Highway Patrolman

There are far more songs that make me happy than sad, but there are a few sad ones that I tend to enjoy. Some of these are non-vocal classical pieces by the likes of Éric Satie and Arvo Pärt. Others still are by such legendary purveyors of melancholy as Leonard Cohen, Joy Division and The Smiths. For me, listening to sad songs when I’m unhappy fulfills as important a function as listening to upbeat numbers when I’m feeling good. In fact, I derive no joy from listening to pop songs when I’m down in the dumps and much prefer listening to a singer who sounds even worse than I do. The one I’ve chosen isn’t a sad song as such, but the combination of its melody, lyric and the dejected voice of the singer always conjures up feelings of sadness when I hear it. Highway Patrolman was one of ten sparse acoustic songs that Bruce Springsteen wrote for his 1982 album Nebraska. It was also one of two songs from that album that Johnny Cash performed on his Johnny 99 album the following year (the other was the title track)

The song is set in the 60s and tells the tale of two brothers, Joe and Frank Roberts. Joe narrates the tale and tells how his brother joined the army in 1965, while he took a farm deferment and got married. Three years later, Joe packed in the farm for economic reasons and became a highway patrolman. Frank also returned from the army and seemed to spend his time getting into trouble. In the chorus, Joe looks back with fondness at the happier times he had with his brother and how he now has to clean up after him whenever he fails to “walk the line”, surely a nod to one of Cash’s most famous songs. The song ends as Joe follows Frank’s car to the Canadian border after yet another indiscretion and allows him to flee for what seems like the last time. There is sadness in Springsteen’s original, but Cash brings even more to his moving interpretation. Sean Penn wrote and directed an adaptation of the song that was released under the title Indian Runner in 1991. The reason for the change of title was that Alex Cox released an unrelated film called Highway Patrolman that year. Despite a strong cast, Penn’s directorial debut is not as powerful as the song, possibly because it fills in a lot of the narrative gaps in Springsteen’s lyric. Penn also directed a music video for the song, in which he matched scenes from the movie to the song’s narrative. Perhaps that’s all he needed to do in the first place

Highway Patrolman (Bruce Springsteen cover) – Johnny Cash

Image taken from Vertigo Magazine

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2 thoughts on “Highway Patrolman

    • I’m familiar with that version, Dan, but it doesn’t work as well for me coz of the change of gender. She could be JO Roberts, of course, and it might work better that way

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