Bruce Frederick Springsteen is a rock musician, singer-songwriter and guitarist, and longtime leftwing political activist. In 2004 he was active in Vote for Change, an alliance of “progressive” musicians and bands coordinated by the political action committee of MoveOn.org.
Springsteen was born in 1949 in Freehold, New Jersey, the first child of Irish-American bus driver Douglas Springsteen and his Italian-American wife Adele Zirilli. “I didn’t grow up in a very political household,” Springsteen said in a 2004 Rolling Stone interview, recalling that when he was in grade school his mother told him: “We’re Democrats, ’cause Democrats are for the working people.”
“I was politicized by the Sixties,” Springsteen elaborated. But a more revealing version of how this high-school dropout was radicalized comes from Dave Marsh in his 1987 biography Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s. “Springsteen grew up in a classically anti-intellectual environment,” wrote Marsh. “When he signed his first record contract, he claimed the only two books he’d read were The Godfather and Tony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan. But after [Springsteen’s manager] Brandeis-educated Jon Landau gave Bruce a couple of pushes in the right direction, the singer responded with the voraciousness of the born autodidact.”
In 1975, the young Springsteen was simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He was being marketed as the next Bob Dylan, who was enamored of Dust Bowl folksinger Woody Guthrie (described by Marsh as “a Marxist disillusioned with the America of fable”). Springsteen soon identified himself with Guthrie, too.
Springsteen also began studying the History of the United States by Henry Steele Commager and Allen Nevins, two New Deal left-liberals who depicted the United States as a land shaped by racial bigotry and class warfare. “I’m thirty-one now and I just started to read the history of the United States,” he told a cheering 1980 audience in Paris, according to Marsh. “I started to learn about how things got to be the way they are today, how you end up a victim without even knowing it. And how people get old and just die after not having hardly a day’s satisfaction or peace of mind in their lives.”
In a music business run by leftists in New York City and Los Angeles — and that markets its rock-and-roll product to rebellious adolescents — the left ideology with which Landau programmed the working-class Springsteen helped both men climb the ladder of success and wealth. Landau introduced the musician to Bob Muller, who, like 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, had been an activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Springsteen’s popular song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” is written from the negative viewpoint of such a Vietnam veteran. When conservative columnist George Will persuaded President Ronald Reagan to praise the 1984 song as pro-American, Springsteen distanced himself from the compliments of Will and Reagan.
In 1979 Springsteen performed at the MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) anti-nuclear power concert, whence came the album No Nukes. This concert featured other leftist musicians who 25 years later were again with Springsteen on the anti-Bush, pro-John Kerry 2004 Vote for Change tour — Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor. The MUSE concert was the first of many rock concerts organized to raise money and popular support for leftwing causes.
In 1990 Springsteen did a fundraiser for the Christic Institute, which claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency was flooding America’s inner cities with cocaine to raise money for the anti-Marxist contras in Central America.
In June 2000 Springsteen debuted a song that referenced the fatal New York City police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an illegal immigrant from Africa who the officers mistakenly thought was reaching for a gun. The song carried the provocative refrain of “41 shots, 41 shots.”
Springsteen over the years has also contributed his talents to raise funds for food banks, protest factory closings, support labor unions, bring attention to the Human Rights Now tour of Amnesty International, and many other concerns.
In September 2013, Springsteen recorded, in Spanish, an Internet version of the song Solo le pido a Dios (I only ask of God) (Solo le pido a Dios), which he said he had learned from the late Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, who initiated the “Nuevo Cancion” (“New Song”) movement — songs that often expressed themes of social justice and political and personal struggle in metaphoric style. Nuevo Cancion became closely linked to the socialist revolutionary movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Another influence who has pulled Springsteen to the political left is childhood friend and on-again, off-again guitarist for his E Street Band, Steven (“Little Steven”) Van Zandt, a Noam Chomsky acolyte who views the United States as the successor of Nazi Germany. Van Zandt persuaded Springsteen to perform the Artists United Against Apartheid song “Sun City.”