In one of his signature recordings, “Badlands,” Bruce Springsteen sang: “Talk about a dream, try to make it real/You wake up in the night with a fear so real/You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come/Well, don’t waste your time waiting.”
Three decades or so later, he echoed that idea in the title track of his Working on a Dream album, singing: “I’m working on a dream/Though sometimes it feels so far away/I’m working on a dream/And I know it will be mine someday.”
I admit to being underwhelmed when I first heard “Working on a Dream.” The title track and lead single of a Springsteen album, I thought, should be more assertive — more “Badlands”-like. “Working on a Dream” seemed so unassuming, with its leisurely pace and sweet melody, and even a whistle solo. A whistle solo!
But “Working on a Dream” has grown on me. I’ve come to love that simple, catchy melody. I like the way the phrase “working on a dream” juxtaposes things that may seem contradictory — the hard, concrete quality of working and the ephemerality of dreaming — in a way that makes perfect sense. And I like the way the song came out at precisely the right moment in American history, harking back to the inspirational force of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech (and of Pete Seeger’s folk anthem “If I Had a Hammer,” which was written in the ’40s but became a standard in the ’60s) just as Barack Obama was ascending to the nation’s highest office.
I still don’t like the whistle solo, though.
Background facts: Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream album was released in January 2009; it’s title track and lead single, two months before. As a single, “Working on a Dream” rose to only No. 95 on Billboard’s pop chart. It fared better in some other countries, though, reaching the Top 40, for instance, in Italy, Sweden and Croatia.
At the 2010 Grammy Awards, Springsteen won the solo rock vocal award for his performance on this song.
A few weeks before it was released as a single, Springsteen debuted the song at presidential campaign rally for Barack Obama in Cleveland (see video below). According to Brucebase, he performed it live 92 times between 2008 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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