Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen! Seven Other Populist Rockers
He's the patron saint of New Jersey, the everyman, a populist rocker whose adoring legions have made him millions even while he retains his status as a man of the people. We're talking about Bruce Springsteen, of course, a musician whose impact and popularity extend well beyond his albums and into a cult of personality. He's a philosopher, a moral avenger, and a man who politicians are fond of referencing, sometimes to his dismay. His impact on popular culture can't be underestimated. Like Dylan, Guthrie, Will Rogers, and traveling troubadours before him, Bruce Springsteen is the voice of America's heartland.
Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on September 23, 1949, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, better known now simply as "The Boss," arose from humble beginnings.
He was inspired to take up music at the age of seven after watching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and his first guitar (which cost a mere $18) given to him by his mother. He played with a variety of bands throughout his late teens and early twenties -- a power trio called Earth, groups like Steel Mill, which included players who would later join him as part of the E Street Band, Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom, the Sundance Blues Band and the Bruce Springsteen Band. It was his signing to Columbia Records and the release of his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park and its successor, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, that made him a phenomenon.
Their hometown tales, hard-luck stories and narratives about wayward youth, small town innocence, and dark desperation struck a responsive chord in baby boomers across the nation. He was cited as the new Dylan thanks to his poetic prowess and his ability to cite universal emotions.
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That reflective streak has remained a constant throughout his career as politics and activism took over the core of his material. Yet, for all the gravitas, Springsteen still remains the archetypical rock 'n' roll star capable of commanding a stage and holding his audiences spellbound. His concerts are like religious revivals, his audiences reaching near delirium while reveling in his presence.
Bruce -- or BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE as his fans refer to him when when shouting out to him in concert -- isn't the first, nor is he the only rock 'n' roll troubadour who delivers a musical message driven by passion and purpose. He belongs to a rarified group of iconic musicians who take a singular stance in terms of populist appeal.
7. Woody Guthrie
The true godfather of American folk music, Woody crisscrossed the country singing songs that honored the hopes and aspirations of those struggling to secure their place in the lifeblood of this great nation. "This Land Is My Land" was Woody's enduring homage to inclusion.
6. Willie Nelson
At age 79, Willie shows no signs of slowing. A dedicated activist, irrepressible insurgent, and constant minstrel, he's as weathered as his battered guitar, and yet equally unstoppable. The eternal road warrior, Willie's earned the respect of all parts of the populace and his music has become an intrinsic part of the soundtrack of the heartland. "On the Road Again" is the ideal traveling tune, and one that speaks to his own drive and determination.
5. Bob Dylan
Though he's no longer the young ragged minstrel who strummed songs that inspired an entire generation, Dylan's stature as a well-worn father figure to music's ever-roving songwriters remains. His restless spirit is epitomized by the seminal classic "Blowing in the Wind," a song that sums up the resilient spirit that found him standing apart even early on.
4. John Mellencamp
Transitioning from the cocksure glam rocker of Johnny Cougar into the steadfast blue-collar, denim-jacketed populist pundit he is today, Mellencamp emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Songs like "Pink Houses" and "Jack and Diane" pay homage to the people, stirring emotions and cementing his ties to the homegrown spirit of America's unsung majority.
3. Bob Seger
If an artist could be singled out as the man who helped inspire Springsteen, Bob Seger would likely find himself at or near the top of the list. Spawned from the rugged Midwest, he spent his early years slogging it out on the tour circuit, slowly building his fan base with songs that painted an unblemished view of life on the road. "Turn the Page" is but one example, a hard-bitten tale of late night respites while taking a break from a highway to hell.
Despite the immense success of U2 and their ability to pack stadiums worldwide, Bono's dedication to issues of apartheid, AIDS, and injustice strike a resounding chord in the hearts of activists everywhere. Songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," and "Where the Streets Have No Name" reflect the anguish and despair of a tormented world and the optimism and perseverance still needed to confront injustice.
1. John Fogerty
While at the helm of Creedence Clearwater Revival, it's unlikely Fogerty ever thought of himself as bound to any particular mantra. His were songs about small town America and the humble individuals that hung out on its sidewalks or rode its rivers -- who were often disenfranchised, yet still able to celebrate their modest triumphs. He continues to soak up those references on his own, penning songs of celebration like "Centerfield" and the irrepressible "Almost Saturday Night." In any event, it's impossible not to find one's self caught up in his revelry.
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