William Blake and Bruce Springsteen


I recently found on my shelves and read a 1994 biography titled Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, by Patrick French. There’s a lot to say about this book and its subject Francis Younghusband, an enthusiastic player in the British Empire’s Great Game of geopolitics with Russia and China in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One fascinating sidenote is the creation story of the song/hymn “Jerusalem,” which pairs stirring music with some of the 18th-century poet William Blake’s typically-vivid words:

                Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

                Bring me my Arrows of desire:

                Bring me Spear: O clouds unfold!

                Bring me my Chariot of fire!!

 Rather bizarrely, this poem about ‘dark Satanic Mills’ was actually created as a rallying song for the British war effort during World War I. A group organized by Younghusband, Fight for Right, had the song composed and used for the first time in 1916. It has since been considered England’s second national anthem.

The last line of the stanza quoted above may be an aha moment for some: “Jerusalem” is sung during the final church scene in “Chariots of Fire,” and it gave the film its title. In his account of the song’s origin and subsequent history, the author of Younghusband takes a shot at such usage, citing the song as “an easy symbol designed to trigger a nostalgic image of Englishness, of chapel at school and cricket and tradition.”

(I’d just like to totally disagree with this, by the way, at least where this movie is concerned. From the maimed war veterans reduced to carrying the luggage of young Cambridge students, to the overt anti-Semitism and sham amateurism of the British elite, the treatment of England in “Chariots of Fire” is not exactly a gauzy, sentimental whitewash.)

Others, especially Americans who grew up in the 1970s, may have first encountered “Jerusalem” thanks to the progressive-rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Heavy on synthesizers and 1970s musical melodrama, their version is nevertheless moving in its own right. (ELP’s is in fact the first version I ever heard, as a teenager in the ‘70s.)

As I read French’s account of the song, I was baffled that such a poem could be so misread and put to uses so at odds with the beliefs of its creator, who detested soldiers and war.

Then I remembered “Born in the USA.”

In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen’s song, in apparent ignorance of anything but its title. “Born in the USA”’s desperation and nihilism were and are the exact opposite of the “Morning in America” Reagan campaign message.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” suffered a similar fate, as John McCain played it at several campaign appearances in 2008. As with Springsteen’s, Mellencamp’s view of America, with its lost dreams and lack of hope, was lost on the politicos.

So I suppose it makes sense that “Jerusalem” could be a stirring patriotic number. After all, patriotism is often about emotion, not rational thought, isn’t it?