“Youngstown” sounded like an ancient folk song when Bruce Springsteen first released it, in the ’90s. But in live performances with the E Street Band — and with Nils Lofgren featured on an extended guitar solo that’s almost always explosive (see an example below) — it has been transformed into a cathartic epic.
“Youngstown,” of course, is a real city, in Ohio, and Springsteen tells its story through the eyes of a disillusioned modern-day steelworker. He starts with the discovery of iron ore at the beginning of the 19th century, and the construction of a blast furnace at which “cannonballs that helped The Union win the war” were made. A place that’s at the core of what America is all about, in other words.
The singer’s father worked there after fighting in World War II, and the singer does so, too, after serving in the Vietnam War. To him, the smokestacks — which enabled him to earn a living and feed his children — did not represent industrial ugliness. He saw them “reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”
The city’s steel industry collapsed in the ’70s. The singer’s father says “them big boys” — i.e., the town’s most powerful businessmen — “did what Hitler couldn’t do.” They destroyed men like him.
“My sweet Jenny, I’m sinking down/Here, darling, in Youngstown,” goes the chorus. Springsteen may be referring to the Jeanette Blast Furnace, built in 1918 and named after one of the tycoon’s daughters.
In the last verse, Springsteen broadens the song, maintaining that in iron ranges and coal mines throughout the country, “the story’s always the same.”
When one of those titans of industry tells him the world has changed, the narrator sneers, “… once I made you rich enough … to forget my name.” A great, great line.
And then, one more powerful statement of defiance, and love for what is no longer there:
When I die, I don’t want no part of heaven
I would not do heaven’s work well
I pray the devil comes and takes me
To stand in the fiery furnaces of hell
Background facts: Springsteen released “Youngstown” on his 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.
According to Brucebase, he performed it 297 times between 1996 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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