More than a fan, James M. Kelly, PhD, LSW, professor and director of field education in Carlow’s Social Work Department, listens to Bruce Springsteen songs with students in class.

…Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union
card and a wedding coat

Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…

From “The River” by Bruce Springsteen, 1980

“Look in any [social work] textbook, and there will be a narrative case that is factual and laid out for students in a way that does not require much investigation. If you listen to a song, the lyrics sound a lot more like the way people talk in real life,” Kelly says.

He has drawn from the album The River, using the song titles “Out in the Street,” “The River,” and “Stolen Car.” When analyzed together, the songs’ lyrics cover poignant issues of a young man going from late adolescence to early adulthood.

The music entices students to listen and use investigative skills in order to figure out the issues behind the young man’s story and then think about applying theories. Then Kelly encourages them to more broadly consider the roles of family and society in relation to the song’s character. Further, he asks them to think about how they would advocate for people in similar situations.

Kelly’s recent research focuses on Springsteen as a protest singer, as he presses students to think about social justice and some of the actions social workers could take to help people.

Kelly’s students bring other songs into the classroom, too. They have discussed artists ranging from Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and U2 to Lady Gaga, Pink, and Eminem.

James Kelly and his social work students study Bruce Springsteen lyrics.“My students look at the way America promises to be and the way America really is. They consider their own role in terms of challenging society in America to live up to its promises,” Kelly says.

Kelly continues to develop his unique pedagogy and share it with others. He presented “Protest Singer as Case Study: The Case of Bruce Springsteen” at the 2015 Songs of Protest Social Conference at Limerick University in Ireland and spoke in March at the 2016 National Conference for Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors in Dallas, Texas. A new book on protest singers will include a chapter by Kelly on his pedagogical use of Springsteen to inspire student activism.

Through the use of music, Kelly is able to connect to learners in a way that makes a difference. Students see there’s room in Kelly’s heart to rock, and still more room to help others. 

By Ann Lyon Ritchie

Graphics styled after cover of Bruce Springsteen’s fifth studio album, The River, released October 17, 1980. Title track, “The River” premiered at the September 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts, gaining a featured spot in the subsequent documentary film, No Nukes