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"Highway Patrolman"
Song by Bruce Springsteen

from the album Nebraska

Released 1982
Format vinyl record
Recorded January, 1982
Genre Rock, Folk
Length 5:40
Label Columbia Records
Producer Bruce Springsteen
Nebraska track listing
"Johnny 99"
"Highway Patrolman"
"State Trooper"

"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, Frankie, and is set in in the 1960s. Frankie 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, Frankie joins the United States Army (and presumably is sent to Vietnam, although 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 at different times). Within three years however, falling wheat prices cause Joe to leave the farm and take a job as a highway patrolman; meanwhile, in 1968, Frankie leaves the army and returns home. One night, Joe receives a call and visits a bar where a boy has been attacked and possibly killed, with witnesses identifying his attacker as Frankie, who has fled. Joe chases Frankie through rural Michigan until they reach - and Frankie 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"

As with the whole 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 full band orchestration; however, it was felt the demo version of the song was superior to the eventual 'band cut', and consequently 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 finger-picked 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

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

  • The story is clearly set in an area where one can drive into Canada, however
    • the lyrics say that Joe is "a sergeant out of Perrineville," - the only American city with that name is in New Jersey.
    • while the lyrics state, "I must've done one hundred and ten through Michigan County that night," in actuality there is no 'Michigan County' in the states of Ohio, Michigan or Pennsylvania. He possibly meant a generic county in Michigan.
  • The chorus of the song refers to "dancin' with Maria as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'." As of 2009, there is no song with such a title or nickname.


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 and Dar Williams.

External links


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