Having turned 70 in September, with a new album with the E Street Band in the offing and a 2020 tour on the horizon, Bruce Springsteen remains as relevant as ever to his ardent admirers. Just out is a new book, Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen (Rutgers University Press, 2019), which contains numerous essays paying tribute to The Boss. 

One of the contributors to the collection is Louis Masur, a Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at the School of Arts and Sciences. He believes that Springsteen, a working-class kid raised in Freehold, New Jersey, is the personification of the American Dream. Masur is exploring the idea with his students this fall in the course “Springsteen’s American Vision,” which takes a look at the musical and cultural significance of Springsteen. “It’s exciting to be able to combine my personal pleasures and interests with my scholarship interests,” says Masur.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Describe the first time you heard Springsteen and your reaction to it. How did he speak to you that other rock and roll musicians had not? 

LOUIS MASUR: In June 1973, between my junior and senior years in high school, I took a girl to Madison Square Garden to see her favorite group, Chicago. Springsteen opened, and I was swept away. While my relationship with the girl did not last, I’ve been with Springsteen ever since. The music hit my heart and head, and I went out and bought his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, which had been released earlier that year.

RM: How has the impact of his music changed for you over the decades? Do the songs, or some of them, resonate with you in different ways now that you are older?

LM: I’ve been lucky to grow older with the music and follow Springsteen’s journey as I have passed through different stages of my life. I remember the first show I went to with the woman whom I married, in 1978, and the first show I attended with my children, in 1999. The songs have changed for Springsteen and they have changed for me. For example, an acoustic version of “Born to Run” in 1988 transformed the 1975 song from one of escape to one of belonging, from isolation to community. The song for me is the defining song of my life, and it continues to be inspiring but in different ways than when I was 18 years old and first heard it.

RM: You have been to many, many Springsteen concerts, and you are not alone. What is it about his concerts that keeps people coming back for more, even though they have heard the songs dozens of times? 

LM: I’ve probably been to some 200 shows. There is a consensus opinion that Springsteen may be the greatest live performer in rock history, Elvis Presley and James Brown excepted. The shows deliver on the promise of rock and roll: freedom, liberation, escape. For several hours, the music is all that matters. Springsteen changes the set list regularly, so no two shows are ever the same. I’ve screamed at concerts, I’ve cried at concerts, and I’ve certainly danced at them. And I always come away feeling renewed.

RM: You first taught the course when you were at Trinity College in Connecticut. Why did you think his music warranted a course?

LM: I’m a cultural historian, and with Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen became a cultural icon whose work transcended the musical arena. I started as a fan, but as a historian I wanted to connect the themes of his work to the larger themes in American culture and to examine his music in the same way we might examine Herman Melville’s novels or John Ford’s films.

RM: Can you describe the parameters of the course, now in its third incarnation at Rutgers? What are some of the topics and themes you address? And how have you set up the course to unfold?

LM: I began the course with Elvis Presley. I spent two weeks on Bob Dylan. The remainder of the course is devoted to Springsteen. The theme is Presley freed our bodies, Dylan freed our minds, and Springsteen is working on freeing our souls. We address such topics as work, religion, romance, and the dream of escape. We analyze Springsteen’s evolving vision of America, from Born to Run to Born in the U.S.A. to The Rising to Wrecking Ball. Each week there are listening, viewing, and reading assignments (there is a vast literature on Springsteen), and this semester students are also reading Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, which wasn’t available for previous incarnations of the class and adds another dimension to the conversation. There are endless interviews with Springsteen in which he recalls events. And then there are those events remembered years later, and differently, in his autobiography. So, the idea of memory is part of the course, too.

RM: Students would be mistaken to think this will be a class in which they can kick back and just listen to Springsteen’s music. You want it to be challenging. 

LM: I was concerned when I first imagined the class that it might be taken as a joke. I made sure it was every bit as rigorous, perhaps even more so, as my courses on the American Dream or the Civil War. I assign a lot of work, but more important I demand critical thinking and active class participation. A song is not a poem, so how do we analyze music? How do the themes change over time? Which scholarly interpretations do students agree with and which do they disagree with? Students are doing a considerable amount of writing and are being asked to offer their own analysis of the making and meaning of Springsteen’s work.

RM: What do you want students to take away from the course? 

LM: I am less interested in the content they will take away (though they will certainly know Springsteen’s work) than in the skills they develop: critical skills in thinking, writing, and analysis. I want them to be able to apply these skills to other texts they encounter and become more sophisticated students of American culture.

RM: What are some examples of the more interesting observations or questions that students have come up with during class discussion?

LM: Students regularly raise compelling questions, offer fresh insights, and make eye-opening connections. For example, they’ve debated the treatment of women in Springsteen’s music or pointed out how certain lyrics or musical riffs reappear but are put to different purposes or tease out connections to other artists and cultural moments.

RM: You have written a book about the making of Born to Run, coedited a collection of interviews, and authored numerous essays about Springsteen— all demonstrating your deep knowledge of the man and his music. But what have you learned about him in teaching this course over the years that had escaped you or helped you see him in a different light?

LM: I’ve learned that students at Rutgers take the course not so much because they like Springsteen but because their parents raised them on his music. Perhaps the most important takeaway has been to expose me to new music and not allow myself to be stuck in a particular moment or genre. The first assignment requires students to write about a song that has meaning to them, that has changed their lives. As I read the essays, I listen to the songs that range from Frank Sinatra to Beyoncé, from Cage the Elephant to Childish Gambino. I’ve never heard of half the artists. When I learn from my students as they are learning from me, I know the course is on track.

RM: Can we count on you to be in attendance when Springsteen tours in 2020?

LM: Every show in New Jersey, most of the shows in New York and Philadelphia, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll travel to Europe to hear him there for the first time.