We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
(Columbia Records, 2006), compact disc, $19.98.
For more than six weeks (as I write in July 2006) Bruce Springsteen’s retro-folk album, a tribute to the dean of American folksingers, Pete Seeger, has stayed way up in the Billboard charts of best-selling American records. Of course, the Boss—as Springsteen’s fans call him—has been one of America’s most acclaimed and dynamic rock-and-rollers. His legendary concerts with the E Street Band have filled the largest arenas night after night, and the man who made “Born in the USA” one of the most notable rock anthems in American musical history is used to holding the position at the top of the charts. When he started decades ago at the since-demolished Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a young writer, later to become Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, wrote that he had
“seen the future of rock-and-roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
But the Boss’s fans could not have been ready for this latest release. There is not an electric guitar in sight. Like Eric Clapton some years back, the rocker has gone unplugged. Springsteen presides over a down-home, back-porch get-together recorded in his farmhouse living room in just three days without any rehearsals. He plays an acoustic Gibson guitar and a harmonica, surrounded by the sounds of a five-string banjo, country fiddles, an accordion, an upright acoustic bass, and a horn and rhythm section composed of a tuba, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and drums. This ensemble allows Springsteen to broaden the concept of folk music to show its intersection with traditional jazz and gospel music. And what irony: Folk purists and leftists, not least Pete Seeger himself, went ballistic when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, trading in topical songs for introspective rock. It was a long road from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Like a Rolling Stone.” Now the Boss has moved in exactly the opposite direction, from rock to old folk, and we have come full circle.
Not since the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Seeger’s own group the Weavers hit the top of what was then called “The Hit Parade” with songs like “Goodnight Irene”, “On Top of Old Smokey”, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and “Wimoweh” (later to become a hit by the Tokens and be featured in The Lion King)—not since then has traditional folk music had such a wide audience. The early Sixties saw the start of what became “the great folk revival”, when “Seeger’s children”, as those who learned his music at left-wing summer camps in Chicago, California and New York were called, formed their own groups when they got to college. At the same time, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Tarriers and others managed to bust the charts with number one hits. In those years, ABC aired a weekly series called Hootenanny, in which many of these groups were featured (although Seeger himself, still suffering from the residue of the 1950s blacklist, was not allowed to appear).
Springsteen started playing guitar after watching this program. He quickly made the switch to rock and roll and electric guitar just as rock washed the folk revival out of sight and mostly off the airwaves. Folk thrived on a smaller scale, with a growing number of venues around the country near big cities—places like the Mainpoint in suburban Philadelphia and the Cellar Door in Washington, DC. A new generation of folk-influenced singer-songwriters honed their craft, built up a small but solid audience and actually managed to make a modest living with their music.
In the ensuing years, folk transmogrified into the short-lived folk-rock movement, when groups like the Byrds and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band revved up the sound using folk standards played in a new way, combining electric and acoustic instruments in a manner that made the music more accessible and danceable. They also integrated the sound of the bluegrass-inspired five-string banjo into their repertoire, and folk-rock acquired a country twang with bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers, a Byrds’ offshoot of the early 1970s. The country influence helped lead many to discover Appalachian mountain music on their own.
At about the same time, bluegrass music itself, an up-tempo transformation of Appalachian music pioneered by mandolinist Bill Monroe and banjo player Earl Scruggs, began to punch into the musical mainstream thanks in part to Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys playing the theme song to the blockbuster 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Today, bluegrass is mainstream, its popularity soaring with giant audiences for Alison Krauss and Union Station and the success of the Coen Brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and its live concert spin-off—as well as the successful “Down From the Mountain” tour and CD, spotlighting the artists whose music was featured in the movie.
But not until the arrival of Springsteen’s hit compact disc and sold-out tour have the old folk songs been featured and performed for mass audiences, not only in America, but throughout the world. Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band has traveled through Europe singing these old folk standards to audiences who have never heard—or heard of—Pete Seeger. Sometimes the Boss’ audiences are serenaded into a state of shock. In Washington many in the crowd shouted “sing the good stuff” and seemed put off that they weren’t at the usual Springsteen rock show. In Los Angeles, as staff writer Ann Powers reported in the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood’s elite seemed reluctant to join in singing with the Boss as they surely would have done at an E Street Band concert. “Pathetic”, Bruce joked, commenting on their attempt to sing along with “Old Dan Tucker.”
But Powers caught perfectly what was so new and dazzling about Springsteen’s show, and what was different from the way the old folk songs have been previously performed. The music, she realized, “made room for everything from Preservation Hall-style jazz to Western swing, zydeco, Southern gospel, jump blues, country blues, conjunto, classic country and boogie-woogie. . . . It was a history lesson you could dance to.” The music, reminiscent of the various intertwined traditions of American roots music, similar in style much of the time to that offered by The Band in the 1970s and early 1980s (indeed, Bruce has added Levon Helm’s “Rag, Mama, Rag” to the touring show), captures the universality and Americanness of the songs Pete Seeger has been singing and playing since the 1930s.
Seeger began his career with a forthright political agenda. An old-style Stalinist and card-carrying member of the American Communist Party, he argued from the start that “music is a weapon”, a theme immortalized by the words written on the guitar of his pal and singing partner Woody Guthrie: “This machine kills Fascists.” In groups like the Almanac Singers, Seeger sang at union halls and antiwar rallies (including those run by Communist Party fronts during the era of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact), and came into his own as a featured antiwar activist and singer during the Vietnam War years. But Seeger’s other side emphasized the story of America told by old traditional folksingers like Bascom Lamar Lunsford—a banjo picker whose politics and view of the world were 180 degrees out from anything Seeger believed, and whose music and life reflected the Appalachian culture he was born to.
When Seeger sang songs like “Old Dan Tucker”, an 1840s fiddle tune written by Dan Emmett, he stood alone and plucked simply on his banjo. When he played “John Henry”, the classic folk ballad about the attempt of workmen to beat the steam drill while building the first American railroads, it was a simple, solo affair. Seeger realized himself that he needed a bit more for performances. “Pay Me My Money Down”, which Springsteen covers, was a sea chanty sung with a calypso beat by black stevedores in Georgia and South Carolina, commenting upon the scheme of some captains to ship out of harbor without having paid their old crew. Seeger sang it with the Weavers, who commercialized it by adding a guitar solo by Fred Hellerman and a steady beat. Springsteen’s cover is a majestic wall-of-sound, all-acoustic rendition that is more powerful still, with a zydeco-New Orleans sound replete with horns and banjos. It stirs up the music juices but good.
But is it activism, as well? Some of the press have referred to the Springsteen album as a new protest album in the old Seeger mode, tying its success to widespread disenchantment with the Bush Administration. Certainly, Springsteen is an unabashed old-fashioned left-liberal. He campaigned with and for John Kerry and has hardly made his disdain for George W. Bush a secret. We Shall Overcome includes “Mrs. McGrath”, a ballad popular during the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland (but which actually dates from 1815). The lyrics capture the pain of war and the sad familiar response of a mother when she sees her son home from battle and hardly recognizes him because of his injuries. It is a timeless song that could be sung during any war, as families come to appreciate the sacrifice their sons and daughters have made for their country. The grieving mother wails a universal lament: “All foreign wars I do proclaim live as blood and a mother’s pain/ I’d rather have my son as he used to be.”
Perhaps realizing that the song hardly says “U.S. out of Iraq”, which is how many have portrayed its message, Springsteen has added to his tour Seeger’s old anti-Vietnam War song, “Bring ’Em Home”, in which he sings, “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring ’em home, bring ’em home/ bring them home from abroad” (Seeger had sung “from Vietnam”). Springsteen is entitled to his views, and he has made them clear. But do his audiences really believe that the United States should pull its troops out of Iraq immediately? Do they believe, as Seeger used to, that the singing of left-wing and antiwar songs has the power to change American foreign policy? For those who are antiwar (and certainly at least a minority of Springsteen’s audience is), the song works as catharsis. But as before, even in the political folk heyday of the Vietnam War, most of the audience shows for the music; the performers, meanwhile, show up to make it—and to sell records.
There’s nothing wrong with that. We Shall Overcome succeeds in giving us a portrait of America as it grew and matured. Once again Jesse James robs the Glendale train and mule drivers haul barges down the Erie Canal. The black gospel choir helps us once more climb Jacob’s Ladder, and wails and soars in Springsteen’s powerful version of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”, which the Boss sang in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The audience roared with raw emotion at the verse, “Brothers and sisters don’t you cry/ There’ll be good times by and by”, when they realized it was sung especially for them. We relive the plight of Okie migrants during the 1930s Dust Bowl, as Springsteen sings Sis Cunningham’s Guthrie-esque story of how her old home “blowed away.” And the kids can laugh with the famed 16th-century Scottish ballad “Froggie Went A Courtin’”, just as some of their parents and grandparents heard it from Burl Ives in the 1940s, Seeger in the 1950s, or the incomparable Doc Watson in the 1960s.
The success of the Seeger Sessions album and Springsteen’s summer tour does not, of course, mean that the folk revival as such is returning in a new phase. American music has become too mixed up and amorphous for that to happen again, and much too commercialized for authenticity to conquer our ersatz-loving marketplace. Far more people will buy the CD of this year’s winner of American Idol than will listen to the Seeger Sessions band. Alas, there really is no accounting for taste. But by going back to the roots of American music, rediscovering what the critic Greil Marcus calls “the old weird America”, Bruce Springsteen will surely lead many—Americans and others all over the world—back to the glorious basics, to sounds and sentiments so old, pure and completely, eclectically American that their power is truly timeless. It’s an order from the Boss.