Thinking About Bruce Springsteen as He Approaches 71st Birthday

I have seen more Bruce Springsteen concerts than I'd care to admit. He's about to turn 71—he was born on September 23, 1949—drop a new record and tour when concerts become a part of American life again. As always, I'll be there.

But for all of the great moments I've enjoyed at his shows, I'll never forget one I still don't understand. It was during a concert in July 1981. July Fourth loomed, and as the encores began, Springsteen was on the stage alone, strumming his guitar. Then came a short speech. A short lecture, actually.

It started with unemployed steel workers and moved to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a favorite not only of my immigrant grandparents, (who knew factory life and experienced the Great Depression) but my parents too (my dad worked summers at a factory to supplement his teaching salary). I knew what that song meant to the adults in my life. It meant a lot to me too.

On that night, he told the audience he didn't care for the song. There was another song, written by Woody Guthrie, that was a better, more honest song about America, he told us. And a rebuttal to Berlin's song.

Springsteen then played "This Land Is Your Land," a song most Americans like, but might not if they knew more about the song, the man who wrote it and why he wrote it.

I wondered as he was strumming away: Does Springsteen know anything about Berlin's life? Or Guthrie's?

Berlin was born Israel Beilin in 1888, in a province in the Russian Empire, one of eight children. His father was a cantor in a synagogue, and anti-Jewish bigotry was rampant. So rampant that Berlin's village was destroyed in a violent anti-Semitic pogrom.

The Berlins fled Russia and settled in New York City. Like millions of immigrants before and after—and like my grandparents and Springsteen's—they didn't come here to change America; they came here to have America change them.

According to biographer Laurence Bergreen, Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia, except one: his father "lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight, the house was in ashes."

There would be more tragedy to come for Berlin, none worse than the loss of his father when he was 8. Soon he was working to help support his family.

Springsteen in Concert
Bruce Springsteen makes a surprise appearance on January 18 at the Paramount Theatre's Light of Day Winterfest in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Debra L. Rothenberg/Getty Images

Berlin took a job as a waiter, where he discovered his tips skyrocketed when he sang songs of the day. That turned into his vocation: songwriting. His first hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," but ragtime was not Berlin's passion. He wanted to create his own version of American music for ordinary working people.

"My ambition," Berlin confessed, "is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country."

Berlin did just that, creating the richest music catalog in American history. One song was "God Bless America." He wrote it in 1918 while serving in the Army but couldn't find a buyer. In 1938, as Hitler was rising to power, he pulled the song out of the drawer, Kate Smith recorded it, and the rest was history.

According to writer Sheryl Kaskowitz, Berlin first heard the title phrase from his mother, who frequently spoke the words with an emotion he would later describe as "almost exaltation."

Berlin's daughter Mary Ellin Barrett wrote that her father meant every word of the song. "It was the land he loved. It was his home sweet home. He, the immigrant who made good, was saying thank you."

It's quite a story, Berlin's story. And how "God Bless America" came to be. It reflects the real-life experience of tens of millions of American immigrants who escaped evil governments, wretched economic circumstances and religious persecution and were grateful to call America home.

Woody Guthrie, who grew up middle-class, knew hardship too. His father, a businessman who ran into financial problems, was, according to Guthrie, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Guthrie's sister died from a blaze she set after an argument with her mom, and his mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 14.

At the age of 19, with the advent of the Dust Bowl storms, Guthrie left his wife and children behind to join the many Okies seeking work in Southern California. He would marry two more times, with each marriage ending in divorce.

He had an affinity for the working class and outsiders as he began his career, and he later developed an affinity for the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. As Will Kaufman explained in his book Woody Guthrie: American Radical, the folk singer dedicated his life to promoting economic, social and racial equality. He did so by pushing for a transformation of American life and a Soviet Union–like system of government ownership of the means of production, with central planners distributing the wealth for workers to enjoy.

Kaufman's book chronicles Guthrie's close ties to Communist Party activists and the frustrations he encountered studying Marxism. In his copy of Lenin's "Theory of the Agrarian Question," he scribbled a note saying that he wished he could "make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin and Willkie and Roosevelt fly down and roost in my brain."

Guthrie was committed to bringing Marx's ideas to the public. In his personal copy of Das Kapital, he wrote, "Will memorize contents in a week or so. I'd like to try to write all of these things down in short words."

Most interesting was the story of how Guthrie's most famous song came to be. Guthrie was irritated by the song "God Bless America," which played endlessly on the radio. "So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it 'God Blessed America for Me' before renaming it 'This Land Is Your Land,'" according to NPR.

On that night in 1981, I listened as Springsteen performed Guthrie's most famous song and wondered why he didn't explain any of this. And I waited to see what he'd do about one stanza in the original version that most singers skip, for good reason.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,

A great big sign there said "private property";

But on the back side, it didn't say nothin';

That side was made for you and me.

Bruce skipped it too. Maybe he did it on purpose. Maybe he didn't know it existed. But one thing I do know: That performance killed the spirit of the evening for me.

Did he know, I wondered, that millions of immigrants come to America precisely because we have property rights? That economic freedom, along with religious freedom, is the birthright of every immigrant that ever came here or ever will. It's no small irony that between his multiple estates and the songwriting rights of his music catalog, Springsteen's $500 million net worth is derived mostly from the value of his property.

Why would one of America's rock icons, who led an ordinary if awkward suburban teenage life in New Jersey, choose to denigrate a song so many Americans adore? Does he think it's a shallow song? Or that we're shallow for liking it?

I still love Springsteen and his music, especially his latest album, Western Stars, a deeply personal look at life, love, adulthood and accepting responsibility for one's life choices.

I only wish, as he celebrates his 71st birthday, he'd honor the genius of Berlin's music, his anthem and the people who love both. And celebrate the notion of property rights, which protects workers, artists, entrepreneurs and underdogs from the whims of tyrants, dictators and kings alike.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Springsteen was 72. He is 71.