Springsteen began performing the song This Hard Land live in 1993. It was originally written and recorded for the album Born In The USA (1984), but was left off. Later it was re-recorded and became one of five previously unreleased songs on the 1995 Greatest Hits album. In 1998 the official 1982 studio version was released on the Tracks box set. Earlier this year a live version was included on the Songs of Hope playlist.
If you can’t make it stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive if you can and meet me in a dream of this hard land
The song is a typical character-driven narrative with a folksy Woody Guthrie inspired melody. On the surface This Hard Land basically is a Western movie in five minutes. It is a story of friendship and brotherhood told through the life of a brother and a sister looking for a new life in the south-west of the US; you can see the dust, feel the saddle and hear the choppers hurdling the cattle (?).
Let’s take a deeper dive into those lyrics: The first verse puts the listener in a place; overlooking the large open prairie, the narrator is talking to someone (you, himself or anyone who will listen) and he is frustrated. He is trying work his head around why the seeds he’s sown won’t grow.
In the second and third verse he and his sister are the seeds. They’ve moved around trying to find a place to call home, somewhere to settle down and start anew. Despite all they have gone through and all the effort they have made they can’t find any arable land for cultivating their family. They have ended up in a desolated place where not even the rain will fall (and the scarecrows lie face down in the dirt).
In the fourth verse the narrator has finally found work. He and his friend Frank are working with cattle but it is not what they wanted. Their dream is to be somewhere else and in the fifth verse they plan to leave it all behind and move on.
Although the lyrics illustrate hard times, the frustration of trying to find a connection and a sense of belonging and the struggle to fulfil your dreams, the song also conveys hope and belief. The line: “if you can’t make it stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive if you can and meet me in a dream of this hard land” is immortal and iconic among fans.
I love this song and the melancholy mixed with idealism it expresses. It exists in countless versions; the live ones that are performed both acoustically and with full band, the first recorded one from 1982 and the re-recorded version from 1995 and I can’t really say which one I like best.
Which version do you prefer?