"This is 'Land of Hope & Dreams'"

Between 1989 and 1999, in the wake of his world-wide success and his local divorce, Bruce Springsteen and his band experienced an extended hiatus. Bruce had not written many rock songs in these 14 years, dabbling with either straightforward pop music or folk music. When Springsteen and the band reunited in 1998, Springsteen wondered if Rock music was still in him. He wondered if that part of himself had passed him by. “Land of Hope and Dreams (LOHAD),” one of the first new songs he wrote post-reunion, gave him his answer. Springsteen stated that LOHAD proved that the thing which got him to the table of greatness, the Rock song, had not left him. More than this, Bruce was returning with a message, with spiritual insight.

Bruce and the band first played LOHAD live in 1999 and a year later in the now famous concerts at Madison Square Garden in July 2000.

It is interesting to me that LOHAD is the only song, in the concerts I’ve listened to anyway, where Bruce introduces the song by name. He will introduce simply with the words, “This is ‘Land of Hope and Dreams.’” This begins the song every time. It is as if Bruce is a preacher giving the title to the secular sermon he is about to give. It is a laying down of the marker. With the introduction he is saying, “we are now entering sacred space, the space from which the gospel of love and music will be proclaimed in full and not just in part.”

The song invokes the oft-used metaphor of the train.   

Almost since the train has been around, it has been used a metaphor in spiritual and gospel music. In some ways, it is a modern day rendition of the chariot, which is a metaphor traced to the Bible – remember the story of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire? Well, the train becomes our modern day chariot taking us to heaven. So we have songs like Life’s a Railway to Heaven that appeared as early as 1917 with many renditions thereafter, maybe the most famous by Patsy Cline.

Then there is old spiritual that Woody Guthrie would find and adapt, bringing it to a new audience of folkies – This Train is Bound for Glory.

This song is interesting because its original version would be adapted and answered to as time went on. Its original lyrics were rather moralistic and judgmental. “This Train don’t take nothing but the righteous and the holy. This train don’t carry no gamblers, smokers, no liar, only the righteous and the holy.”

The minister of my childhood church would say this amounts to “works-salvation.” Do the right things, live a clean life, don’t do anything wrong, and you’ve got your ticket to the heaven-bound train.

Well, in 1939, one of Rock and Rolls pioneers, Sister Rosetta Thorpe would record the song and make it less moralistic yet insert more specifically Christian language. She mentions the train being clean because those riding claim Jesus’ name. She mentions those being blood-washed being the only ones able to ride. In a live version of the song in 1964, she’d added, “that you gotta get redeemed to ride this train.”

Here we have a greater focus on faith-salvation. Faith – in Jesus and his blood and his redemptions – saves. Faith leads to us becoming holy. But faith is the first step.

Interestingly, Thorpe’s 1939 recording is considered a prototype of early Rock and Roll, a song that in its use of rhythm  and the blues progression influenced Rock’s development.

Moving ahead some 25 years, to 1965, one of the greatest and most influential songs of the 1960’s is one that incorporated the well-used metaphor of the train, the train as the new chariot bringing us to the kingdom of heaven realized. Of course, we are talking about Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions ‘ “People Get Ready.”

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

There is also the less obvious song called, “Love Train” by the O’Jays. “People all over the world, join hands, start a love train.”

Now, in 2000, Bruce Springsteen, long immersed in the roots of his music and a huge and devoted fan of both Woody Guthrie and Curtis Mayfield, introduced his own train song. It is a song that stands in the lineage of songs using the train metaphor, namely by Woody Guthrie, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, and Curtis Mayfield.

Springsteen’s song directly responds to the old tune “This Train is Bound for Glory,” tweaking it moralism. Instead, Land of Hope and Dreams proffers a Universalist-friendly message that says This Train takes all.

“This train carries saints and sinners. This trains carries losers and winners.”

In this way, he borrows from both Sister Rossetta Thorpe’s less moralistic rendition and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

Also like Tharpe, Bruce points to the importance of faith. Dreams will not be thwarted, for sure. What’s more, faith will be rewarded. What faith? The faith of simply getting on board and joining the glory-bound community.

The Curtis Mayfield lyrics come to mind. “You don’t need no ticket… All you need is faith.”

In fact, beginning in his now legendary live performance in Barcelona in 2002, Springsteen performs Land of Hope and Dream and ends it by climatically including Mayfield’s refrain – People Get Ready, there’s a Train a comin.’ You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board. This quoting is also on the studio recording.

This song hits me deep everytime. As I said, it is a gospel song. But what is its gospel, its good news? The gospel it preaches is basically Universalism. There is a movement, a vehicle, a caravan that excludes none, that picks up everybody eventually as it heads to somewhere more perfect, the land of hope and dreams. There is a community that is ever expanding and moving forward toward complete community.

This collective community, this train’s means and end, its journey and destination are not different, are not separated out. This train heads to the kingdom of heaven, but in its progressing there, in people’s faithful boarding unto the “love train,” the kingdom is being realized all along the way. This tapping into the kingdom of heaven along the way may be momentary, in fleeting moments, but the temporary experience of God’s kingdom is powerful and transforming. And it leads to an eternal experience of God’s harmonizing love.

We see another uniting in the song. The uniting of faith and practice, what the Christian tradition calls works. As I was taught as a traditional Protestant is that faith and good works are separate. Faith is the door, the door unlocked by Jesus.  Good works is the room that you enter after opening the door of faith.  Springsteen sees it differently. Faith is a good work, it is a good practice. It is the first good work. The good work, the practice, is also simple. The good work of faith means getting on board. Yes, this is precipitated by a belief that the train leads us to the land of hope and dreams. But the belief that the train is true and the getting on board happen together.

All you need is faith… you don’t need no ticket just get on board.

Faith, the belief that there is a land of hope and dreams where all are included and none are left behind, is not enough. There is work involved. Diligence is due any great hope. There is practice necessary. There is cultivation and improvement involved.

Bruce and the band practice hard and play their shows even harder. They put in sweat and tears and even blood I imagine each and every night. Sometimes for four hours, usually for three. Just because they are some of the most famous rock stars doesn’t mean they are resting on their laurels. No, their free-spirits are grounded by the hard work of practicing and applying their skill and talent and giving their heart and soul each and every day. Surely, this is made easier knowing they are entertaining, touching and moving people attending their shows. But their keeping the focus on the music, their cultivating their trade and becoming better, is what allows them to thrive and makes them the best live show in music.

I leave you with this, son, as I end talking about my, as you know, favorite Bruce Springsteen: Never ignore the beautiful, transforming gift of community and music. And never ignore their power. What is more, never ignore that they go together.

Yes, you can make music singing alone and with just your voice. But how limited that music will be. This amounts to musical narcissism. Music means putting it out there. It means using instruments (and even given those instruments names like B.B. King’s Lucille), adding in harmony, playing with other musicians, playing in front of other people. Even singing acapella alone involves the community of your voice, the space you sing, and sound waves resonating from your mouth and in your ears. It involves a community of notes and rhythm and maybe words.

Don’t just simply not ignore these things. Tap into them.

My hope for you, son, is that you regularly experience the power of community and music. There are not many things in life we can reliably say make our life better and more complete. Being part of a community of friends and playing and getting lost in music are two of those sacred things that make our life better and more complete. 

Build community and make music and do both at the same time. That is the lesson here.


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