Monday, May 15, 2006

Eyes on the Prize:
Springsteen Meets Seeger in Throwdown Match

Guthrie, Dylan Both Spin Round and Round in their Graves, Toes a Tapping

I once had a conversation with Dick Dale after he'd played a gig -- around when he was a mere pup of sixty years or so -- where he explained Rock and Roll music to me. "Rock and roll is all about fucking," he opined. "The only reason to become a rock musician is to get laid. I know it worked for me." I think this was right after he'd become a father again, mind you. Some geek (not me, I swear) in the little throng around Dick by the stage offered as how Dick's latest album was really meaningful, since it had an environmental message and all. "Shit, if you want music that's meaningful, go listen to folk or something," said Dale. "The only message to my music is below the waist." (Dale also claimed that he wasn't really playing the guitar on stage, he was playing the drums, just with strings.)

So I find it kind of cute, nearly endearing in a way, that Bruce Springsteen has discovered folk music in general and Pete Seeger specifically after all these years, as evidenced with the release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. It's nearly 25 years since Bruce strapped on the Dylan impersonation gear for Nebraska and thirty or more years since he started trying to be epic in that good-timey saxophony way he's always had. And Bruce has just discovered now that all that attempt to be "meaningful" snuck into rock by way of folk? How quaint.

It should be set from the outset here that Pete Seeger is the original, ultimate poseur in this little chain of American folk life -- and I say that with all the affection and respect in the world (the Seegers were neighbors of my dad's sixty years back). Pete's Dad, Charles, was an egghead, an ethnomusicologist, professor, and official government wonk on the people's music, and Pete never even heard "folk music" until he was sixteen, so the stories go. He even dropped out of Harvard, just like Bill Gates. So for all the encyclopedic work Pete's done covering the American folk song, it must be said in the chain of "authenticity", whatever the hell that word is worth, Pete's a derivative beast. Hell, you have to remember Seeger was a top 10 artist with the Weavers and he wrote songs that kept popping up the charts in the 1960s, including faux-meaningful chestnuts like "Turn, Turn, Turn". He may have been convicted of failing to cooperate with the HUAC, but most of what he learned about hard time was second-hand from Leadbelly. (Pete got off on a technicality.)

Look, I'm Relevant!

So there's two things about these two gents. I've seen them both live and listened to a lot of their recordings over the years -- I grew up with Pete as a birthright of my parents, and with Bruce as a byproduct of the era -- and they have something in common. They both give great live shows (or at least did), and they both ultimately come out significantly more flat on record, at least in their studio albums. With Seeger, it's easy enough to figure out why. A lot of the energy from folk music comes from the audience feeling the song, even singing along, and most of the Seeger concerts were sing-alongs. So, too, have been Springsteen shows, but you can't hear the crowd singing because of the amplification. I've never been a big fan of the Boss, truth to tell, but on my top five concerts of all-time rank a couple of shows he put on in DC in 1981; three hours of non-stop giving, a weird symbiosis with a crowd that came in thinking they knew the music and left having had it rethreaded into their bones.

I'd like to make a little variation on the great Mr. Dale's pronouncment: I've always thought great rock music was about performance, perhaps above and beyond any other pop genre. You can take practically any song and turn it into a great rock song with the right attitude (or the wrong attitude, as the case may be) and the moment and sufficient butt-pumping. With folk -- at least, with American folk -- the greatness comes from reconnecting specific origination points and somehow making it resonate in a contemporary context. Minimalism and individual performance have a lot to do with that emphasis on the text and the audience meeting, whereas rock is nearly always a collective effort -- group and audience, amplifier manufacturer and roadie and promoter and the electric company and many others conspiring to make the thing happen (even if it's in a garage, Dad's got to pay the bills and move the Buick out of the way.) I like the stories about Pete Seeger during his blacklist days just showing up in a town, going to a radio station, unannounced, in the morning, finagling his way on for an interview on the basis of his hits with the Weavers, and getting a full crowd to come out to a concert ten hours later. Have banjo and a comprehensive musicology education, will travel.

Here's the other unpleasant truth about these two gents, and I again say this with considerable respect. Seeger has often been just tooooo serious to take seriously. Even in his really fun concerts with Arlo Guthrie in the 1970s, there was a self-importance about spreading the message that made it hard to really live inside the music. Your head was being pulled back out of its ass when your heart just wanted to sing along, and forget about your butt coming along for the ride.

With Springsteen, his redeeming quality -- especially for his live performances -- was that you could forget he was supposed to be "important" when everybody in the room was dancing along. This became quite a bit harder in the larger venues, and it's the main reason I haven't see the Boss in 20 years or more. Nor have I seen Pete Seeger during that time, for that matter, although Pete's on a slightly different point than Bruce in his career arc. Relevant? Just look at the differences: one is a millionaire living on his farm in the New Jersey countryside, the other lives in the woods in the New York Hudson Valley countryside. Thank god for the internet.

And I will report before I start to chew the gristle too much that I enjoy The Seeger Sessions. It ain't folk music, at least not any more than Clifton Chenier is folk music. Springsteen's version of a folk tribute is to get an all-star group of musicians around him and play "live", secluded in his home studio, well away from an audience. The songs have horns, bouncy piano, rousing choruses full of backing vocals, and jollility aplenty. Hardly a tear of indignation to be shed, and it's hard to feel really outraged even for "Eyes on the Prize", and you can't help but smile when that sweet-ass accordion kicks in. There are a few banjo licks vaguely reminiscent of Seeger, but that's not enough to convince me Bruce is really suffering. With Pete, man, you knew he was pissed off when he sang on stage, when he sang on record, even when he sang "Froggy Went a Courtin'" he was pissed off. Bruce is the happiest "folk" singer I've ever heard. "Pay Me My Money Down" might've been on Born to Run and the kids would've made out in the backseat to "Shenandoah", too, had the time traveling twelve-track been invented. The version of "We Shall Overcome" sounds like, well, they overcame and are having a nostalgic smoke in bed afterwards.

Woody's Body Not Even Cold Yet

Such a strange "tribute" album: not a one of Seeger's most famous or accomplished originals, not a trace of his style, just a wholesale sampling of Pete's corpus consisting almost entirely of covers and/or traditional songs. Holy cow, even my college punk band did the occasional cover of "If I Had a Hammer", which made a hilarious faux protest paean to anarchy with a simple switch of emphasis to I for each verse and chorus. There's certainly enough good Pete to make a cool album. But Bruce just sort of used Seeger as his hook to do a sampler of cool folk songs with a nice group of musicians, and had fun doing it, and by god there's nothing wrong with that at all. I just hope the goofballs don't start calling it important music, because that will spoil the party.

Of course, Springsteen's peak moment in the American Psyche was probably "Born in the USA", a song all about the collapse of the American dream that became an anthem of mindless patriotism merely because of (a) the chorus, which sounded like something you'd like to shout at a Reagan Youth rally, and (b) because of who Bruce was, already, by that point. It's easy to ignore Springsteen, really, and has been since the mid-70s, most especially when he's doing protest albums about the fall of the twin towers or finally getting his ass out on the stump for the unlikely cause of John Kerry, well after the threat to his popularity and the potential danger of such a gesture had disappeared. (Let's remember that a version of "If I Had a Hammer" was sung at a Tom DeLay fundraiser in 2005.)

I'm not enough of a Springsteenologist to really know how much of his myth Bruce willingly brought on himself, nor am I enough of a fan to want to, say, go out and buy three-CD reissues because I happened to enjoy the hell out of myself at a show twenty-five years ago. But I did end up buying this album because I liked the way it sounds, and at long last, I don't really have to think to hard about the great importance of the music I grew up with (and rejected, for quite a while, in favor of earbleed punk, among other more visceral genres.) For that I thank both Bruce and Pete.

Now, back to my Clifton Chenier.

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