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|Song by Bruce Springsteen|
|from the album Nebraska|
|Genre||Folk rock, folk|
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 and appears to be in a serious condition ("on the floor looking bad, bleeding hard from his head"), with a witness ("a girl crying at a table") identifying his attacker as Franky, who has fled. Joe chases Franky through rural Michigan until they reach - and Franky crosses - the Canada–US 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 weeper.
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 - presumably Ohio due to the lyric "Seen a Buick with Ohio plates, behind the wheel was Frank"; however, Ohio and Canada are separated by Lake Erie
- The lyrics say Joe is "a sergeant out of Perrineville." The only American city with that name is Perrineville, New Jersey. There is, however, an unincorporated community called Perronville in Harris Township, Michigan.
- While the lyrics state, "I must have done a hundred and ten through Michigan county that night," there is no Michigan County anywhere in the United States.
- The chorus refers to "dancing with Maria as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'." There was no song with such a title when the song was released.
Dar Williams performed "Highway Patrolman" on Badlands - A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.
Whitey Morgan covered this song on his 2014 album Grandpa's Guitar.
Croatian writer Jurica Pavičić was inspired by the song to write an eponymous novel about two brothers. Croatian Television made it into a 5-episodes TV Show Patrola na cesti (Highway Patrol) in 2015/16.