Image from the cover of The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

“Galveston Bay” and Bruce Springsteen’s Search for the Promised Land

Bruce Springsteen’s shift in songwriting approach to adopt perspectives from outside the traditional Americana lexicon has provided a strong counterpoint in white, mainstream culture.

Considering Bruce Springsteen’s position as among our foremost rock ‘n’ roll leftists, the continual use of his music by the political right seems more than a touch misconstrued. The most famous instance of this is, of course, Reagan’s co-opting of “Born in the USA” for his 1984 re-election campaign. Although this is remembered as blatant ignorance on the part of that campaign, in 1984 Springsteen’s politics were not quite so clear-cut.

Yes, “Born in the USA” is the definitive protest-anthem-as-pop record of the ’80s, but Springsteen was enraged enough during Carter’s democratic presidency to pen Darkness on the Edge of Town a much angrier record than Born in the USA. In essence, Springsteen’s early music and ideas straddled partisan divides with their combination of nostalgia for the ’50s and ’60s and disappointment with the broken promises of the ’70s and ’80s. His themes, through utilizing blatant but potent religious imagery such as the longing for an American “promised land”, stayed just universal enough to appeal to all.

That is until 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen again released one of his most enraged records at the height of a democratic presidency (Clinton’s), long after the new baby-boomer president’s rocky start and several years prior to his undignified exit. Anachronistically, this was no triumphant rock ’n’ roll victory lap. In fact this album doesn’t sound like a Springsteen record at all. He had discarded the E-Street band eight years previously and even the slick album-oriented rock of his early ’90s work had fallen by the wayside. Instead, Springsteen sings in a whisper over minimalist arrangements, mostly just guitar and ambient keyboards. It is, by some margin, his most understated record. Even his earlier acoustic work, Nebraska, had a brash menace and Guthrie-like confidence to it. Here Springsteen mostly sounds defeated and melancholy.

Adopting a journalistic approach to his songwriting, Springsteen here took the non-specific themes of his earlier work and created characters, based on meticulous research, that lived out the everyday struggles he had previously sketched. From the tragic ex-con of “Straight Time” to the Mexican illegal immigrants of “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “Balboa Park”, these songs were narrative driven and almost exclusively harrowing. The record’s penultimate track and climax (the last song “My Best was Never Good Enough”, is a slight first person epilogue), “Galveston Bay” however, restores a sliver of Springsteen’s traditional optimism after the preceding darkness, tying two very disparate threads of his career together.

Like several of the tracks on Tom Joad, the narrative in “Galveston Bay” deals with the fallout from the Vietnam conflict. This is a theme that Springsteen has returned to time and time again, most obviously on “Born in the USA”. As far back as the late ’60s he was singing about returning veterans with his early band Steel Mill. Later he sang abstractly about the insanity of the conflict on “Lost in the Flood” from his first record. Refusing to condemn the actions of the American G.I.s, Springsteen instead saw them as victims, an outlook that, whilst accepted now, didn’t enter mainstream art until several years after the war through Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter and books such as Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July.

A live version of “The River” from 1985 best summarizes Springsteen’s own experience of the conflict. While telling the audience of how he failed his own fitness test for the draft, he is greeted by cheers; he immediately snaps, “it’s nothing to applaud about”, suggesting a repressed survivor’s guilt that perhaps explains his lifelong obsession with Vietnam (as recently as 2013’s “The Wall”, he was writing about the experience of ageing veterans).

“Galveston Bay” diverts from Springsteen’s previous exclusively American perspective on Vietnam, however, by first describing the experience of a South Vietnamese soldier. It’s no exaggeration to say that, prior to 1995, Springsteen had exclusively utilized white American perspectives. His characters were called Mary and Johnny, lived in the Midwest, and felt close ties to their hometowns. Despite cosmetic references to the American melting pot (e.g., “Spanish Johnny” the protagonist of 1973’s “Incident on 57th Street”), the immigrant experience was not a subject Springsteen had engaged with. By 1995, however, the steady march of globalization made ignoring such narratives impossible for any writer wishing to capture the American experience.

While immigration’s rise to prominence as a perceived political problem was several years off, racial narratives had begun to remerge in political discourse as even the liberal President Clinton pushed for strict border controls and a clampdown on illegal immigration. Springsteen’s conscious decision to explore the experience of such immigrants on The Ghost of Tom Joad album showed his drive to expand beyond his white working-class focus to explore more literal quests for “the promised land” and firmly planted his flag in the left-of-center political arena. Never again could an attempt by the political right to piggyback off Springsteen’s image be considered anything but willful ignorance.

“Galveston Bay” follows Le Bin Son, a veteran of the South Vietnamese army who is forced to flee after the war and settles on the Texas coast to earn a living shrimping. Every day he rises before dawn, kisses his daughter, and leaves to fish the bay. A community of refugees of the conflict did take up fishing off the Texas coast, and many endured the prejudices that Le faces from the local population (Tougher Than the Rest: 100 Bruce Springsteen Songs, Skinner Sawyers, 2006). To Springsteen’s credit, he refuses to over-simplify the antagonistic locals. Billy Sutter, similar to earlier characters in songs such as “Highway Patrolman”, is a wounded veteran, who powerlessly “[sat] in front of his TV as the South fell” and his sacrifice was made irrelevant. This damaged figure is confronted every day by the Vietnamese community that fishes the same waters, living reminders of his trauma and, as Springsteen deadpans, inevitably talk in the local bar turns to violent action with a Klan raid on the Vietnamese ships. We are not told if Billy is directly involved or not, but when Le kills two men in self-defense, Billy pledges to kill him.

The tragic arcs of the record’s previous songs suggest that Billy will follow through with his threat and, as the ambient keyboards drop out of the already hushed arrangement, the tension builds. However, at the last moment, Billy chooses not to end Le’s life. Springsteen offers no clear reason for this, indeed there’s no suggestion of any change in Billy’s views or of reconciliation between the two men. The talk of “America for the Americans” will remain and Le will continue to face prejudice but the cycle of violence is, at least temporarily, halted.

Billy then returns home, kisses his son, and begins his day like any other, just as he did in the song’s opening lines and providing a closure absent from the rest of the record. This conclusion displays Springsteen’s mastery of narrative songwriting, providing a sense of hope without betraying the dark tone of the rest of the record. Even more crucially, it’s his best exercise in exploring the realities of the despair and faith that his earlier masterpieces had explored in a more universal, metaphorical style.

In many ways, the arc of “Galveston Bay” mirrors the overall narrative of the Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in The USA records, shifting from rage and uncertainty (In Darkness on the Edge of Town‘s case, the opener “Badlands”, for Born in the USA, its title track) to a sense of resolution (Darkness on the Edge of Town’s title track and “My Hometown”). By tying this arc to a tight, character-driven structure, Springsteen is able to explore the same themes with greater clarity than ever before. He would go on to utilize this style prominently in later records, taking the perspectives of 9/11 survivors on The Rising and Gulf War veterans on Magic and providing new perspectives that have brought him acclaim in his later career as many of his contemporaries have floundered.

Crucially, Springsteen’s shift in songwriting approach to adopt perspectives from outside the traditional Americana lexicon has provided a strong counterpoint in white, mainstream culture to ever-strengthening anti-immigration narratives. Le Bin Son’s story has only grown in relevance as time has passed and many more refugees have left or been forced from their homes in search of a ‘promised land’ in the USA, Europe, or elsewhere. In a year when banning an entire culture from entry into the United States is a key election point, “Galveston Bay’s” inclusivity and humanism have never been more essential.