2015 marks the anniversary of a pretty important Bruce Springsteen album. Twenty years ago, Bruce released The Ghost Of Tom Joad.
What, you thought we were referring to the 40th anniversary of Born To Run or the 35th anniversary of The River? Well, that’s understandable, in part because those albums are iconic, and in part because The Ghost Of Tom Joad is a bit of an odd duck in the Springsteen catalog. Released as a solo effort during the time when the E Street Band were inactive, the album is largely acoustic and populated with characters whose lives of tragedy and heartbreak play out thousands of miles from the Jersey shore.
Yet the album is a rewarding, often harrowing journey for those who wish to take it, and it includes “The Line,” one of his most compelling story songs. The subtext of the song is the issue of immigration at California’s border with Mexico, but Springsteen wisely focuses on the humanity at the heart of the issue, creating memorable characters and palpable conflict.
Springsteen explained his strategy for writing topical material to Mother Jones magazine shortly after the release of The Ghost Of Tom Joad. “I don’t like the soapbox stuff,” he said. “I don’t believe you can tell people anything. You can show them things.”
“I don’t set out to make a point, I set out to create compassion and understanding and present something that feels like the world,” he continued. “I set out to make sure something is revealed at the end of the song, some knowledge gained. That’s when I figure I’m doing my job.”
Springsteen accomplishes all of that and then some on “The Line.” He borrows the melody line from Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” but where Dylan’s song is a playful ramble, Springsteen’s moves at a glacial pace and he sings as if he’s afraid to emote too much lest he irritate an open wound. That’s just the right tenor to strike for the song’s protagonist, a former soldier and widower named Carl who takes a job with the California Border patrol.
He is befriended by a coworker named Bobby Ramirez who shows him the ropes and explains the motivations of those trying to cross “The Line”: “They risk death in the deserts and mountains/ Pay all they got to the smugglers rings/ We send ‘em home and they come right back again/ Carl, hunger is a powerful thing.” Springsteen clearly did his homework, as his descriptions of the job are so detailed they’re practically cinematic: “At night I chased their shadows/ Through the arroyos and ravines” and “At night they come across the levy/ In the searchlights dusty glow/ We’d rush ‘em in our Broncos/ And force ‘em back down into the river below.”
But Carl’s penchant for following orders and doing the job no questions asked is challenged when one of the illegal immigrants he encounters reminds him of his dead wife. He then meets her again in a Mexican bar and, as they dance, his resolve crumbles. “I knew what I would do,” he says, and when she asks him to get her and her family members across the border, the consequences of his decision become clear. And those consequences intensify when it’s revealed that Luisa’s brother is using the trip to smuggle in drugs.
As he attempts to get Luisa across the line, Carl is spotted by Bobby. The two step out of their vehicles and face off, the tension unbearable as Springsteen sets the scene: “I felt myself movin’/ Felt my gun restin’ ‘neath my hand/ We stood there starin’ at each other/ As off through the arroyo she ran.” The song ends with Carl leaving the job and hoping against hope he’ll see the girl for whom he gave up everything: “At night I search the local bars/ And the migrant towns/ Lookin’ for my Luisa/ With the black hair fallin’ down.”
There are no soapboxes or speechifying from Springsteen, just a bunch of characters faced with impossible choices. In this way, “The Line,” a brilliant song from an unheralded album, illuminates a topic still thorny and divisive today.
Jim Beviglia is the author of Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs.