This song is based on conversations Springsteen had with his brother-in-law. After losing his construction job, he worked hard to support his wife and young child, but never complained.
The shotgun wedding in the story relates to Springsteen's sister, who got married when she was still a teenager. She knew it was about her and her husband the first time she heard it.
Always a champion of the working class, Springsteen has often spoken out against income inequality, which became a big political issue in the late '00s. Back in the '80s though, Springsteen was talking about it, and he often did so through the context of this song.
At a show in Pittsburgh on September 22, 1984, he dedicated the song to union steelworkers in Pennsylvania who were fighting for better wages and working conditions. Said Springsteen: "There's something really dangerous happening to us out there. We're slowly getting split up into two different Americas. Things are gettin' taken away from people that need them and given to people that don't need them, and there's a promise getting broken. In the beginning the idea was that we all live here a little bit like a family, where the strong can help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones. I don't think the American dream was that everybody was going to make it or that everybody was going to make a billion dollars, but it was that everybody was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect. So I know you gotta be feelin' the pinch down here where the rivers meet."
This was influenced by the Hank Williams song "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It."
Regarding this song, Springsteen wrote in the liner notes to his Greatest Hits album, "A breakthrough song for me. It was in the detail. One of the first of my story songs that eventually led to Nebraska."
Springsteen performed this for the first time on September 21 and 22, 1979 at the "No Nukes" concerts at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen headlined a show with James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills & Nash as Musicians United for a Safe Energy (MUSE). This was the only new song he played at the shows.
This performance at the "No Nukes" concerts was included in a film documenting the shows released in 1980.
This was the title track to a double-album released in 1980. The year before, Springsteen recorded it for an album called The Ties That Bind, which he decided not to release. This and six other tracks from that album were included on The River.
A long, intense version was featured on the 1999 E Street Band reunion tour.