment Fighting its way through Baltimore
"Harper's Weekly, Journal of Civilization," Vol XXL, No. 1076, 
 Saturday, August 11, 1877
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 referenced by Springsteen in the above lines was arguably the key moment in the birth of the modern labor movement in the United States. The blood of the men and women cut down on city streets and country lanes across America catalyzed labor strikes and actions that woke up a citizenry  yearning for a better life and hope in a depressed economy ruled by corporate giants that had bought the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes.
The actions of industrialists in this era and the corruption of Hayes and his cronies answer a deeply important political question. What happened to the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln? How did the GOP devolve into a party of privilege not progressiveness? The simple answer: the Republican party was bought off by Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad and in a perverse election deal sold off Abraham Lincoln's legacy of equality for all Americans by ending Reconstruction in the former Confederate States:

"Many Americans in 1877 believed their new president had reached the White House through fraud. Certainly Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was not the man for whom a majority of voters had cast their ballots the previous year. Democrat Samuel Tilden overcame the Ohio governor in the popular vote but 20 disputed electoral votes from Florida and other states threw the election into theHouse of Representatives.
Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad reached a deal with Hayes: in exchange for a federal bailout of his troubled investment in the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the millionaire industrialist would deliver Congressional votes to Hayes. As a further inducement, the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction, a blatant betrayal of African Americans. Southern Congressmen deserted Tilden, handing the election to Hayes."*2

A bank panic on Sept. 18, 1873 disintegrated into a nationwide economic depression. "Weekly the layoffs, wage cuts, strikes, evictions, breadlines and hunger increased," wrote Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais in Labor’s Untold Story. As he promised to his financial and political supporters, President Hayes withdrew federal soldiers from the South and moved the forces to act as shock troops for the newly empowered corporate barons who were slashing wages across the board. Angry railroad workers took control of switches and blocked the movement of trains. As Harper’s Weekly reported the following month, "Governor Matthews evoked the aid of the national government. President Hayes responded promptly." Federal troops armed with Springfield rifles and Gatling guns arrived." 

Even in the face of the overwhelming fire power arrayed against them, the railroad workers made their stand.

At this moment in We Are Alive, the folk spirit singer slides into the future and delivers us to the doorstep of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Its Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 and the Ku Klux Klan has just bombed the church killing four young African American girls. 

Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham

"This murderous act shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were dressed in their "Youth Sunday" best, ready to lead the 11:00 adult service at the church, which since its construction in 1911 had served as the center of life for Birmingham's African American community. Only a few minutes before the explosion, they had been together in the basement women's room, excitedly talking about their first days at school. The bombing came without warning.
Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being "as hard as crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service. No city officials braved the crowds to attend."*3

Mourners follow the coffin of a young church bombing victim during a funeral in Birmingham, Ala. in September 1963  The victim was one of four young girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church several days earlier.
 Associated Press file photo

Now, Springsteen's folk spirit singer hovers in the current American Southwest at the unmarked grave of a group of immigrants who perished attempting to cross the border to provide better lives for themselves and their families while giving to our country the fruits of their labor.

Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo

Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It's only our bodies that betray us in the end

I awoke last night in a dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet, my body had gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
Fingers scratching at an earth black and six foot low
And alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone I'd been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all around me
The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky

We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive

We Are Alive introduces us to past victims in the continual struggle for justice, civil rights and a fair and equitable path to a better life. Springsteen illustrates that a shared history of sacrifice connects us, that we have been here before — countless graves hold the bodies from those who perished in 1877, in 1963, and now.  Countless Americans have been gunned down or held back in chains in their pursuit of the elusive American Dream.
The ghosts in “We Are Alive” sing to us that there is hope to be found in the sacrifices of the past and the promise of the future. Though many perish, the Dream lives on. The song isn't a closing but instead a beginning…


1. Mitchell Friedman's artwork is deeply moving. His website Mitchell Friedman Art is a treasure trove of passion, mystery and beauty. William Zimmer in The New York Times writes of his work: “Mr. Friedman’s artwork is also spiritual.  A sense of epiphany, of an awesome realization of the glories of nature, permeates his art.”

2. The UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) site provides invaluable information on the history and struggles of labor in the United States and I highly recommend spending time on their website to gather a clear history of the movement.

3. The website, We Shall Overcome, Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement, is a deeply moving and important history of the struggle for justice and equality in the United States. 

All lyrics from We Are Alive -  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
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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