Tag Archives: My Hometown

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.