Land of Hope & Dreams, This Train, and People Get Ready

Bruce Springsteen released his new album Wrecking Ball (2012) to good reviews. Instead of adding to the reviews of the album, Chimesfreedom takes a close look at the album’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song that the Washington Post claims is like a “pose” full of “[c]artoonishly austere American cliches.” Well, the Post is wrong about the song, which was played during the 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band, then appeared in a live version on 2001’s Live in New York City and 2003’s Essential Bruce Springsteen.

Why would Springsteen release a song more than ten years after it had already appeared on an album? Besides the fact that the prolific songwriter has been known to sit on songs for decades before release, the timing is perfect for this one for three reasons discussed in more detail below.  First, it is a beautiful tribute to the late Clarence Clemons. Second, the song brings a little hope to an album about hard times.  Finally, the song is not a “pose;” it is one of Springsteen’s most beautiful songs, evoking Woody Guthrie and Curtis Mayfield while turning a classic folk song on its head.

(1) A Fitting Tribute to Clarence Clemons

First, the above new gospel version of the song from the new album is one of the final songs recorded with Clemons, so one may understand that it was important for Springsteen to include Clemons on the album. And because the song goes back to 1999 when Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band, it also evokes the connection among the band mates.

It was not surprising that when Dave Marsh wrote an essay memorializing Clarence Clemons that he entitled the article, “In the Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen often has included references to the E Street Band members in his songs, ranging from “Tenth-Avenue Freeze-Out” to “The Last Carnival,” a tribute to deceased E Street Band member Danny Federici. Here, the placement of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” featuring Clemons’s sax solo, next to the final song on the regular album, “We Are Alive,” where Springsteen imagines his own death, connects the album to the Big Man and his sweet soul departed.

In The Guardian, Springsteen noted that when listening to the new album, “When the sax comes up on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams,’ it’s a lovely moment for me.” What a perfect tribute.

(2) A Song of Hope

Second, the album Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s recession-era CD, and the song signals a way out of hard times. Springsteen’s last CD, Working on a Dream, came out during the recent recession, but it had been recorded during a period of hope as then Senator Barack Obama was running for president.

By the time Springsteen toured to support Working on a Dream (2009), the economy and the mood of the country had changed, so Springsteen had to rework setlists to include more of his past songs about hard times and even included Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” During that time, he apparently began thinking about this album, as during the tour he debuted this album’s title song, “Wrecking Ball.”

While there is a touch of sadness in almost every Springsteen song, including classics like “Thunder Road,” he often mixes dark and light. When he sings about despair and hopelessness, he is rarely hopeless. So, on an album about hard times, it is not surprising that he would signal there is some hope: “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ And all this darkness past.” As in the first single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” he embraces one of his common themes that hope lies in caring for each other.

(3) The American Songbook and Trains: “This Train”

Finally, we come to why “Land of Hope & Dreams,” one of Springsteen’s most optimistic songs, is also one of his greatest and not just a cartoon as the Washington Post claims. The song embraces much of the American songbook. With the song’s reference to “bells of freedom” it evokes the Bob Dylan song that inspired the name of this blog.

But, more prominently, “Land of Hope and Dreams” connects to the long tradition of songs about trains.  This legacy travels from Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rodgers, and Hank Williams through songs like Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train.”

To understand “Land of Hope and Dreams,” though, we must begin with a classic folk song, “This Train,” which Springsteen has confessed helped inspire “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Big Bill Broonzy recorded the traditional song “This Train,” and the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe had a hit with “This Train” in 1939.

“This Train” goes back even further in time. Woody Guthrie adapted the traditional song as one about going to glory if you are good, because that train “Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.” The song specifically excludes gamblers, liars, smokers, con men, rustlers, side street walkers, wheeler dealers, and hustlers.

One may hear Guthrie’s version in this scene from Bound for Glory (1976), with David Carradine portraying Woody Guthrie.

It is interesting that Guthrie became associated with a righteous song, when the lyrics seem counter to many of his principles.  Yet, one may also see it as attacking the con men of the establishment.

When Guthrie’s editor-agent proposed changing his autobiography’s title from Boomhchasers to Bound for Glory because of the book’s descriptions of Guthrie singing the song to homeless men, Guthrie initially balked. He was worried that readers would think he meant “Bound for Glory” to apply to himself.  His understanding of the phrase from the song was that “the common people” are bound for glory. (Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life.)

“This Train” may be bound for glory, but many sinners have sung the song. Below is a performance by some of the early Sun Records rockers and admitted sinners, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison.

The song goes back even further in American history, as “This Train” was used by slaves to convey messages to each other on the Underground Railroad, with “glory” meaning “freedom.” Still, despite the history and inclusiveness attributed to the song, in the lyrics the train that is bound for glory limits its ridership to exclude sinners, however that term is defined.

Springsteen takes that limit and turns it on its head. As he has explained, “Land of Hope and Dreams” is a response to “This Train,” spreading a message of inclusiveness instead of a message of exclusion.

      “People Get Ready”

In case anyone missed the message of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” on the new studio version one hears the Victorious Gospel Choir repeating the refrain from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” That song originally was a hit for the Impressions in 1955 (discussed in more detail in a previous Chimesfreedom post).

The gospel songs of Mayfield’s youth inspired him in writing “People Get Ready.” And in looking closer at the lyrics and hearing the song sung below by Alicia Keys, one may understand how the song inspired Springsteen either consciously or unconsciously in writing “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

People get ready there’s a train comin’;
You don’t need no baggage, just get on board;
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’,
You don’t need no ticket, just thank the Lord.

Mayfield did not specifically address the sinners of “This Train” in “People Get Ready.”  But his song implied the sinners could still board the train as long as they had faith.

      Climb On Board This Train

Springsteen, though, goes even further than Guthrie and Mayfield. His train has no requirements and calls everyone to board.

Springsteen does note that “faith will be rewarded.” Faith in what? God? Rock and roll? He does not say. And that is the beauty of the song. We are all saints and sinners and we are all welcome. Just have faith in something, even if it is each other.

Yes, Washington Post, the welcoming train in American music is an American cliche. But every decade or so it is good for us lost souls to be reminded that we all are on the same journey together.

This train
Carries saints and sinners;
This train
Carries losers and winners;
This Train
Carries whores and gamblers;
This Train
Carries lost souls.

{This last video from a Springsteen performance at the Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut on May 8, 2000 is the E Street Band’s wonderful guitar-heavy version of the song that also appeared on 2001’s Live in New York City album. I love the opening riff of this earlier live version of the song, but I will reserve judgment for which version I prefer after numerous more listens of the newer gospel version.}

Do you prefer the new 2012 version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” at the beginning of this post or the 2001 live version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” at the end of the post? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    10 thoughts on “Land of Hope & Dreams, This Train, and People Get Ready”

    1. You’ve nailed the reasons why this song was the first to make me really smile on the new album. Which is kinda strange, given that I’ve heard it many times already. I do believe it’s Bruce’s best song since the Tunnel of Love ones and a real contender for best ever (imo).

      1. Joanne, I had a similar experience. When I saw the song was on the list of songs on the new album, I was happy to see it there. I was surprised to be happy about an old song being on a new album, but it is a great song. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I, too, had a similar experience. I was delighted to hear Bruce singing “People get ready”, what with me loving Sonny and Terry so much, but even more thrilled that the whole album resonates of a feeling of connection, that the masks have been stripped, and this is what we have, but that, somehow, we can still be great. Very inspiring, even for a pessimist like me. And what delicious icing, finally, “American Land”. I first heard it live and I can picture him singing it every time.

      1. Because “American Land” had previously appeared on a special edition of the Seeger Sessions CD, I was surprised to see it appear as a bonus track on Wrecking Ball. But because Springsteen has used the song often to close shows in recent years, he seems to have a fondness for the song. And I like the rousing version on the new CD too. Thanks for the comment.

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