Sample Week: “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen

As a songwriter, you know you’ve done your job when a song is so evocative that they make a movie based on it. Such is the case with “Highway Patrolman” which was reimagined by Sean Penn as The Indian Runner. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen this flick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s no way it could have told the story half as well as Bruce did.

The story of Joe Roberts and his brother Franky epitomizes many of the themes that Bruce hit hard on Nebraska: The economic hard times that put such strain on everyday Americans; the pull of family even over one’s best intentions; the random, senseless acts of violence that tear society apart; and most of all, the impossible choices faced by ordinary human beings. Joe sets many of these themes up with that one simple line that says it all: “I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good.

Of course, that puts him in direct conflict with Joe, who became a police officer only after his farm went under. Luckily, crime is always in season, so he manages to scrape a living together, but his ne’er-do-well brother keeps getting in scrape after scrape, forcing Joe to shirk his duty for family’s sake. Joe’s love for his brother wins out over his frustration, as he sings about the fun times they have together in between calamities.

We know where this is all heading. Franky does some major damage in a bar fight, and Joe is called to the scene. The scene of him chasing his brother through the back roads has an undeniable cinematic appeal to it, but the anti-climax is no Hollywood ending. Joe waits ‘til his brother has a clear shot out of the country and lets him go, now complicit in his crimes and forever stained by his familial bonds.

Springsteen does a marvelous job embodying this character, hitting every beat from the dejection when relating his crimes to the hope and love when he sings about the good times. Notice that he ends with Joe stubbornly sticking to his credo: “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.” When he sings it that last time, it sounds like the character is trying to convince himself more than the listener.

It’s fitting that Johnny Cash did a version of this, because “Highway Patrolman” belongs in the firmament of evergreen songs with which troubadours can bewitch audiences into the endless future. So timeless are its themes, so compelling is the story, and, it must be noted, so infinitely difficult are the quandaries it presents.

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