Susan Dalgety: Springsteen can help US rediscover its pre-Trump values

America needs its working-class poet, Bruce Springsteen, now more than ever as Donald Trump tells blatant lies with impunity and respected commentators warn of fascism, writes Susan Dalgety.
Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in a town first settled by Scottish Covenanters, and the E Street Band play Hampden (Picture: Robert Perry)Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in a town first settled by Scottish Covenanters, and the E Street Band play Hampden (Picture: Robert Perry)
Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in a town first settled by Scottish Covenanters, and the E Street Band play Hampden (Picture: Robert Perry)

It has been a long drive to get to Freehold, New Jersey – 12,000 miles across hot, red deserts, twisting round Appalachian mountain roads, sweating through the Southern heat, exhilarated by the Pacific Coast, lulled by the flat lands of the Mid West.

A pilgrimage through 36 states to stand, in a silent awe, outside a modest, wood-framed house with dusty windows and an overgrown hedge. A red ‘No Soliciting’ sign stuck glumly on the front door.

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A house where one warm September evening in 1956, a small boy, with 70 million other Americans, watched Elvis Presley explode onto his black-and-white television, changing his world, and ours, forever.

That small boy was Bruce Springsteen. America’s rock god, its blue-collar poet, the man President Obama said, “helped shape American music and ... challenged us to realise the American dream”.

Springsteen grew up in Freehold, his life confined to a few streets, with his grandparents’ home, and the St Rose of Lima church, at its heart.

He taught himself to play guitar in Freehold. Kissed his first girl. Played his first gig. Started a dream of stardom, or at least earning enough from his talent so that he didn’t have to follow his father into a life of low-paid, back-breaking, insecure jobs.

He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, becoming the voice of America through the good times, and the bad. He is, almost, as famous as Elvis, yet despite his fame and riches, he still lives within eight miles of his childhood home.

Everyone who makes Freehold their home has a dream. Since its earliest days, it has been a refuge for immigrants. The first settlers, around 1685, were a group of Scottish Covenanters, fleeing persecution at home.

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Led by one Walter Kerr, this small band of political refugees found peace in this fertile corner of the New World, and according to George Bancroft, an eminent historian of colonial America, the Scots’ “love of popular liberty with religious enthusiasm” gave New Jersey much of its early character.

Some even argue that it was these gritty, single-minded Scots who helped ferment the fight for American independence.

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In the mid-1800s and later, Springsteen’s family fled the potato famine in Ireland and rural poverty in Italy to seek their fortune, or at least find paying work, in Freehold. They were joined by African Americans, escaping the segregation of the southern states.

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And then, even as many of Freehold’s factories closed, a steady stream of Hispanics arrived. In 1990, 11 per cent of the town’s 12,000 population were Hispanic. Today, almost half its residents are Latino.

Many of these new Americans are undocumented, working as day labourers, forced to live in overcrowded apartments, terrified of a knock on the door from ICE, President Trump’s immigration enforcers, just as Freehold resident Rita Dentino predicted.

She heads up Casa Freehold, a charity that supports the town’s immigrant workers. In 2015, she warned of a coming storm.

“Twelve years ago, the doors were slammed on us almost everywhere,” she said.

“Things are better, but I still think there’s a long way to go, and right now we’re in a precarious time because of what Donald Trump is stirring up.”

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What Trump was stirring up was a war against immigrants that started with the Muslim travel ban and led to screaming toddlers being torn from their mothers’ arms and imprisoned.

The country that was built on immigration is now closing its borders. Only the rich, it seems, are welcome in Trump’s America. And the super-rich can get away, it seems, with murder.

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The backbeat to our Springsteen tour of New Jersey has been the apparent execution of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

His presumed death, allegedly ordered by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has stunned America. And Trump’s reaction to what appears to be the slaughter of an American resident has left much of the country disgusted.

Speaking earlier this week, the leader of the free world shrugged his shoulders and said: “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

It seems money, and oil, matters more to Trump than the rule of law, and a man’s life.

“I make a lot of money from them,” Trump once told a campaign rally about his friendship with the Saudi Arabia elite. “They buy all sorts of my stuff. All kinds of toys from Trump. They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.” Money well spent, it now seems.

It was another president’s Middle East problems – the Iraq War – that inspired Bruce Springsteen to write one of his masterpieces, the mournful ‘Long Walk Home’.

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He wrote the song in 2006, in an attempt to describe how many people felt about America under George W Bush.

“In that particular song a guy comes back to his town and recognises nothing and is recognised by nothing,” Springsteen told The New York Times at the time.

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“His world has changed. The things that he thought he knew, the people who he thought he knew, whose ideals he had something in common with, are like strangers.

“The world that he knew feels totally alien. I think that’s what’s happened in this country in the past six years.”

America has changed even more in the last 18 months, since Trump took power.

The American flag still flies over the courthouse in Freehold. Tony’s Diner, opened in 1947, continues to serve up the best homemade apple pie, with a 15 per cent discount for veterans.

And excited children rush out of St Rose of Lima school, desperate for home after a long day’s learning, just as a young Bruce Springsteen did in 1958.

But there is something rotten in the soul of America. The country built, in part, by Scottish Covenanters, inspired by the Enlightenment, and where all men were created equal, is teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Money trumps morality. The President lies blatantly, with impunity. Respected commentators warn of fascism.

It’s gonna be a long walk home. But Bruce Springsteen will be there, every step of the way.