Mentor Text: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
- Lyrical Analysis
- Academic writing of analysis
- Looking at tone and mood
- Looking at voice
- Writing lyrical poetry
- Writing narrative poetry
- Pairing writing with other creative work
Recently, I found myself thinking about dream projects. Like many teachers, I have some crazy ideas rolling around the ol’ noggin. There are a bunch of them that require more hours or dollars than I have. And there are a bunch of other ones that I just never seem to realize for various reasons. We’re all like that, I’m sure.
I pitched a proposal to some other teachers that we sit and discuss these projects, and how we could realize them, and support each other in doing this. Between pitching the idea and meeting, I realized something. The only thing stopping us from doing these things is us. If we’ve got a crazy dream project, and supportive administrators, we should just do them.
Which meant that I took The Nebraska Project out of the notebook and into the classroom. See, I’ve long loved this album of Springsteen’s. It’s some of his finest songwriting, and is just so tonally together. There’s lots of legend around it’s creation which make it something special. I’ve pulled the song “Highway Patrolman” into class many times in the past, which is part of what made me want to go deeper with the album. I teach thematically, and the album’s themes of challenge, and dealing with the hard times of the late 70’s and early 80’s made it a perfect fit for my Grade 10s’ study of Heroism & Facing Adversity.
I decided that we would embark on a full study of the album, all ten songs. I pulled a lot of supplemental information together as well, not sure if I would use it, but knowing the review of the stuff I already knew would be good to refresh things during our discussions of the songs.
I printed the lyrics for the album off in a booklet for the students, with a couple of guiding questions along the side, related to the plot of the song, and the tone and mood. My intention was to guide them through a look at the lyrics, having them annotate and make notes. A favorite practice of mine is “curating” our discussions on the whiteboard. (I drop pics of the notes into our LMS, freeing kids up to chat instead of madly taking notes.)
We went through the album, in sequence, dealing with a song a class. We read the lyrics, and then wrote down our initial reactions. Then, we discussed the lyrics. We discussed the plot of the story, the voice, the tone, great lines, and lines we struggled with. I was blessed with a very open and analytical class this year, which added a lot to this project. I filled the board with our notes, lines from the song and our reactions to them, quotes, questions and whatever else came up as we chatted. I always try to push students toward finding lines that speak to them, or lines that are impactful. We also looked, a lot, at how Springsteen said things, how he told these stories. All but two of the songs are in first person, which actually helped our analysis a lot – in short, we treated them like we treat short stories.
Out of our analysis, I had two key tasks in mind, a piece of academic writing, and a piece of creative writing. We had already covered the academic writing as we dealt with Of Mice and Men, and using the notes from our class discussions, the students were well primed for this. They were free to choose a song to focus on, as well as what they wanted to say about it.
What we did:
Lyrical Analysis — Each period we have together is an hour. Usually, we wound up dedicating that full hour to a song. We read through the lyrics together. As we read, I asked them to look for lines that “popped” for them – were profound, or impactful, or simply caught their attention. We would often discuss these lines, and why they popped. This got us into analysis of Springsteen’s craft as a writer, but it also allowed us to look at the stories, the themes and the tone.
In this analysis stage, there were so many wonderful things happening that swelled my TeacherHeart. A few songs in, students were referring back to previous songs in our analysis. Springsteen repeats some lyrics throughout the album, and they caught this, and wondered about the reasons, and explained the impact. They anticipated certain elements, such as death, or the harmonica, and openly discussed the symbolic resonance of these elements. Before we made it halfway, they were pointing out the recurrent themes of the album.
In what may be one of my favorite moments of the analysis stage, the students defended a completely different reading of the lyrics of “My Father’s House” – reading it as a ghost story. I knew that wasn’t the case, but they made strong arguments, and felt that although the album had no other ghost stories, this one fit the album. Let me tell you, this was a great day for the principal to pop in for a visit!
For purposes of clarification, or for contrast, I would end each bit of analysis with some background about the songs. This wasn’t to show them a “right answer,” but to show his thinking, or to provide them with the context of the piece.
Academic writing of analysis — We discussed every song, and the album, as a class, but students were asked to choose a song that “spoke” to them as the basis for a piece of academic writing, a more formal analysis. This was something we had already worked on, so they had practiced, and they had some feedback on. On our discussion, we had focused on the impact of specific lines, imagery, symbolism and other elements. As we analyzed, I made sure to express how we could expand on these things as academic writers.
Looking at tone and mood — I always ended the chat about lyrics discussing tone. This was intentional, because it put tone at the front of our brains as we listened to the song we were studying that period. Though we weren’t going to be writing music for our “songs,” it was important to consider what the musical elements brought to each piece. Literally, this was the element of voice being analyzed and discussed, and enriched our analysis of tone and mood. I was especially proud of the way the students were able to diverge when looking at tone – so often, students feel they can’t assess the tone of the lyrics without the music. They were able to look at the lyrics and music separately, as well as how they worked together.
The album is a concept album of sorts, and this made tone vital. There is a tonal connection between the pieces, and the students picked up on this. What I found interesting was how they picked up on the elements of hope in the songs. Though only one tune, “Reason To Believe,” is outwardly positive, they were able to find nuggets of hope throughout the album, misguided as that hope may have been.
Looking at voice — Springsteen is often a very narrative songwriter. On many of the track on the album, he inhabits a character, and tells their story from their point of view. The title track is from the perspective of killer Charles Starkweather, the narrator of “Atlantic City” is headed there to work for the mob, “Johnny 99” is explaining why he’s off to jail forever, “Highway Patrolman” has that titular man explaining why he let’s his brother get away with what very well may be murder. All but two of the songs are first-person narratives. The beauty of these songs is that we feel something for each of these narrators. Actually, in the songs that weren’t crime-related, my students pitched the theory that those particular lyrics are vignettes from the same character’s life. Coincidentally, those are the ones that are the most autobiographical in nature.
However, the students had an extra element to analyze when looking at voice in these pieces. The music. Much as it added to the tone of the pieces, it helped communicate the voice as well. We discussed his singing voice, and it’s mumbly nature in places. We discussed the upbeat, quasi-rocakabilly nature of pieces like “Johnny 99” and “State Trooper,” and how that conveyed a different emotion than the somber, sparse music of other songs.
A neat side effect of this was that during the writing process, I noticed a number of my writers quietly singing their lyrics to themselves. They had matched them them to a tune in their heads, and worked to fit their words to those rhythms.
Writing lyrical and/or narrative poetry –There were some tense moments as I pitched the Nebraska Project. They were with me until I got to the creative writing part. Essentially, they understood that I wanted them to write their own songs inspired by Springsteen’s work. I think visions of themselves as indentured singer-songwriters terrified all but a few. Once I clarified that they would be writing poetry in the style of the lyrics, we were cool.
We talked a lot about the patterns, about rhyme scheme, about voice, about the use of refrain and repeated lines. We looked at what Springsteen did. We even discussed, briefly, the value of collaborating as writers, so that we could use lines in multiple pieces, as he had in a couple of songs.
We again highlighted the key themes of the album. We then brainstormed what things we could write about locally that touched upon these themes. This was a fascinating conversation, bridging the woes of small town life, farming, the perils of a city and hour away, the harshness of prairie winters, crime in our area and the challenges of the foster care system. Again, a full board of notes was captured, and shared. This conversation occurred the last day before Spring Break, and they left me with instruction to look around them and think about this task.
Upon our return, we wrote. I circulated, discussing what we were writing about. Much like Springsteen does, many of them chose to express their personal feelings and interpretations of the world impacting them directly. Others looked to the crime of the big city an hour away, pulling inspiration from the headlines.
Some wrote as poets, crafting pieces based upon imagery and emotion. Others wrote as storytellers, working narratively. Others wrote as songwriters, considering those other things, but considering rhythm as well. Many wrote quickly, knowing that the tone of these pieces was something that they wanted to be done with. As they expressed it, “It was depressing, so I wrote it to be done with it. There’s good stuff here too.”
Through the process, they were going back to the lyrics. They asked to listen to the album, just to have that tonal inspiration. (Well, they said it differently… “…to bum us out.”) Luckily, they got it. In analyzing as a class, I feel I had laid the groundwork for this writing. A dozen classes discussing the writing of these songs had built fertile soil for my writers.
Pairing writing with other creative work — I love the visual aesthetic of the Nebraska
album too. Simple, stark. Black and white photo on a black background with plain, red text. I wanted to include this idea as well. I’ve actually put a lot of thought into giving students an opportunity to create “showcase projects” in English class, adding visual elements to work they’ve created. As well, colleagues and I had discussed the notion of all the high schools in our division doing the Nebraska Project, and publishing an anthology of the pieces.
So, we borrowed that aesthetic for our completed pieces. Once the pieces were done, we took a walk around town, phones in hand, black and white filters engaged to find imagery that matched what we’d written. The cool day worked for some, as we walked to the lake and took pictures of the ice still there as we approached the end of April. Others needed pictures of urban environments, or police cars, or “rougher looking” homes. Some students needed more rural imagery, and had brought the images in already. The goal was to pair a photo they had taken, or in a couple of cases, found, with what they had written. Everything was collected together, image and writing on a black background. Very nice showcase pieces.
Next time around, I think I’ll do a couple of photo scouting trips though, before writing, and after writing. I worked alongside the students, but it wasn’t until the photo walk that I had an image that inspired my piece.
The Nebraska Project was a labour of love for me. I decided to hang it out there, and see what would happen. At various stages, I was nervous about how it would go. If they hated Springsteen, and the album, listening to and analyzing every song could become another exercise in dragging reluctant students through a text I loved. Didn’t happen. What if they didn’t get it? Didn’t happen. What if they didn’t want to write their own lyrics? Didn’t happen. I was surprised at every turn, how much they had to say about the songs, and what they wrote. In the end, I got to turn a crazy idea I had into a project I’m proud of, excellently executed by students I’m proud of.
Are there other albums that you think could work in this way? What artists’ work could be the basis of a similar analysis and writing project? What could I add to The Nebraska Project in next year’s iteration of it? What’s your favorite Springsteen song?