Highway Patrolman

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"Highway Patrolman"
Song by Bruce Springsteen from the album Nebraska
Released 1982
Format Vinyl record
Recorded January, 1982
Genre Heartland rock, folk rock
Length 5:40
Label Columbia
Producer Bruce Springsteen
Nebraska track listing
"Johnny 99"
(4)
"Highway Patrolman"
(5)
"State Trooper"
(6)

"Highway Patrolman" is a song written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen and was first released as the fifth track on his 1982 album Nebraska.

The song tells the story of Joe Roberts, the highway patrolman of the title from whose viewpoint the song is written – and his brother, Franky, and is set in the 1960s. Franky is portrayed as unruly and frequently causing and encountering trouble, while Joe is the more mature, sensible (and likely elder) brother who always comes to his aid.

In 1965, Franky joins the United States Army (and presumably is sent to Vietnam, though this is not made explicit), while Joe takes a farm deferment and marries a girl called Maria (who, it is implied, had attracted the attentions of both brothers). Within three years however, falling wheat prices cause Joe to leave the farm and take a job as a highway patrolman. Meanwhile, in 1968, Franky leaves the army and returns home. One night, Joe receives a call and visits a bar where a boy has been attacked, with witnesses identifying his attacker as Franky, who has fled. Joe chases Franky through rural Michigan until they reach - and Franky crosses - the Canadian border, the implication being that Joe has allowed him to escape; as the lyrics suggest, "when it's your brother, sometimes you look the other way" and "I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his tail lights disappear."

Like the rest of the album, the song was recorded on Springsteen's four-track cassette recorder with the intention of it being performed for the album with his full band; however, it was felt that the demo version of the song was superior to the eventual 'band cut' and was released on the album in its original form. It features the same stark, bleak atmosphere as the remainder of its parent album, and in terms of instrumentation, contains simply vocals, (very quiet) harmonica and acoustic guitar.

Springsteen featured the song only once on the "American Land" leg of his critically acclaimed tour with the Seeger Sessions band, and the version is featured on the 2007 release Bruce Springsteen with The Sessions Band: Live in Dublin. This version was praised by Rolling Stone critic Andy Greene as "fantastic, maybe definitive" in its incarnation as a country weeper4.

Artistic licenses[edit]

Like many creative writers, Springsteen creates a time and place that people can relate to but that may not necessarily exist:

  • The story is set in an area where one can drive into Canada; however,
    • The lyrics say Joe is "a sergeant out of Perrineville." The only American city with that name is in New Jersey. There is, however, an unincorporated community called Perronville in Harris Township, Michigan.
    • While the lyrics state, "I musta done a hundred and ten through Michigan county that night," in actuality there is no Michigan County anywhere in the United States.
  • The chorus refers to "dancin' with Maria as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'." There was no song with such a title when the song was released.

Legacy[edit]

Sean Penn based the screenplay of his 1991 directorial debut The Indian Runner on the song's story. Penn also directed a music video of the song that appears on Video Anthology / 1978-88.

The song was covered by Johnny Cash on his 1983 album Johnny 99. The title track of the album is also a Springsteen song originally released on the album Nebraska.

Dar Williams performed "Highway Patrolman" on Badlands - A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.

External links[edit]