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Come On Up For The Rising

Even though Bruce Springsteen has just started hitting the road for Barack--Philly on Saturday, Ypsilanti today--his songs have been staples of Obama campaign events pretty much since the beginning. In particularly heavy rotation has been "The Rising," a song--as Boss historian Reverend Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz explains for us here--that has seen its meaning altered since it first came out in 2002.

When Bruce Springsteen appeared in Barcelona in October of 2002, on the European leg of the tour promoting his post-9/11 epic, The Rising, there were discussions on how to properly translate the album's title song for a souvenir flyer that would be distributed at the concert that evening. There are, it seems, at least three suitable words in Spanish that may be rendered as "rising": One is subida, used to denote a trek, a journey, a steep climb. Then there is the more politicized term levantamiento, which usually refers to an insurrection. Finally, of course, there is the more blatantly religious or spiritual term, resurreccion. Interestingly, those responsible for those early translations decided to split the difference and inserted all three Spanish terms in the song at various points.

Springsteen himself is usually refreshingly vague when it comes to saying what he had in mind when he wrote particular lyrics. But when Nightline's Ted Koppel asked him if he had the resurrection in mind when he wrote "The Rising," Bruce didn't deny it. Such traditional images of Christian faith "are always very close" to him, Springsteen said, "and they explain a lot about life."

But as the poet James Russell Lowell once intoned, "New occasions teach new duties." If The Rising was Springsteen's response to the tragedy and terror of September 11, then his subsequent albums--Devils & Dust, released in 2005, and last year's Magic--contain his ruminations on the years that have come since. It is an understatement to say that he doesn't like what he sees.

To many ears, "The Rising" now seems to have an angrier edge to it than it did when he originally performed it. Its placement in setlists for Springsteen's recent concerts--invariably played just before "Last to Die", an unambiguously angry song in which Springsteen (echoing John Kerry's testimony before Congress in 1971) asks, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?"--would seem to underscore a steady movement from resurrection to insurrection.

It seems that this is the spirit in which the Obama campaign has adopted Springsteen's opus. Many of the song's references are particular to 9/11, but there is much in the song--its "li, li, li's" like abbreviated alleluias; its clarion call to "put your hand in mine" in unity; its "dream of life" lyric that pervades the second half of the song--that asks us to leave our shame and heartbreak behind and follow a more excellent path. Indeed, it seems a fitting theme song for a campaign that has asked us over and over to support "change we can believe in" and to "become the change" we want to see in the world.

"The Rising" is about both resurrection and insurrection. In spite of all the terror it reflects, it is a song of hope. It is a song about the amazing new things that are possible when men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit turn their backs on the failures, follies, and tragedies of the past, and join hands together to build a new life for themselves and for those who will follow. As Springsteen also sings in "Long Walk Home," one of the songs on his newest album, it's never too late, for individuals or for nations, to begin again. But that takes real work, and every "rising"--whether it be an insurrection or a resurrection or some curious synthesis of the two--also has within itself a bit of the subida, the oftentimes steep and arduous climb.

--Reverend Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz