The transformation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, into a seemingly foreordained historical narrative began almost as soon as the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. I was teaching an 8 a.m. class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that morning, so the first I heard of what had happened came from a colleague who greeted me at the door of the lecture hall with the simple words, “We’re at war.” Like hundreds of millions of others in the United States and around the world, I spent the rest of the day glued to a television screen, internalizing the images that have come to define that key moment in American history: the flames billowing from the side of the north tower, the appearance of the second plane, the Pentagon smoldering, the collapse of the towers, dense smoke filling the streets, the first images of the nightmare ruins, and the slow tolling of the dead.
My colleague, of course, was right. Looking back, it’s difficult to see the events of what would soon be shorthanded as 9/11 as anything other than the prelude to war. It’s not hard to fill in the rest of the story as it’s likely to be told in the history books of the mid-twenty-first century: the identification of the hijackers with al Qaeda; Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the attacks; the initial defeat of the Taliban; the Bush Doctrine, broadening the set of circumstances in which the United States could take military action overseas; the shift of focus to Weapons of Mass Destruction; the bombing of Baghdad and troops making their way through the burning desert; President Bush’s premature celebration of the “mission accomplished”; and the agonizing years that followed.Show Full EssayHide Full Essay
At least initially, however, there was another aspect to the story, one that focused on the depth of the human loss. The speech President Bush delivered the following week was recognized, even by his political opponents, as one of his finest moments, one that sought to connect a grieving nation without regard to party or ideology. The “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon broadcast on September 21 brought together a broad range of popular musicians to provide a focal point for the nation’s mourning and grief. The most memorable moments included Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” hip-hop artist Wycliffe Jean’s take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and, most of all, Bruce Springsteen’s performance of “My City of Ruins.” Eventually, Springsteen would release the song as the closing cut of The Rising, an album-length meditation on loss and recovery that remains the most stirring artistic response to 9/11.
“My City of Ruins” sounds as if it was written in direct response to the tragedy. Beginning with images of “a blood red circle on the cold dark ground” and a ghostly organ emanating from an empty church, Springsteen evokes the sense of desolation and absence that were pervasive in the days following the attack. The question “how can I begin again?” leads to a pledge, a prayer, and a call to “rise up.” Emotionally, the song’s connection with the tragedy seemed obvious.
In fact, Springsteen had written “My City of Ruins” to address the economic and social devastation of Asbury Park, New Jersey, whose seaside clubs had catapulted him to success in the early 1970s. Daniel Wolff’s brilliant history, 4th of July, Asbury Park, traces the historical forces that led to the blasted streets and broken lives Springsteen invoked when he heard the “sweet bells of mercy” sounding above the boarded-up windows and “young men on the corner like scattered leaves.”
“My City of Ruins” was the culmination of Springsteen’s ruminations on a set of issues brought into sharp relief by 9/11. In fact, the power of The Rising stems precisely from its ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate elements of early twenty-first-century American history. Intensely and personally aware of the human reality of the tragedy—around 150 residents of Monmouth County, where Springsteen lives, died when the towers collapsed—Springsteen nevertheless refused to join in the cries for vengeance. In “Lonesome Day,” for example, he follows the persona’s desire for revenge with the cautionary lines: “Better ask questions before you shoot / Deceit and betrayal’s a bitter fruit.” In part because it is a consummate musical statement that taps deeply into the wellsprings of American music—the blues and gospel as well as rock and soul—The Rising served as a much-needed, if ultimately unheeded reminder of the human—and at least potentially the healing—stories that risk being lost in the political and military narratives.
As a teaching tool, Springsteen’s musical response to 9/11 (not only The Rising, but also Devils and Dust and Magic) offers a present-tense sense of what it felt like to be there—which will become increasingly important as questions like “where were you when it happened?” and “how did your family react?” lose their pedagogical usefulness. In addition, it provides a window on the political and cultural logics that led from the attack to the wars, which in turn encourages reflection on the use and misuse of analogies in policy-making.
Although the most visible part of Springsteen’s involvement with 9/11 was the telethon, its most important dimension centered on his immediate community. Aware that he’d be criticized for capitalizing on the tragedy, he decided it was more important to respond to his neighbors’ pain than to worry about his image. Springsteen traced that decision to a driver who, seeing him pulling out of a parking lot at the beach near his home, rolled down his window and shouted, “We need you—now!” In the days and weeks that followed, Springsteen reached out to families who had lost fathers, mothers, or children in the attacks. One woman he spoke to told Time magazine, “After I got off the phone with him, the world just felt a little smaller. I got through Joe’s memorial and a good month and a half on that phone call.”
Summing up the immediate impact of 9/11 on the communities surrounding New York City, Springsteen said: “In the following weeks if you were driving towards the beach or something, if you drove by the Catholic church, there was a funeral every day. Then people got together and there were some shows done and benefits and candlelight vigils and a wide variety of ways that people were trying to sort through what happened. I don’t know what it was like in the middle of the country or on the West Coast, but here it was very real.”
The Rising elicited a particularly powerful response from those who shared Springsteen’s immediate experience. The measure of its artistic impact, however, rested on its ability to touch listeners who lived outside the Washington and New York metropolitan areas. That wasn’t an accident. From the time he began assembling material for the album, Springsteen was seeking, as he told an interviewer, to avoid treating the events of 9/11 in a “linear” or “literal” manner. The first song on the album, “Lonesome Day,” opens with a verse that has no direct connection with the attacks. “If you look at the first verse,” he said. “it feels like it’s a guy talking to his girl. So I switched right out of this personal thing to this sort of overall emotional mood and the feelings that were in the air. . . . All experience is personal so you have to start there, and then if you can connect in what’s happening with everyone, the universality of an experience, then you’re creating that alchemy where your audience is listening to it, they’re hearing what they’re feeling inside and they’re also feeling ‘I’m not alone.’”
The second verse of “Lonesome Day” reframes the persona’s loss in relation to larger, darker, and, in context, political forces: “Hell’s brewin’,” a dark sun’s rising, houses are burning, vipers slither through the grass. The line that follows offers a momentary resolution: “a little revenge, and this too shall pass.” Both the desire for vengeance and Biblically inflected reassurance resonate throughout The Rising. The emotional constellation recurs in “Empty Sky,” when Springsteen sings “I want a kiss from your lips, I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.” The title image can be understood in multiple ways: as a reference to the empty space where the Twin Towers once stood; to the grounding of air traffic in the days following 9/11; or as a symbol of metaphysical despair, the collapse of the protagonist’s religious faith. The crux of the song, however, lies in his desire for the harsh justice of the eye for an eye. It’s possible to hear the line as a call to war, an endorsement of the political response firmly in place by the time The Rising was released in July 2002. That’s not what Springsteen meant. Stressing the importance of distinguishing between artist and persona, Springsteen spoke directly to the political point: “I wrote that phrase as an expression of the character’s anger and confusion and grief. It was never written to be a call for blind revenge or bloodlust.”
The emotional center of gravity of The Rising lies much closer to the bluesy resignation of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” or “Countin’ on a Miracle,” both of which emphasize the personal dimension of the recovery; and the hard-earned celebration of “Meet Me at Mary’s Place.” The religious undertones of those songs reflect Springsteen’s reliance on the African American gospel and the blues traditions grounded in the necessity of coming to terms with suffering without resorting to violence. “They’re all fundamentally gospel-rooted or blues-and-gospel rooted,” Springsteen said, referring to his pre-9/11 compositions “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “The Promised Land” as well as “Meet Me at Mary’s Place” and “My City of Ruins.” “[They ask] for help in discerning meaning from chaotic or cataclysmic events. I think people are asking themselves, ‘Where do I fit into this? What happened? Where did my husband go? Where did my wife go? What’s that about? What can I do about it? What do I do now? Where are they?’ I think all those questions, if you go through any sort of real shattering loss, become a constant part of your life.”
It only takes a few seconds of “Worlds Apart” to establish Springsteen’s understanding that loss was a constant reality not just for Americans, but for the Afghans and Iraqis—few of whom had anything to do with the attacks—swept up in the post-9/11 wars. Inspired by the widely circulated photographs of women in Afghanistan with the veils off their faces in the aftermath of the initial defeat of the Taliban—“their faces were so beautiful”—Springsteen contacted Pakistani musician Asif Ali Khan, who agreed to record an unmistakably Middle Eastern introduction to the song. Anything but a justification for the 9/11 hijackers or suicide bombers, “Worlds Apart” does insist that there’s more than one side to the story. Observing that the sound is as important as the lyrics to apprehending the album’s meaning, Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh wrote that “the graceful and eloquent ‘Paradise’ . . . attacks vengeful and suicidal beliefs, secular and religious, as being opposed to real spirituality.” In Marsh’s words, “Worlds Apart” issues a “warning against the madness of jihadist bombers and the insanity of American imperialism. It did its best not to side with evil, to endorse no nation or religion, and to seek justice, not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.”
Although Springsteen had kept his distance from electoral politics, even when Ronald Reagan misread “Born in the U.S.A.” as a jingoistic anthem, the rush to war following 9/11 convinced him to take a stand. Aligning himself with the nascent anti-war movement and providing active support to John Kerry’s campaign for the presidency, he introduced “Land of Hopes and Dreams” as a “prayer for our troops in Iraq and the peace of the Iraqi people.” In interviews, he emphasized that the stakes weren’t purely partisan. “I think the question of whether we were misled into a war in Iraq isn’t a liberal or a conservative question but it is an American one,” he said, “and protecting our democracy that we ask our sons and daughters to die for is our sacred trust as citizens.” In an op-ed essay published in the New York Times, Springsteen elaborated on his political evolution in the wake of 9/11: “Like many others, in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the country’s unity. I don’t remember anything quite like it. I supported the decision to enter Afghanistan and I hoped that the seriousness of the times would bring forth strength, humility and wisdom in our leaders. Instead, we dived headlong into an unnecessary war in Iraq, offering up the lives of our young men and women under circumstances that are now discredited. We ran record deficits, while simultaneously cutting and squeezing services like afterschool programs. We granted tax cuts to the richest 1 percent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another and render mute the promise of ‘one nation indivisible.’”
Kerry’s defeat challenged Springsteen’s already shaky faith not only in the country’s political leaders, but also in the electorate that had returned them to office. At first, he looked inward. The title song of Devils and Dust, released in April 2005, offers a dark meditation on the state of the country’s soul. Singing from the perspective of a soldier “a long, long way from home,” Springsteen presents the persona’s dilemma as he fights for survival as an analog for the nation’s willingness to sacrifice civil liberties as a result of the “War on Terror”: “What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?” Acknowledging the power of fear to turn the best hearts black, he concludes mournfully, “It’ll take your God-filled soul, turn it to devils and dust.”
By the time he released Magic in the fall of 2007, Springsteen’s sadness had resolved into anger. “Your Own Worst Enemy” picks up where “Devils and Dust” left off, holding up the mirror to politicians and polity that seemed incapable of acknowledging its own responsibility for the morass in the Middle East. The album’s title cut urges his listeners to protect themselves against the politicians and pundits: “Trust none of what you hear, and less of what you see.” Most telling, however, is the direct question raised in “Last to Die,” a phrase he adapted from John Kerry’s testimony at the Winter Soldier hearings publicizing war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War: “Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break? Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?”
As of the summer of 2012, no answer has been forthcoming.
Springsteen’s music quietly argues that, like Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are primarily stories of unnecessary and ill-conceived suffering and loss. Springsteen most certainly wants us to remember the 2,752 who died when the towers collapsed and the families they left behind. But, as someone with a broad awareness of the legacy of Vietnam, he wants his listeners to think with equal seriousness about the 5,000-plus American men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their families and the veterans struggling, not always successfully, to make it home. The most harrowing aspect of “Long Walk Home,” in some ways the most powerful song on the Magic album is that it resonates equally powerfully with Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the country’s struggle to regain its existential bearings. But he knows that full cost of the war includes the uncounted casualties among the Afghan and Iraqi people; estimates as of June 2012 range from a low of 132,000 civilian deaths to a high of more than a million in Iraq alone. As Springsteen insisted in The Rising, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, like the young men on the corners of Asbury Park, are in no meaningful sense living in worlds apart.
 Bruce Springsteen. “Lonesome Day.” The Rising. Sony, 2002. Compact disc.
 Dave Marsh, Bruce Springsteen Tour: 1968–2005 (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006); The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen (London: IPC Media, 2010), 99.
 The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen, p. 108.
 The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen, pp. 107 and 108.
 Bruce Springsteen. “Empty Sky.” The Rising. Sony, 2002. Compact disc.
 Marsh, On Tour.
 The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen, p. 108.
 The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen, p. 107; On Tour, p. 262-263.
 On Tour, p. 262-263; The Ultimate Music Guide: Springsteen, p. 108; Bruce Springsteen, “Chords for Change,” New York Times (August 5, 2004).
Craig Werner is a professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A member of the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall, he is the author of Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse (1994) and Higher Ground: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (2004).
DiMarco, Damon. Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11, 2nd edition. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2007.
Legro, Jeffrey W., and Melvyn P. Leffler, eds. In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 2011.
Marsh, Dave. Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968–2005. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006.
Masciotra, David. Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. London: Continuum, 2010.
Neustadt, Richard E., and Ernest R. May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York: Free Press, 1988.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Related Site Content
- Teaching Resource: Essential Questions in Teaching American History
- Video Series: Lifetimes
- Essay: September 11, 2001
- Video Series: Essential Questions in American History
- Video Series: Pulitzer Prize Winners
- Interactive: WWII Posters from the National Museum of American History
- Video Series: African American History
- Multimedia: Defining the Twentieth Century
- Essay: Every Citizen a Soldier: World War II Posters on the American Home Front
- Video Series: History in the Courts