First played live at Madison Square Garden about 30 shows into the Seeger Sessions Band Tour in June 2006 — and introduced as an “immigrant song for New York City” — the feverishly fast Celtic-rocker “American Land” became a mainstay of the rest of the tour, and has continued to be performed frequently since then.
The song has a connection to Pete Seeger, as well as to a poem, “He Lies in the American Land,” written by Slovakian immigrant Andrew Kovaly in the early 20th century. In 1956, Seeger set Kovaly’s poem to music (see video below). Springsteen borrowed his first two lines from Kovaly, but made up the rest of the lyrics, and the music, himself (though the song does owe a sonic debt to The Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane”; see video below).
Springsteen’s song offers an idealized, immigrant’s eye-view of America (“There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, there’s gutters lined in song/Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long/There’s treasure for the taking for any hard-working man”) as well as some sardonic commentary.
Immigrants “died to get here 100 years ago, they’re dying now,” Springsteen sings. “The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep down.”
The song’s overall mood is joyful and hopeful, though, and its vision is all-inclusive.
When Donald Trump became president, Springsteen was finishing up a tour in Australia and New Zealand. And he has not toured since. When he does — probably next year — it’s a good bet that this song will be in the setlist every night.
Background facts: A live version of “American Land” was released as a bonus track on the “American Land Edition” of Springsteen’s 2006 We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album. And a studio version came out on his 2012 Wrecking Ball album.
According to Brucebase, he performed it live 250 times between 2006 and 2017.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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