Friday, June 23, 2006
Jon Pareles: Springsteen Takes Folk Tradition for a Spin
The New York Times
Published: June 23, 2006
Every so often during his concert with his Seeger Sessions band at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen footnoted his songs like the authenticity-obsessed characters who made the folk revival so easy to ridicule.
Before he sang "Jesse James," he credited the originator, Billy Gashade, and mentioned Woody Guthrie's rewrite; he said he'd be following the original. With a smile, he added, "It holds to the maxim, `When the legend becomes fact, write the legend.'" And then he led his band in a version like a tall tale.
It started with banjo picking, picked up a hoedown beat, tossed in a Tex-Mex accordion and a Western-swing fiddle, and wound up with some razzing Dixieland-style horns. It was tough-minded and fun; it was also about as authentic as a covered wagon with chrome wheels.
The Seeger Sessions band is Mr. Springsteen's uninhibited take on the folk revival, spearheaded by Pete Seeger and others, that peaked in the 1950's and 1960's. They wanted to let America and the world hear the music made by ordinary people in out-of-the-way places.
In hindsight, they were about half right. The folkies understood that the old songs are a trove of melody, history, poetry and anonymous genius; they also were, for a few decades, good tools for organizing the labor movement and the civil-rights movement. But the folkies' garbled notions of authenticity - rewriting lyrics as agitprop was fine, using an electric guitar was not - led the folk revival to self-parody and obsolescence when rock started taking itself just as seriously.
Mr. Springsteen's album "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" (Columbia), revisits songs Mr. Seeger recorded. He chose them, as Mr. Seeger had, for their visions of working Americans ("John Henry," "Pay Me My Money Down") and hard times ("My Oklahoma Home"), for a spirit of resistance ("We Shall Overcome" and "Eyes on the Prize," an old song rewritten for the civil-rights movement) and for antiwar conviction (the 19th-century Irish song, "Mrs. McGrath," which says, "All foreign wars I do proclaim/Live on blood and a mother's pain.") The album doesn't include any of Mr. Seeger's own topical songs. But the concert did, when Mr. Springsteen performed "Bring 'Em Home," which Mr. Seeger wrote during the Vietnam war. (It's available free on www.brucespringsteen.net/site.html.)
Mr. Springsteen's band grew to 19 members during the concert, including a six-member horn section. Nearly all the instruments were acoustic. The band didn't simply strum and pick in the hootenanny style of folk-revival acts like the New Christy Minstrels (although a 1960's group, the Village Stompers, had some similar string-band-to-Dixieland arrangements). The Seeger Sessions band played a boisterous kaleidoscope of styles, never sticking to just one per song: Appalachian music, gospel, jump-blues, Irish reels, New Orleans R&B, mariachi, Cajun music, even some acoustic funk for a version of Mr. Springsteen's own "Johnny 99." Credit the lasting impact of the folk revival for letting Mr. Springsteen find musicians in New York who are adept in so many regional styles.
Mr. Springsteen, as always, had serious intentions. He sang the version of Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" that he rewrote with New Orleans in mind, as well as his hymnlike version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." He introduced "We Shall Overcome" as a song about issues that have still not been resolved, and played it in a slow-building version that moved deliberatly from solitude to camaraderie.
But the concert never bogged down in self-righteousness. There was always another turn in the arrangements, another startlingly timely old lyric, another happy anachronism. "What can a poor boy do, 'cept play in a ragtime band?" Mr. Springsteen rasped as the band played "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" with a zydeco rubboard ratcheting away.
And if the spirit of the folk revival was in its singalongs, then Mr. Springsteen was definitely carrying it on. His fans have long filled arenas with verse-and-chorus singalongs on his songs, and they had already learned the material on the new album. Now they were raising their voices to sing old songs revived one more time.