The History of Rock


Heartland Rock

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Heartland rock is a name given to a type of music primarily from the 1970s and 1980s that concerned itself with themes of isolation in the white working class population---especially in the Midwest. The four main artists who have been identified with this style are  John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen. A good example of the style is Michigan native Bob Seger's "Makin Thunderbirds" from his The Distance  album released in 1982. Some lyrics appear below:

The big line moved one mile an hour
So loud it really hurt
The big line moved so loud
It really hurt
Back in 55'
We were makin' Thunderbirds

We filled conveyors
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We met production
Foremen didn't waste words
We were young and proud
We were makin' Thunderbirds

We were makin' Thunderbirds
We were makin' Thunderbirds
They were long and low and sleek and fast
They were all you ever heard
Back in 55'
We were makin' Thunderbirds

Now the years have flown and the plants have changed
And you're lucky if you work
The big line moves but you're lucky if you work...

At the song's beginning the tenor is clear that the workers had pride in their job and the product they made, at end of the song the change in our economy is described by the line "and you're lucky if you  work." Seger describes the lives of the regular man in songs like "Turn the Page," "Main Street," and "Against the Wind."

And the years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded bv strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed...

The lyrics from "Against the Wind" shown above detail the steady erosion in a relationship and a life that becomes more and more isolated and desperate.

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Tom Petty

Petty's band (the Heartbreakers) has been performing for thirty years now and is very difficult to classify although the themes in some of their songs can clearly fall into th category of heartland rock. They formed a strong partnership for a time with Bob Dylan for whom they served as a backing band on tour. According to The All Music Guide to Rock,  Petty's songs have "cataloged a series of middle-class losers and dreamers." The song "Mary Jane's Last Dance" comes to mind as an example. The excerpt below is from "Even the Losers:"

Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes.

Two cars parked on the overpass,
Rocks hit the water like broken glass.
I should have known right then it was too good to last
God, its such a drag when you're livin' in the past.

Bruce Springsteen

Born in Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen released a series of albums in the 1970s and 80s that celebrated the desperate losers who people songs about the heartland. The quote below sums up his considerable contribution to this genre.

"Mr. Springsteen established heartland rock's main topics - unemployment, small-town decline, disillusionment, limited opportunity, bitter nostalgia. And with the overwhelming success of his 1984 album Born in the US.A., which sold 11.5 million copies in the United States alone, the style became a full-fledged movement.."

John Pareles, New York Times

In addition to the album mentioned above; Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, and The River developed Springsteen's themes. The lyrics below are taken from "Badlands:"

Talk about a dream; try to make it real.
You wake up in the night with a fear so real.
You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come.
Well don't waste your time waiting

Badlands you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
Well keep pushin' till its understood
And these badlands start treating us good...

John Mellencamp

Mellencamp had the perfect background to become a voice in heartland rock. He grew up in Seymour, Indiana and actually lived the life of a blue collar worker for a time before he became successful as a musician and song writer. His album  Scarecrow (1985) cemented his position in the forefront of heartland rock. Songs on that album including "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Small Town" are perfect examples of life decaying and dreams being lost:

Scarecrow on a wooden cross blackbird in the barn,
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm.
I grew up like my daddy did my grandpa cleared this land.
When I was five I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand.

Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow
This land fed a nation this land made me proud
And son I'm just sorry there's no legacy for you now
Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow...