Huntington’s Disease may have stolen Woody Guthrie before we got his take on the Bush presidency (though not, thank goodness, on the Trumps), but on The Rising, a spiritual descendant of Guthrie’s opus Dust Bowl Ballads, Bruce Springsteen channels Guthrie as a means of excavating the tumult of his own generation’s tragedy: 9/11 and its aftermath.
Both thematic albums tell the stories of people affected by these catastrophes, and seek to make sense of the generation-defining impacts on the both the world and their own local communities.
Written in 1940, Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads could be considered the original concept album. Guthrie’s first real commercial release, written and recorded after he himself had fled the Dust Bowl, focuses on the pain of losing a home and a community, the challenges of moving across the country, and what people are pushed to do when they can no longer provide for themselves.
A little over 60 years later, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, an intimate reaction to the terrorist attacks which devastated the New York metro area and reverberated through the country. Songs on The Rising discuss the sacrifice of firefighters on 9/11, the emotions of those who lost loved ones, and the hope that kept people going following the attacks.
As similar as the messages are, the instrumentation and performance of these songs could not be more different. The Rising featured the nine-person E-Street Band, and nine other musicians or groups. Springsteen uses three different cello players, a whole band of horns, and a man on the hurdy-gurdy (real instrument) for a well-produced album with a sweeping and cinematic feel. In contrast, Guthrie is alone on Dust Bowl Ballads, just a man, his guitar, and his stories.
These differing means seem to parallel the different responses to these disasters. After 9/11, it seemed the entire world rallied around New York. The government stepped up to help in the recovery effort, and supported the city and the people affected. By contrast, during the Dust Bowl, migrants found no sympathy in their homes, and even less support when they traveled to other states in search of jobs. Springsteen’s huge backing band serves as a reflection of the world coming together, while Guthrie’s solitary album perfectly captures his lonely travels out of Oklahoma.
Despite the heavy material, neither album sounds tragic. Each has many upbeat, major key songs, with catchy melodies that hide their more dour themes. On Dust Bowl Ballads, Guthrie’s sparse accompaniment and simple tunes hide the serious issues at their heart. The lilting, waltz-like melody of “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” makes the exodus of an entire town feel positive, in contrast to the trauma dust bowl refugees were facing. Guthrie even makes time for happy young lovers in the song who “hugged and kissed / in that dusty old dark” who “instead of marriage / they talked like this / honey, so long, it’s been good to know yuh.”
“Mary’s Place,” one of the later tracks on The Rising, paints the same idyllic picture in the midst of a tragedy. A family out on the front porch, loud music playing, it almost makes the listener (and the singer) forget about the people they have lost in the September 11th attacks. Just like “Dusty Old Dust,” “Mary’s Place” allows for optimism, with both singers writing for the survivors striving to weather the aftermath of tragedies.
Messages of hope and better days to come can be found on both albums. “Dust Cain’t Kill Me,” a litany from Guthrie of all the people he lost to the storm is framed as one man’s steely resolve to continue in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. At times sarcastic, at times bragging, the song is about a man, much like Guthrie, who has suffered many storms, and come through intact.
“Waiting on a Sunny Day,” a staple of Springsteen live shows, is far from the breezy sing-a-long it sounds like. With lyrics like “it’s raining / but there ain’t a cloud in the sky / must have been a tear from your eye” and contrasted with the easy to sing chorus, this song is reminiscent of “Do Re Mi” by Guthrie, a jaunty tune with just enough wordplay to sneak a message about bribery and discrimination against Okies migrating to California.
At surface level, closing track “The Rising” is about a firefighter climbing to certain death in the Twin Towers, but the intimate chorus, “come on up for the rising / come on up, lay your hands in mine” also portrays the resolve of a people and a city to move beyond an incomprehensible attack and rebuild.
This sentiment is repeated in the downtempo album closer “My City of Ruins.” Originally written about Asbury Park, the song was repurposed and became the anchor track of The Rising. Despite the slow pace, the song ends with a repeated mandate to “rise up,” and encompasses the feelings and theme of the entire album: Hope, support and sympathy for your fellow people.
Concept albums of every genre have been done so often that they’re almost played out (pun very much intended). But today, it’s rare to see a concept album that reflects so many different facets of a tragedy that a large number of Americans have experienced. While the form and style have changed, the basic message of hope over fear, and the resolve to continue are common across decades, across genres, and across tragedies in Dust Bowl Ballads and The Rising.
Bella Pori is a state government employee and co-founder of Call Them In, an email reminder service that makes it easy to call your Senators and support progressive legislation. She loves to talk about Bruce Springsteen, so talk to her on Twitter @BellaPori.