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Springsteen Polishes His Roots

by CATHERINE ANN CULLEN And HARRY BROWNE

Harry: Back before Bruce Springsteen had recorded
an album, Pete Seeger was a domestic god in our New Jersey home.
A stack of well-worn LPs was spun and spun again on an old black
box phonograph, and on them Seeger sang songs that bridged adult
and childhood worlds. (To this day my family’s favourite, politically
charged version of ‘This Land is Your Land’ is by Seeger on an
album he made with the cast of Sesame Street.) My dad
was himself a left-wing activist of some repute, and spoke lovingly
of Seeger and some personal contact they’d had when, as I recall,
Seeger was campaigning to clean up the Hudson River and Dad was
a radical priest on the Upper West Side.

Then came Bruce, and a new
hi-fi, to provide the soundtrack for my life from adolescence
onward, and (eventually) to bridge the generation gap back up
to my mother after my father died. The only personal contact
I’ve ever had with Springsteen was a fans-meet-rock-star-outside-hotel
episode in Dublin, 1988, that left my brother and I so irrationally
disappointed and angry that we went on a day-long drinking binge
to purge it. Nonetheless, his songs have been present at every
twist and turn, joy and sorrow in my life, including those involving
the left-wing activism they rarely seemed to reference. When,
near the end of this lovely new album, I heard his voice softly
massaging ‘We
Shall Overcome’
, did the congruence and incongruity bring
a tear to my sentimental Irish-Sicilian-Neapolitan eye? Forget
about it. I blubbered uncontrollably.

Catherine: Although I grew up in Ireland, I
reached my milestones to a soundtrack of Pete Seeger and anyone
else who ever plucked a tune at the Newport Folk Festival. Sometimes
it was my dad singing the songs to his own guitar, sometimes
it was a disc of black vinyl on the crackly record-player which
had three settings, for 33s, 45s and 78s. Our extended family
was full of singers and musicians, and when we got together for
a wedding or a funeral, the party-pieces were protest songs and
ballads. Songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’ sounded
different then, as if the world they aspired to was just around
the corner. It would take just a few more voices, a few more
people holding hands in the circle. Nearly half a century later,
what strikes me on hearing Bruce’s versions of ‘Overcome’ and
‘Eyes on the Prize’ is that the prize seems farther away now,
and the weariness in his voice on those songs in particular is
hard to bear. I am overcome, but I haven’t, and we haven’t.

Harry: In fairness, Bruce is not exactly a stranger
to the world of agit-folk. He was a part-time guitar-strumming
folkie before his first album; in 1979 he played ‘No Nukes’;
in 1980-81 he sent arena-rock audiences scurrying for the toilets
when he talked from the stage about Woody Guthrie (he’d just
read Joe Klein’s biography) and played a funereal solo-acoustic
version of ‘This Land’; two great, mostly acoustic albums, Nebraska
and The Ghost of Tom Joad, are folk-ish in their heartbreaking
observations of poverty and alienation in Reagan and Clinton’s
America, though they are bereft of folky sing-along pleasures;
he’s turned up on Guthrie and Seeger tribute compilations; a
1992 song, ‘The Big Muddy’, transforms the central image of Seeger’s
Vietnam allegory (‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’) into a series
of vignettes about personal corruptibility; much of his recent
work, especially Devils & Dust, is inflected with
folk as well as gospel and blues influences. And then of course
there’s his political campaigning

Still, when the DVD of Devils
& Dust
cast this millionaire Jersey rock-star as a down-home
roots musician, wandering alone through an empty house with rings
and guitar strings flashing in the shadowy light, I couldn’t
resist a sneer here in CounterPunch. This time around, for the
Seeger Sessions, Springsteen has filled a house with musicians
of undeniable ‘authenticity’ and filled a CD with traditional,
sing-along folk and gospel songs. And he has used as his touchstone
Pete Seeger, a prep-school and Harvard lad who didn’t let his
elite (albeit left-elite) upbringing get in the way of his identification
with the language and concerns of oppressed people–and whose
integrity survived his brush with the pop-charts (as a member
of the Weavers) in the early 1950s. Nice call, Bruce.

Anyway, Pete Seeger has had
a good year. He emerged as an unlikely hero of Martin Scorsese’s
Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. (‘Unlikely’ because
rock-oriented Dylanography has tended to take a dimmer view.)
Dave Marsh dedicates his superb liner notes for the new Springsteen
album (5,000-plus words of song-by-song social history) to another
hero of that programme, the recently deceased folk ‘sage’ Harold
Leventhal.

Dylan claims implausibly in
No Direction Home that in the early Sixties he didn’t
know Seeger was a communist, indeed he didn’t even know what
a communist was. At this stage Bruce Springsteen can’t possibly
lay claim to any such naivety, so it’s a genuinely, and gratuitously,
bold move for him to identify himself so clearly with an icon
of the American left, especially when so many of his fans would
rather compare him with Bob Seger than Pete Seeger. In light
of this choice, one can only wonder if Springsteen’s shilling
for John Kerry was just a new incarnation of the Popular Front?

In interviews and his own album
notes Bruce steers clear of talking politics: “turn it up,
put on your dancin’ and singin’ shoes, and have fun”. Starting
the album with the hoe-down of ‘Old Dan Tucker’ and ending it
with the apparent childish nonsense of ‘Froggie Went a-Courtin’
seems designed to show us this is all good clean trivia.

Catherine: You can’t have a folk album without
a fool, or should I say a Fool. Enter Old Dan Tucker, “yer
too later to git yer supper”, a man who “combs his
hair with a wagon wheel” in the same way that one anti-hero
of Irish folksong combs his with the leg of a chair which he
then “takes to bed as a teddy-bear”. It’s a sort of
a come-all-ye, with smatterings of dance songs: “First to
the right and then to the left/ Then to the girl that he loves
best.” But maybe ‘Old Dan Tucker’ has something more to
say to Americans in these sad old days: “Supper’s gone,
Dinner’s cooking/ Old Dan Tucker just stands there looking.”
Is it just possible that in this album peppered with statement
songs, there’s a reference here to Someone who ‘just stood there
looking’, with his vacuous grin, when a little intellectual activity
was called for?

Harry: To my mind, last year’s ‘Devils & Dust’,
drawing on blues and gospel imagery in a first-person account
of soldiering in Iraq, was a noble but failed attempt at an anti-war
song. Whatever he’s actually writing these days, it seems that
for the moment Springsteen’s constantly renewed quest to combine
the personal with the prophetic (a quest completed with almost
unbelievable success on his post-9/11 record, The Rising)
is best pursued through these old ballads and spirituals. Because,
of course, We Shall Overcome is deeply political and concerned
with present-day events, especially the war in Iraq and the enduring
racial oppression exposed by Hurricane Katrina.

The Irish ballad ‘Mrs McGrath’
features a denunciation of foreign wars and a conversation between
a mother and her amputee son that could take place in Walter
Reed Hospital. ‘Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep’, besides taking Bruce
over his MMM (Minimum Mentions of ‘Mary’) threshold, features
a great military machine coming a-cropper in the Middle East:
“Pharoah’s army got drown-ded”. And Katrina’s ‘drown-ded’,
and survivors, are present in the next few songs: ‘Erie Canal’
is recast as a New Orleans funeral march; ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is
a powerful black spiritual of ascent and triumph through endurance;
‘My Oklahoma Home’ is about a Dust Bowl refugee but carries echoes
of the Gulf Coast–also, its echoes of Springsteen’s own work,
especially ‘The River’ and ‘The Promised Land’, are positively
eerie.

Catherine: ‘Mrs McGrath’ (which over here we pronounce
to rhyme with ‘Baa’) is infused with the blackest of humour.
“Now was you drunk or was you blind/ When you left your
two fine legs behind?” It set me thinking that England has
few such ballads of disenchantment with war and the army, though
many songs of loves lost on the battlefield. One rare example
is Arthur McBride, which dates from the early half of the nineteenth
century. Adapted and adopted as an Irish song, it is a less than
pacifist anti-recruitment song, where Arthur and his cousin,
targeted by a recruiting officer, beat up the offending sergeant
and lighten the load of his drummer-boy: “And as for the
weapons that hung by their side/ We flung them as far as we could
in the tide.’ Ireland has many and more grim anti-war songs of
her own, including Mrs McGrath’s cousin, ‘Johnny, I Hardly Knew
You’: “Where are your legs that used to run/ When you went
for to carry a gun?/ Indeed your dancing days are done!/ Oh Johnny,
I hardly knew ye.”
‘Pharoah’s Army Got Drownded’, as it was called then, got the
kiss of life at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and the version
I know is the one sung there by the Swan Silverstones of Caretta,
West Virginia. ‘Mary don’t you weep, Martha don’t you moan
goes their refrain. Bruce leaves out Martha, but on an album
of toe-tappers, ‘Mary’ gets your whole foot stompin’. Both feet,
even.

Harry: Among the other songs, there’s ‘Jesse James’:
Bruce has a kid called Jesse, and it’s good to remind listeners
that the popular-music celebration of outlawry didn’t start with
gangstas; plus the song features the most perfect, irresistible
lyric of praise for a good man: “He’d a hand and a heart
and a brain.” (Still, I prefer the crazed vitality of the
Pogues’ version, left off Marsh’s list of other covers.) `

Catherine: When I hear the opening bars of ‘Jesse
James’, I always find it hard not to sing the version of Woody
Guthrie’s song, ‘Jesus Christ’, recorded by my Uncle Gerry of
the Voice Squad. But Jesse is a fine subject for a ballad too,
and not the first outlaw to make it into the songbooks–Robin
Hood gets whole chapters to himself in ballad histories. I learnt
to finger-pick this on a guitar about 20 years ago, and my fingers
are still smokin’. ‘Jesse’ and ‘John Henry’ (which also featured
in my flat-picking primer) are to me two of the trinity of quintessential
American folk-hero songs, along with ‘Casey Jones’. One of the
ballad books I have suggests that John Henry features in Jamaican
hammer songs older than any found in the US. But that’s another
story.

Harry: John Henry’s tragic steel-driving race with
a steam drill has never sounded more like a metaphor for the
position of the musician in an era of corporate culture. Springsteen
also personalises ‘Eyes on the Prize’: the civil-rights anthem
becomes, in part, a ballad of Bruce’s emerging commitment, as
his voice emerges from solitude into a ringing gospel chorus,
with a crucial lyrical choice of the singular first-person pronoun–“The
only thing I did was wrong/ Stayin’ in the wilderness too long”,
then, swellingly, “The only thing we did was right/ Was
the day we started to fight.”

We Shall Overcome sounds great. Bruce improved the Devils
& Dust
material when he performed it acoustically on
tour, and the acoustic band here is wonderful. The internet E
Street nostalgists may not like it, and they have a powerful
Rising tour to back up their preferences, but to my mind
21st-century Springsteen is at his best without a rock band.

If I’ve got a quibble, it’s
with Springsteen’s voice–an instrument I’ve been defending against
all complaints for three decades. Occasionally on records, and
more often in concert, we’ve heard the great vocal range he has
developed over the years. On this album he pretty much growls
like, well, like Bruce Springsteen. It sounds like he’s taking
his task of singing these songs very seriously indeed. Good.
In most cases it works fine. But there’s a great warmth and humour
that usually lurks in Seeger’s singing, and indeed in that of
Woody Guthrie, which helps to leaven the pain of the material.
As anyone who has heard his between-song patter knows delightfully,
Bruce is not short of warmth and humour, but mostly he fails
to locate it in his singing voice.

Catherine: Among certain folksingers and their
fans there’s a strong anti-embellishment movement, and I have
to count myself among them. It’s the song that’s important, right?–this
song that has come down through generations of fireside, kitchen-sink
or open air singers–and it’s nothing short of presumptuous for
some jumped-up primo uomo or prima donna to start adding little
trills here or there or showing off their high notes there. Look,
we know we’re fuddy-duddy and hopelessly contradictory in our
views, because without different personalities imposing themselves
on the songs, we wouldn’t have all those intriguing versions.
Anyway, it seems to me that Bruce may be coming from a similar
place when he sings these songs, and it’s a place that’s more
than a little uneasy for someone who has made singing his songs
his way a lifetime’s work. So sometimes he sounds just a bit
stiff or lacking in punch, but what he’s really doing is trying
to let the songs take over. That’s my theory.

As for Froggy, Bruce is going
right back to one of the oldest ballads we know to end his selection.
The first mention of the song is in The Complaint of Scotland
in 1549, and a ballad called ‘A Moste Strange Wedding of the
fFrogge and the Mouse’ was lodged with the Company of Stationers
in London (then the copyright registry) in 1580. There are possibly
thousands of versions, most of them featuring more bloodthirsty
endings than Bruce has featured here. The classic English one
has the chorus, “Heigh, ho, said Anthony Rowleigh”,
and ends with the rat and mouse expiring at the paws of a family
of cats. The frog escapes homeward, but as he crosses a bridge
he too meets his end, down the throat of a lily-white duck. On
our CD shelves we have two Irish versions, one of which has no
frog at all, for only “Uncle Rat went out to ride”.
The other has a rousing Irish chorus of “Follow ta right
ta leary-o, Tatin tareea taranday”. Both have the guests
bringing musical instruments rather than food or drink for the
party–“the first came in was a bumble bee, with his fiddle
upon his knee.” In ‘Uncle Rat’, the party comes a cropper
when a tabby cat arrives and breaks the mouse’s back. In the
other version, a wasp gets up to sing and stings the fiddle-player,
and that’s just the start of the mayhem. Luckily Bruce’s version
has the snake merely chasing the guests into the lake, whence
they presumably will emerge only dampened.

His final verse, one beloved
of folksongs everywhere, tells you that “if you want any
more you can sing it yourself”. How else do you end an album
of songs like these?

‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’ is in the shops on Tuesday, April
25th, and contains a few ‘bonus tracks’ not yet heard by the
authors of this article.

Catherine Ann Cullen is an amateur collector of songs, a
professional writer of children’s books, including The
Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat
, and poetry, and a freelance
radio producer.

Harry Browne lectures at Dublin Institute of Technology
and writes for Village magazine. They live together in Dublin,
Ireland, and so can both be reached via harry.browne@gmail.com.

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