Team Springsteen: Why ‘Fortunate Son’ Belonged At The Concert For Valor

CREDIT: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Bruce Springsteen performed at the Concert For Valor on the National Mall on Tuesday night. Events like this are Bruce’s calling. He probably has a star-spangled bat signal in his house that lights up whenever an all-American event requires musical accompaniment. Excellent choice, Concert for Valor organizers! Plenty of the performers were potentially controversial — Metallica (too hardcore), Eminem (too violent, profane), Jessie J (too British) — but Bruce is a safe selection. Everybody can get behind the Boss.

Well, almost everybody.

Before playing the penultimate set of the night — not sure why the honor of closing out the show went to Rihanna and Eminem over Springsteen, but that’s a project for another day — Bruce joined Zac Brown’s set, along with Dave Grohl, to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” John Fogerty’s 1969 anthem rails against blind patriotism and the whole “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” nature of the Vietnam War.

You can read the full lyrics to “Fortunate Son” here; below, the verse that Springsteen sang:

“Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes
They send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
They only answer, more, more, more.”

You can watch him sing it, too:

Last night, conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard raged against the performance, calling “Fortunate Son” an “an anti-war screed, taking shots at ‘the red white and blue.’ It was a particularly terrible choice given that ‘Fortunate Son’ is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The performance also got the Twitters all a-twitter:

Yes, leave it to Hollywood! *shakes fist*

This reaction seems like… not really an accurate read of this song! Not really at all. Real patriotism entails exactly this: publicly challenging the status quo in a country you believe to be capable of better things. Besides (at the risk of stating the obvious), the song isn’t against soldiers; anti-chickenhawk. In related news: Fogerty literally played this song, last week, on the White House lawn.

Fogerty was drafted when he was 20 years old, in 1965, and came home from active duty two years later. In his own words, he was inspired to write “Fortunate Son” because “I did not support the policy or the war… If you asked anyone in the army at that time why we were going to Vietnam to fight, no one could answer… Probably the real answer was keeping the war machine going, and business. To sacrifice a young man’s life with no real purpose, taking these young men from their mothers and families, was wrong. I was the guy who was living this life… I had very strong feelings about all of this… To me, those soldiers were my brothers. I understood them because I was also drafted into the army just like them. The protest was against the policy, not the soldiers…

“I had been thinking about all this turmoil… It had been on my mind for some time how sons of certain senators escaped the draft. It was very upsetting to me, as a young man of draft age. In political conventions, many times, states will use the phrase “favorite son,” as they recognize their leader to make a nomination. The songwriter in me thought about this, and I changed the name to ‘Fortunate Son,’ a phrase to describe what we have all witnessed in our time… When the troops came home, Nixon turned his back on the soldiers. As my feelings about this got stronger and stronger, I knew I had to write about it.” Fogerty wrote the music first “without even knowing what the lyrics were.” Later, he went to his bedroom with a pen and paper and wrote the lyrics in twenty minutes. “It was very personal to me.”

Interestingly enough, there did not appear to be the same level of uproar when Springsteen played “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song that, in the understatement of the evening, he said was one he “wrote 30 years ago, and I think it still holds up today.”

Maybe because people just think it’s a rah-rah, go America jam? If so, they would not be the first to make that mistake. Shortly after its release, “Born in the U.S.A.” was famously used by Ronald Reagan as a campaign song.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is, to quote music critic Greil Marcus, “about the refusal of the country to treat Vietnam veterans as something more than nonunion workers in an enterprise conducted off the books. It is about the debt the country owes to those who suffered the violation of the principles on which the country was founded, and by which it was justified itself ever since.” Given that the takehome message of the Concert for Valor was to not forget our veterans after they get back from combat — celebrity emcees spent much of their speeches pointing viewers to foundations aimed at employing and aiding vets here at home — “Born in the U.S.A.” is a perfect fit for the theme.

Some people just don’t understand but, then again, sometimes it is really hard to understand these songs. Sometimes it’s hard to understand Bruce Springsteen, period.