Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”: A Ballad as Prayer

Crawford County, Michigan Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

The Early Years

I played Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska over and over when I was in high school. It’s a dark, meditative album full of rage and sadness, which soothed me. I was sixteen, and had just moved to a new town. I was miserable. Long-distance phone calls were rare and expensive. Cell phones and email didn’t exist. I felt alone in mostly rotten respects, but the isolation I felt when I was alone in my room listening to “Atlantic City,” “Used Cars,” and “Reason to Believe” was consolation. I needed a reason to believe, and it helped to imagine others who did too.

It didn’t hurt that the second-to-last song, “My Father’s House,” felt like it was written for me, sung directly to me. I had left my friends. I had also left my grandparents, my grandparents’ apple orchard, and my grandparents’ house, which my grandfather designed and built, and which I loved. My dad grew up in that house. It was my father’s house, and the notion of going home was powerful – irresistible but also troubling. Springsteen’s song acknowledged both.

Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Even at sixteen (or especially at sixteen), I admired the disquieting complexity of this album. I loved how Springsteen could sing about violence in a roadhouse with eerie equilibrium, then let it wail in “State Trooper,” then sing evenly about the stigma and shame of a new used car, and then kick into the whirlwind of “Open All Night.” This album is a fantastically controlled mash-up of restraint and dynamite.

In her post about “Nebraska,” Shaleane emphasizes the “great void” mentioned in that song. In trying to account for the violence in that opening track – the why behind it – she invokes Flannery O’Connor by way of Bruce Springsteen: “there’s just a meanness in this world.” Coupled with “the great void,” that explanation feels nihilistic, but for me at sixteen, this album wasn’t about nihilism. This album was a 10-track petition for hope. This was Springsteen singing, “Hey, mister deejay, wontcha hear my last prayer? Hey, ho, rock ‘n roll, deliver me from nowhere.” This was Woody Guthrie’s defiance mixed with Buddha’s stillness into something that, listened to as a whole, became an incantation, a magic spell, a charm against emptiness.

The Vinyl Experience

Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Photo by Cindy Hunter Morgan

If you listen to Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska in the old way I listened to it – first song to last song, stretched on the floor of a room in which you are alone, with the scratch and hiss of a record needle – you’ll feel rearranged after the first (title) song. Listen to a few more and you’ll know some complicated alchemy of sadness, isolation, and resignation is at work on you. Of course, you’ll bring your own loss to this album, as I brought mine, but this album transcends the particularities of individual history.

There are 10 songs on this album. Among them is the spare, hypnotic “Highway Patrolman” – a narrative about untethered violence and love’s limits. It’s a fine example of the ballad tradition as Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus describe it in their thoughtful introduction to The Rose & The Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. “Highway Patrolman” is a narrative song, and it has the same, slow, deliberate language that Wilentz and Marcus hear in traditional ballads.

This is a slow song, and the tempo both dulls and sharpens our emotional response. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that tempo manipulates our emotional response, confining it to a certain bandwidth. Certainly, there is nothing rushed about the story. “Highway Patrolman” clocks in at something over five minutes, and it does not begin in medias res, as many ballads do, but with some potentially insipid exposition. The narrative technique in these opening lines relies on flat reporting and bare facts: name, occupation, title, location, name of brother, summary of brother.

My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number eight
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good

Did I think I was Joe Roberts when I was listening to this? Or Franky? No, I think I simply felt, more keenly, the interiority of self, and the distance between myself and anyone else.

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