Music Scenes: “Youngstown”: Springsteen’s Representation of a City Affected by the New Depression, by Sara Gulgas

by Mike D'Errico on June 7, 2013

In 1995, Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album of narrative songs inspired by real events and people, categorized as the silent underclass of America.  “Youngstown” represented a former steelworker’s reaction to the deindustrialization that plagued his city after multiple steel mill closings.  In this essay, three variations of the song will be considered: the album recording, a performance in the city of Youngstown, Ohio, and a 2009 live cut on tour with the E Street Band.  Variations in instrumentation, vocal timbre, and tempo in each performance provide distinctive characterizations of the steelworker and the city, each embodying the varied and complex lived realities of Youngstown and its citizens in a postindustrial society.

Springsteen introduced “Youngstown” to his fans on The Ghost of Tom Joad tour by describing a sleepless night of reading Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, two journalists who traveled across America in the mid-eighties chronicling stories from America’s homeless, poor, and unemployed.[1. “Introduction to Someplace Like America featuring Bruce Springsteen,” 2011, video clip, accessed February 23, 2012, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFuY4Hd79iE.] Of specific interest to Springsteen was a portion of the book focused on how the aftermath of the steel mill closings in Youngstown affected the lives of former steelworkers.  Maharidge and Williamson interviewed former steelworkers Joe Marshall and his son, and asked them to visit the ruins of the U.S. Steel plant that had been demolished by dynamite years earlier. The authors documented Mr. Marshall’s thoughts as he walked through the ruins of the mill, detailing a haunting verse which eventually inspired the lyrics of Springsteen’s track: “He just whispered to the wind, ‘What Hitler couldn’t do, they did it for him.’”[2. “Introduction to Someplace Like America featuring Bruce Springsteen,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFuY4Hd79iE.] In Springsteen’s own prose, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do,” the “big boys” serves as a reference to the Lykes Corporation merger with Youngstown Sheet & Tube, an event which exposed a vested interest in the foreign production of steel, and is therefore largely blamed for the mill closings.[3. Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, Steel-Town U.S.A.: Work & Memory in Youngstown (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002) 48.]

Despite its seeming clarity of purpose, Springsteen’s representation of the city suggested various interpretations. Some felt as though the song glorified the perceived struggles and sacrifices of the “working class” steelworkers when, in fact, Youngstown was one of the biggest steel industry cities in the U.S. Others felt as though the song was too depressing and overly concerned with nostalgic visions of the past rather than an optimistic future.[4. Robert Hilburn, “Reborn in the U.S.A,” Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1996, 4.] It stands to reason that these different perspectives are guided by one’s place within the community. As Sherry Linkon and John Russo comment in Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown, “Former steelworkers… almost certainly heard different things in “Youngstown” than local business leaders, who may have worried that the song put too much emphasis on failure.”[5. Linkon and Russo, Steel-Town, 5.] 

Unlike the song’s representation, the story of this Ohio mill town does not end with the devastation wrought by deindustrialization. The song’s socio-political commentary about the country’s valuing of corporations over people’s interests overshadowed the reality of the community’s efforts to rebuild the city several years after the closings. Just a few years before Springsteen released the single, citizens were involved in controversial debates over the preservation of the city’s past and the construction of its future. In 1992, the Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Association was formed to prevent the demolition of the historic sight and to transform the furnace into a museum so that the youth of the city could experience its city’s history.[6. Peyko and Rose, “Time Runs Out,” 86.] One side of the controversy viewed “the Jenny” as a symbol of the past while others viewed it as an eyesore that prevented citizens from moving forward.[7. The Jeannette Blast Furnace was one of the only surviving structures of the steel era when “Youngstown” was written and Springsteen referred to it as “Jenny” in the lyrics.] In the same year, the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor opened its permanent exhibit that showcases the history of the mills and technology, the labor unions, and the culture of the working class. Some locals enjoyed the museum’s representation of the working class culture because of their pride in Youngstown’s history, while others found the memories of the city’s association with the Rust Belt to be too painful.[8. Linkon and Russo, Steel-Town, 180-81.] 

Today, “Youngstown” is played during the tailgating celebrations of every Youngstown State University football game, and it is this traditional performance of the song before a communal activity that suggests the importance of historical memory, the social and cultural construction of a city, and collective healing since the death of the steel industry. As Linkon and Russo explain, “communities of memory continually retell their stories, and this process creates a sense of shared history and identity, out of which they develop vision and hope for the future.”[9. Linkon and Russo, Steel-Town, 3.] Springsteen’s sonic representation of past events and struggles serves as a reminder of the city’s history, continuously co-constructing the identity of the city and its citizens.

“Youngstown” has been transformed from a folk ballad featured on The Ghost of Tom Joad to a solo performance given to the town’s inhabitants and finally to a rock anthem accompanied by the E Street Band. Popular music scholar David Thurmaier compares Springsteen’s music to that of folk legend Pete Seeger in that the key ingredients of the music are lyrics about the everyman who has been exploited by society and is in need of a voice to combat social injustice. Only Springsteen’s soft-spoken voice and acoustic guitar are present in the first verse of the song, and it is these half-whispered vocals which descend in pitch and volume at the end of each line that most vividly portray a defeated character forcing the audience to listen closely to his message.

In 1996, Springsteen performed a sold-out concert at Youngstown’s Stambaugh Auditorium accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.[10. Hilburn, “Reborn in the U.S.A,” 4.] His lips slightly brushed the microphone as he whispered the lyrics, enhancing his personal connection with the citizens as he embodied the character of an unemployed steelworker. Springsteen strongly delivered the first two verses but each mention of Youngstown in the following choruses was barely audible.  His lips snarled and he used a chest voice for the third verse through the end of the song, holding back anger as he clenched his jaw, producing a dark, foreboding sound as he sang the final line.[11. “I pray the devil comes and takes me to stand at the fiery furnaces of hell.” “Bruce Springsteen: YOUNGSTOWN (live in Youngstown!),” 2006, video clip, accessed February 23, 2012, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Smddcs5n0H0.] While the first two verses describe the productivity and pride of the steel mills, every subsequent verse describes the corruption of big business; a dichotomy present in Springsteen’s vocal delivery as well as the contested memory of citizens torn as to whether the song is a salute to the workers who built their community, or just another reminder of betrayal.[12. Hilburn, “Reborn in the U.S.A,” 4.] 

In 1999, Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band and drastically changed the arrangement of “Youngstown.”[13. David Masciotra, Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (New York: Continuum, 2010), 232.] This time around, the instrumentation combined rock (electric guitars and a drum kit) and folk (mandolin and accordion) signifiers as Springsteen screams the lyrics in a gravelly tone. Pain and bitterness are heard in his voice as he increases the length of the second syllable of “Youngstown,” a rhetorical gesture that continues into the shrill “hell” yelled just before the electric guitar solo. The virtuosity of the two-minute long solo grows out of this tribal scream, rising triumphantly above the other instruments in its refusal to back down, thus further characterizing the persistent steelworker who will not back down without a fight. Indeed, the song arrangement is a sonic mirror of the Youngstown citizens’ occupation of Youngstown Sheet & Tube administrative buildings and the U.S. Steel headquarters, an event which forced Congress to acknowledge the need for legislation that would provide warning of mill closings to its workers.[14. Linkon and Russo, Steel-Town, 50.] While the folk instrumentation allows the character to share his story, the guitar solo allows the character to vent his frustrations and declare vengeance.

The dichotomies of folk and rock instrumentation, subjugated and inspired character, and productivity and inactivity of the steel mills sonically presented in “Youngstown” are representative of the broader dichotomy between the city and its citizens. While the citizens of Youngstown felt pride in their connections with steel production, they also felt a sense of hopelessness about regaining their successful status as a city, and it is this dichotomy that forced them to forge an existence somewhere between honoring a haunted past and focusing on an optimistic future. The lyrics of “Youngstown” represented reality through a story that was all too familiar to unemployed steelworkers whose livelihoods were extinguished by corporate greed, and the three arrangements of the song each play an integral role in understanding Springsteen’s complex characterization of a city’s history and its citizens.

Sara Gulgas is pursuing a doctoral degree in Historical Musicology at the University of Pittsburgh. Hailing from Youngstown, Ohio, she earned a BA in Music History & Literature from Youngstown State University and an MA in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool.

Bibliography

Allgren, James M. “Youngstown’s Fortunes Rose and Fell with the Steel Industry.” In Remembering Youngstown: Tales from the Mahoning Valley, edited by Mark C. Peyko, 35-40. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.

“Bruce Springsteen: YOUNGSTOWN (live in Youngstown!).” 2006. Video Clip. Accessed February 23, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Smddcs5n0H0.

Cavicchi, Daniel. Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning among Springsteen Fans. Cary: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hilburn, Robert. “Reborn in the U.S.A.” Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1996.

“Introduction to Someplace Like America featuring Bruce Springsteen.” 2011. Video Clip. Accessed February 23, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFuY4Hd79iE.

Krims, Adam. Music and Urban Geography. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Linkon, Sherry Lee and John Russo. Steel-Town U.S.A.: Work & Memory in Youngstown. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Masciotra, David. Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. New York: Continuum, 2010.

Peyko, Mark and John Rose. “Time Runs Out for Jeannette Blast Furnace.” In Remembering Youngstown: Tales from the Mahoning Valley, edited by Mark C. Peyko, 86-92. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.

Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, 2007. “Workers and Jobs.” Accessed March 29, 2012. http://www.riversofsteel.com/_uploads/files/SteelHer-WorkersandJobs.pdf.

Springsteen, Bruce. “Youngstown.” From The Ghost of Tom Joad. Columbia 1995, MP3 file. Downloaded April 11, 2007. iTunes. The song can also be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fUOFAn2VS4

Thurmaier, David. “Seeger, Springsteen, and American Folk Music.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 86 (2006): 11-14.

“Youngstown Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live Hyde Park 2009.” 2010. Video Clip. Accessed February 23, 2012.  YouTube. www.Youtube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9FgwO1ysNM.

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