Article 2006-06-22 New York City, NY

Folk Revival as Only Springsteen Can Do It

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 60'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 were a trove of melody, history, poetry and anonymous genius; they were also, 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, but 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 that Mr. Seeger recorded. Mr. Springsteen 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.)

Mr. Springsteen's band grew to 19 members during the concert, including a 6-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 a 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 deliberately 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.

By Jon Pareles via The New York Times.

The Boss Lets Freedom Ring, With Banjo

THIS is what you would do. Close the bedroom door to the quiet indignities of childhood. Unclasp a small but hefty box to reveal a now forgotten device called a portable record player. Plug it in.

Make a selection from the albums your parents bought when they used to listen to music. No, not Mitch Miller and his Gang. No, not Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Where's the skinny guy with the reedy voice, always singing about freedom? Here. Pete Seeger.

Place the needle down on a disc now spinning in promise, catch the groove, and allow old words and ancient melodies to seep in until they could never be removed. The skips and hisses on the scratched records are as ingrained as the choruses in memory.

You did not listen to be cool; in this age of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, you were unlikely to impress a girl by singing the opening lines to "Erie Canal" ("I've got a mule and her name is Sal …"). Not that you ever summoned the nerve to speak to girls, much less sing to them.

No, you listened because you found something affirming in songs that honored hard work, struggle and standing up for what you believe. You felt connected to your immigrant roots, to your African-American neighbors and to your country, of which you sang with innocent pride. You felt connected to your father, to your mother.

In the era of King and Kennedys shot, you would sit beside the record player and sing, "Oh Mary don't you weep don't you moan, oh Mary don't you weep don't you moan. Pharaoh's army got drowneded, oh Mary don't you weep." And feel the consolation.

In the era of Vietnam and civil rights battles, you would sing, "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday." And believe it.

Then you grew up. Vietnam ended like an unfinished sentence, and King and the Kennedys settled into the abstraction of history. Your mother died and your father stopped singing. The albums went to storage.

Nearly 2,800 people died a couple of miles from where you worked; for weeks the smell of the pyre wafted through your Midtown office window. Your country went to war. Hurricane Katrina crushed one part of the South, and Hurricane Rita crushed another.

You sensed the unimpeded march of Pharaoh's army.

The other night you went to a Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden. Some celebrities sat a few rows behind you, and a group of older women, including the singer's mother, sat beside you. You feared your own presence constituted a security breach, but the lights dimmed, no one tapped you on the shoulder, and so you stayed.

In the stage shadows you could see the silhouette of Mr. Springsteen shaking hands and slapping the backs of musicians, 17 or so, as they stepped up and took their places in what is being called the Seeger Sessions. One held a banjo, another an accordion, another a tuba. This was not the E Street Band.

Then music exploded from the stage: rock and bluegrass, jig and reel, spiritual and swing, honky-tonk and acoustic blues, working separately and in concert to coax from dormancy all those old songs that once meant something to you.

Think of it. In this era of post-post-post irony, there sounded in Midtown Manhattan the lyrics to "Erie Canal," with that mule named Sal. In this era of Operation What-Was-It-Again, there rang out a song nearly 200 years old, "Mrs. McGrath," whose soldier son's legs were swept away by a cannonball on the fifth of May.

In this era of Paris Hilton idealization, of pleasure found in a tycoon snarling "You're fired," tens of thousands of people sang of climbing Jacob's ladder; of keeping your eyes on the prize; of overcoming.

Mr. Springsteen occasionally slowed the celebration to a contemplative pace. His "My City of Ruins," written for Asbury Park, then applied to post-9/11 New York, now ached for New Orleans. His version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" became a prayer.

More often, though, he raised his audience up with old songs and spirituals that he had infused with rocking urgency, then toyed with so that brass and guitar could harmonize, an accordionist could jam with the Boss, and a tuba player could know rock-concert adulation.

People danced, those celebrities swayed, the mother beside you raised her hands in joy. And you sang again:

Brothers and sisters don't you cry

There'll be good times by and by

Pharaoh's army got drowneded

Oh Mary don't you weep.

By Dan Barry via The New York Times.
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