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Monday, September 11, 2023

September 11, 2023: AmericanStudying The Rising: “Into the Fire” and “The Rising”

[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On two complementary but also contrasting ways to see 9/11 firefighters.

The Rising is about many different things, as I hope this week’s series will make clear, but there’s no doubt that Springsteen’s inspiration for and main perceived focus of the album was the experience of New York City firefighters and first responders and their loved ones on and after September 11th, 2001. Bruce and New York have been intertwined for his whole career, as illustrated by both the famous May 1972 Columbia Records audition for John Hammond and an early song like “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” that he played there (not to mention his youthful sojourns to the city, through which he first truly encountered live rock music as he describes at length in his autobiography). And when a passing driver shouted out “Bruce, we need you” on the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, it seems clear from the album that eventually resulted from that moment that Springsteen took the first-person plural pronoun to mean not just all Americans (although yes) but specifically the community of New Yorkers, and more specifically still that first responder community.

A number of the album’s songs connect to that first responder community and its 9/11 experiences in one way or another, but two of the album’s bookends do so very specifically and centrally for NYC firefighters: the second song, “Into the Fire”; and the thirteenth, the title track “The Rising.” The two songs share a very similar through-line, imagery of those firefighters climbing the steps of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, ascending into the fire that was both their expected (if still courageous) professional destination and the source of their tragic deaths. But their speakers and perspectives represent two distinct if interconnected sides of the coin when it comes to that subject and experience: “The Rising” is narrated by one of the firefighters himself, thinking about his wife and family at home as well as his 9/11 experiences; while “Into the Fire” is narrated by the spouse (presumably wife, although the gender is unspecified) of a firefighter, reflecting on their family life as well as her husband’s (again presumably) 9/11 experiences.

Of course those two perspectives are complementary, and they don’t present radically different views of the experiences or events (this isn’t Springsteen’s Rashomon, that is). But there is one interesting and important way in which they contrast, and that’s in their overarching tone. “Into the Fire” certainly strives for optimism at times, particularly in the repetition of lines like “May your strength give us strength”; but to my mind the song’s central tone is that of loss and mourning and grief, one captured in more intimate lines like “I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher” and “You lay your hand on me/Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave.” “The Rising” acknowledges those darker emotions, especially in lines from the bridge like “Sky of blackness and sorrow” and “Sky of longing and emptiness”; but to my mind its central tone is that of the power and potency of shared sacrifice, one captured with particular clarity by the opening lines of the chorus: “Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine.” The speaker of “Fire” remembers the intimate laying of hands that was lost on 9/11, while “The Rising” reflects the communal laying of hands that can result from such tragedies—both pretty crucial perspectives to remember on the anniversary of such events.

Next RisingStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?

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