“The Hands That Built America” by U2

This track is a U2 classic, and accordingly it features some pretty-complex symbolism and historical background. However, there are some definitive ideas which we can ascertain.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for U2's The Hands That Built America at Lyrics.org.

First is that it was written specifically for a film entitled “Gangs of New York” (2002). Said movie is largely based on the experience of Irish immigrants in 19th century New York City. These people were instrumental in helping build up NYC to the city we know today.  As such, the band is honoring them as “the hands that built America”, as New York is now of course one of the most-important cities in the United States.

Not just Irish Immigrants

But U2 is a band that is recognized as one of the more-conscious A-list acts in the music industry. As such, they do not acknowledge only the Irish as “the hands that built America”. Rather they also give shoutouts to a sleuth of Europeans immigrants as well as ‘Hispanics’, “Blacks”, Asians, ‘Muslims’, Native Americans and just about every group that has toiled to make America what it is today. And the implication is that all of these classifications of people faced struggles in the process of doing so but have never been duly recognized for their contributions.

A Symbolic Classic

Where the song gets more symbolic is when Bono sings about the particular mindframe of the narrator. But the way it reads is like the quintessential story of an 18th century American immigrant, i.e. someone who ventures from his more-earthy homeland to the Big Apple in search of dreams unfulfilled. And even after arriving, he faces challenges which still have him doubting if they will ever be manifest.


So comprehensively, we can conclude that the narrator of this song is someone who has come to America in search of a better life. He may not actually have achieved what he idealized, in that the reality of the experience differed from the fantasy. But in hindsight he can still be proud of the fact that his toils contributed to the building of a great nation.

“These are the hands that built America
The Irish, the Blacks, the Chinese, the Jews, Korean, Hispanic, Muslim, Indian”

Release Date of “These Are The Hands That Built America”

This song was featured on two albums in 2002. It was officially released by Interscope Records on December 17th, 2002 on as part of “Gangs of New York: Music from the Miramax Motion Picture”. But even a month prior to that, it came out as part of U2’s greatest hits album which was named “The Best of 1990-2000”.

“The Best of 1990-2000” album and DVD features two different versions of this song.  They are also respectively featured on the two different music videos for “The Hands That Built America”. The album cut, which serves as the official movie theme song, is featured on a music video which shows images of U2 intercut with scenes from “Gangs of New York”. And the latter, which is acoustic, is featured on another video that does not use footage from the film.

A Successful Song

The likely reason U2 included it as one of their greatest hit even prior to it being released is because they knew they had a good tune on their hands.  For instance “The Hands That Built America” won the coveted “Original Song” Golden Globe Award of 2003. 

And that same year it was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Despite its massive success, it does not have a chart history. And this is considering it was never released as a single.

Writing and Production

This track’s production was handled by legendary music producer William Orbit. And the instrumental was buttressed by tin whistler Andrea Corr and her sister, violinist Sharon Corr.

This song was written by the quartet commonly known as U2 – Bono, The Edge, Clayton and Mullen.

Live Performances

The first time U2 performed this song live was on 9 December 2002, i.e. when “Gangs of New York” premiered at the New York Public Library.

It has been noted that since 2004 and as of 2020 going, U2 has only played snippets of “The Hands That Built America” live.

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