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Springsteen Rocks Pete Seeger and the Folk Tradition

It's as if Bruce Springsteen rounded up the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, gospel legend Clara Ward, and Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, took them to an undisclosed hideaway (perhaps a juke joint in the backwoods), tossed them old vinyl of Pete Seeger's songs, and said, "This is what we'll be playing." Then he recorded the results for his new album, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome.

When Springsteen's operation first disclosed in March that his next project would be a collection of songs identified with the folk-singing legend, it was easy to assume that Springsteen was about to release an overly earnest set of ballads, perhaps stripped down in the style of his just-me-and-my-guitar-alone-at-night Nebraska disc. Was he an aging rocker returning to the noble and elegant simplicity of folkie roots? And if so, why was he reaching back to Seeger? Why not Woody?

But in celebrating Seeger, Springsteen concocted not a post-Mighty Wind effort to birth yet another folk revival. Instead, he cooked up an amalgamation of American musical styles that places Seeger and the folk tradition he has tirelessly served for decades in the center of a much larger (and more rollicking) universe. It was an intriguing calculation. This ain't your father's Pete Seeger.

Springsteen took the old-timey songs that Seeger popularized--some that are known to us from nursery school sing-alongs, some from protest marches--and cast them in wide-sweeping arrangements that mixed bluegrass, gospel, New Orleans jazz, R&B, and rock. Explaining why he focused on Seeger, Springsteen told The New Yorker, "Pete's library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there....Everything I wanted, I found there." But Springsteen has taken that songbook and thrown it into a blender with an assortment of American musical elements.

Folk purists--and you know who you are--might cringe. This is not Springsteen strumming along the path that Seeger and others strummed. This is not Springsteen abiding by one of the old rules of folk music: performers should make music the way their listeners could do at home with their own friends and kin. He has pumped up and orchestrated these saved-by-Seeger classics. That might cause some offense. Seeger always said the song was the deal, not the singer. The musician was merely the medium through which a living song--embodying the spirit of those who had sung it before--was passed along to the next generation. A critic could perhaps charge Springsteen with overpowering these songs--juicing them up too darn much with all those guitars, fiddles, banjoes, crashing cymbals, drums, organs, a horn section, and big-voiced background singers. But that would be a question of taste. I'd happily sign up for any choir that believes that keeping a song alive by making it swing is indeed a public interest endeavor. And these real-time, one-take, jam-session recordings--especially the gospel-infused "Jacob's Ladder" and "O Mary Don't You Weep"--do swing. A preservationist ought to get points for that.

Springsteen's song selection (of Seeger's song selection) emphasizes the range of folk songs: ballads, reels, spirituals. There are silly songs ("Old Dan Tucker" and "Froggie Went A Courtin'") storytelling tunes ("Jesse James," "John Henry") and serious numbers ("We Shall Overcome"). Springsteen, who has written topical songs of his own ("American Skin," "Streets of Philadelphia," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Youngstown"), recorded and performed protest songs ("War," "This Land Is Your Land"), and campaigned for one presidential candidate (John Kerry), doesn't overdo the political-preaching side of folk music. He focuses, as Seeger often did, on its communal nature--the transmission of stories and voices, not necessarily overt messages. It's true that Seeger cannot be separated from his politics; he sang to make people feel empowered. And he was persecuted for being a communist and prosecuted for refusing in 1955 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political views and affiliations. Refusing to invoke the Fifth Amendment, he said to the committee, "I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business...But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them." Seeger was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress. In 1962 the verdict was overturned; he remained blacklisted for years. But years before that, he and the Weavers had a number-one pop hit with the toe-tapping and unradical "Goodnight Irene," and his children's songs have helped out many a parent for decades.

With the Seeger Sessions, the Boss gets in a few send-a-message licks. On "Mrs. McGrath," a 19th century Irish song about a war amputee--that is, about a mother's sorrow for the missing legs of her son--Springsteen, singing as that mother, declares, "Oh, foreign wars, I do proclaim/leave only blood and a mother's pain/I'd rather have my son as he used to be/than the King of America and his whole Navy." That's certainly not how the Irish Republicans sang this tune (which originally focused on the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic Wars.) His version of "We Shall Overcome" avoids "Kumbaya"-like sentimentality and comes across as a prayerful lullaby--not a tune of idealistic optimism, but one of cautious hope, a rendition for these days not the 1960s. His "Eyes On the Prize" is a quiet, gritty and growling declaration of defiance--again, an arrangement appropriate for the present moment. Springsteen purposefully eschewed "If I Had a Hammer," believing any version of this well-known classic would overwhelm the other cuts.

In the end, the album is not so much a tribute to Seeger the performer and musician as it is to the history of American song and its assorted stylings. (It could have been called The American Song Sessions.) One could argue that by focusing so much on Seeger, Springsteen distracted from his larger goal. Still, choosing the 86-year-old Seeger as the common thread in this crazy quilt is a brilliant homage.

Rock music, in its essence, is about yearning, and Springsteen the rocker frequently captured that fundamental. Folk music, in a way, is about becoming. To be corny about it, America becoming America--whether it's a song chronicling a specific slice of the nation's history (say, the era of the barge workers of "Erie Canal") or a song capturing the stories and sentiments that gripped the imagination and hearts of Americans who lived in earlier times (say, the longing for home of "Shenandoah"). Seeger has devoted much of his life to preserving and promoting this social history. Springsteen, with this album, has, yes, earnestly pursued a similar mission. But he's not taking dictation. He allowed Seeger's songs to inspire him, as he brewed a bastard's mix of American music.

Does the Washington Post Read Its Own Business Columnist?

Maybe it was Exxon's CEO raking in $144,573 a day in compensation that moved mainstream media outlets to look more closely at the way corporations are shredding their social contract with workers?

Just the other day, Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein argued that it's high time corporate America confronts the question: "What is the new social contract it has to offer around which a stable political business model can be built?"

"Either the members of the business community," Pearlstein writes, "will have to come up with an improved social contract that allows them to run competitive companies while ensuring that the gains of globalization are spread more equitably, or they will have to face the almost certain prospect that angry and anxious voters will roll back globalization.... " He ends by warning the CEOs of the world-- ones like Jim Owens of Caterpillar-- that they better show some "backbone and ingenuity in dealing with the excessive and unreasonable demands of Wall Street..."

That's a good idea. Yet Pearlstein's own newspaper thinks the very idea that companies might bear some responsibility for the shredded social contract is ludicrous. In its Sunday editorial about inequality and what to do about it the Washington Post argues, "To blame corporations for ripping up the social contract is to misunderstand their function." Here's hoping the Post editorial page starts listening to its paper's business columnist.


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The Nation is visiting Yale University on Wednesday, April 26. Click here for details on two public events featuring Katrina vanden Heuvel.

When Will James Dobson See The Light?

In her smart Los Angeles Times op-ed, "E-Gitator" Laurie David (as she was dubbed in a lavish spread in Vanity Fair's current "Green Issue,") observes that "the issue of global warming is finally catapulting toward a tipping point. With the debate firmly behind us, the focus is turning to solutions....the dots are finally being connected and global warming is fast becoming recognized as the most critical issue of our time."

David goes on to note that "the only place not feeling the heat is the White House..the Bush Administration is unmoved." But I'd argue that the Bush administration has already conceded that climate change is real. Why? Because they treat information about climate change the way they treat the truth about the Iraq war. They scrub data from websites. They rewrite science with political spin. And they give scientists like James Hansen at NASA what I would call the "Shinseki treatment"--they silence them; cut them off from reporters.

The global, fact-based evidence is too overwhelming, and the public is ready to deal with this problem, even if the administration can't or won't.

Even some (moderate) evangelicals have seen the light. In February, the Evangelical Climate Initiative was formed. Its mission: advocating personal, religious and commercial action to combat global warming.

But just in time for Earth Day, a new coalition of evangelical leaders --with close ties to the Bush White House--have launched a campaign to try to persuade pastors and churchgoers that concerns about global warming are unfounded. The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, supported by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, says it will provide information to parishioners and try to influence sermons.

Maybe the escalating battle among evangelicals over the environment and global warming will produce some moral heat and light. In the meantime, let's expose Dobson and acolytes for what they are: The deniers and procrastinators of our age.


Nation Event Note

The Nation is visiting Yale University on Wednesday, April 26. Click here for details on two public events featuring Katrina vanden Heuvel.

New Orleans in Black and White

The atomization of New Orleans has done more to destroy the political fabric of the post-Katrina city than even some of the most concerned observers had dared imagine.

In a community that last elected a white mayor when Richard Nixon was serving as president, three white candidates – Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, wealthy civic leader Ron Forman and Republican lawyer Rob Couhig – collected 56 percent of the vote in the first mayoral vote after last fall's hurricane swept much of the city's minority population away to Houston, Atlanta and more distant locations.

With turnout among the African-American diaspora low, Mayor Ray Nagin, the most prominent African-American candidate, won just 38 percent. He'll face Landrieu, who took 29 percent, in a May 20 runoff election.

This is the first time since 1982 that a New Orleans mayor has been forced into a runoff, and if the May voting breaks along racial lines, the incumbent could become another victim of Katrina.

Will such a split occur?

Certainly the federal government, which should have worked from the start to assure that a natural disaster did not shift the political dynamic in a major American city that has long been under Voting Rights Act oversight, has done little to avert it.

From the White House's shifting of funds away from infrastructure programs that could have protected the city's poorest neighborhoods, to President Bush's initial neglect of the crisis, to the move-‘em-on-out response of federal agencies to the plight of displaced residents, to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's speculation about whether it made sense to rebuild, to the disengagement of the Justice Department from the serious debates about voting rights that arise when citizens have been turned into refugees, Washington has been no friend to democracy in New Orleans.

Sincere pundits will long debate whether the pattern of neglect was intentional. But few deny that it is to the advantage of the Republican Party that currently dominates federal politics to break up the urban voting bloc that has made New Orleans one of the most Democratic cities in the south and kept Louisiana far more politically competitive – with a Democratic governor and a Democratic U.S. Senator – than most of its neighbors.

Those who would prefer see the political complexion of New Orleans shift may not get their wish, however.

A May 20 result that divides the city along racial lines is at least a bit less likely in a Nagin-Landrieu runoff than it would have been in a contest between the mayor and one of the other white contenders.

Nagin was beat an African-American foe in 2002 with strong backing from the white community. While the mayor's reelection campaign was targeted minority voters – stirring some negative attention nationally when he suggested that New Orleans would emerge as a "chocolate city" -- surveys suggest that he retains a base of support among white voters. Nagin retains the potential to build on that base as he competes in the runoff.

Landrieu is the son of legendary former Mayor Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu, who was one of the few white politicians to fight the segregationists in the 1960s and who went on to serve as former President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The son has worked to maintain the multiracial coalition his father built.

Speaking to supporters Saturday, Landrieu struck the right note for a runoff campaign that will test the political maturity not just of New Orleans but America. "Today in this great American city, African-American and white, Hispanic and Vietnamese, almost in equal measure came forward to propel this campaign forward and loudly proclaimed that we in New Orleans will be one people, we will speak with one voice and we will have one future," he said. "We have said loudly and clearly that we will push off the forces of division and that we will find higher, common ground than we tried to find on that fateful day, Aug. 29, 2005, when we literally found ourselves in the same boat. We were in the same boat then and we are in the same boat now."

No matter who wins the runoff, everyone who believes that America can and must continue to promote a politics of empowerment and harmony should hope that Landrieu proves to be right about the potential to unite a city that nature and Washington have done so much to break apart.

Impeachment From Below: Legislators Lobby Congress

Inside the Beltway, legislators have been slow to support moves to censure or impeach President Bush and other members of the administration. Only 33 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed on as cosponsors of Congressman John Conyers' resolution calling for the creation of a select committee to investigate the administration's preparations for war before receiving congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing of torture, and retaliation against critics such as former Ambassador Joe Wilson, with an eye toward making recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment. Only two members of the Senate have agreed to cosponsor Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to censure the president for illegally ordering the warrantless wiretapping of phone conversations of Americans.

Outside the Beltway, legislators are far more comfortable with censure and impeachment -- at least in the state of Vermont. Sixty-nine Vermont legislators, 56 members of the state House and 14 members of the Senate, have signed a letter urging Congress to initiate investigations to determine if censure or impeachment of members of the administration might be necessary.

The letter, penned by state Rep. Richard Marek, a Democrat from Newfane, where voters made international news in March by calling for the impeachment of Bush at their annual town meeting, suggests that Bush's manipulations of intelligence prior to the launch of the Iraq war, his support of illegal domestic surveillance programs and other actions have created a circumstance where Congress needs to determine whether the time has come for "setting in motion the constitutional process for possible removal from office."

Noting that Newfane and a half dozen other Vermont communities have called for impeachment, as has the state Democratic Party, Marek explained to the Rutland Herald, "Vermonters from across the state have expressed concerns with the president's actions and have displayed that through resolutions, meetings and petitions. I thought it was important to put our voices down as supporting an investigation and possible censure and impeachment."

The letter, which will be delivered to members of the state's Congressional delegation -- including Congressman Bernie Sanders, a cosponsor of the Sanders resolution -- is just one of a number of fresh impeachment-related initiatives in Vermont.

Representative David Zuckerman, a Burlington legislator who is a member of Vermont's Progressive Party, plans to introduce a resolution next week asking for the state legislature to call on the U.S. House to open impeachment hearings.

Parliamentary procedures developed by then Vice President Thomas Jefferson in the early years of the United States, and still used by the U.S. House of Representatives as a supplement to that chamber's standing rules, have been interpreted as giving state legislatures at least some authority to trigger impeachment proceedings, and Zuckerman's resolution responds to calls from Vermonters to take the dramatic step.

Several county Democratic parties in Vermont have urged the state legislature to take advantage of the opening created by "Jefferson's Manual," which suggests that impeachment proceedings can be provoked "by charges transmitted from the legislature of a state.

There's no question that Vermont is in the lead, but legislators in other states are also exploring their options for pressuring Congress to act on articles of impeachment. A trio of Democratic state representatives in Illinois -- Karen A. Yarbrough and Sara Feigenholtz from the Chicago area and Eddie Washington from Waukegan -- have introduced a measure similar to the one Zuckerman is preparing in Vermont.

The bill urges the Illinois General Assembly to "submit charges to the U. S. House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States, George W. Bush, for willfully violating his Oath of Office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and if found guilty urges his removal from office and disqualification to hold any other office in the United States."

In Pennsylvania, State Senator Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, has launched a public campaign urging his constituents to sign petitions calling for Congress to launch an impeachment inquiry. Ferlo, a former Pittsburgh City Council president, says its entirely appropriate for state officials -- and citizens -- to add their voices to the impeachment debate.

"Impeachment proceedings are now the most important issue facing our nation," the state senator explains. "The debate and opinions expressed should not be limited to the views of journalists, legal scholars, intelligence officials and just a few politicians. Every American must confront this issue and speak out loudly and clearly. This is one opportunity to do so."

Sweet Victory: Top Five Environmental Wins

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

Of all of the disastrous hallmarks of the Bush presidency, Bush's darkest legacy in the long run may be his unmitigated assault on the environment and his deliberate campaign to cover up the immediate threat of global warming.

The Bush Administration has http://www.latimes.com/news/science/environment/la-na-toxic29mar29,0,561... ">undermined the Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/08/politics/08climate.html?ei=5089&en=221... ">appointed corporate cronies in the oil industry to critical environmental posts, and muzzled top scientists from warning the public about the imminent climate crisis. It was no exaggeration when http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/10/07/gore_calls_bush_wo... ">Al Gore said "George W. Bush has by all odds been by far the worst president for the environment in the entire history of the United States of America -- bar none."

Yet, Bush's actions have brought the environmental movement closer together than ever before, as activists have redoubled their efforts to combat Bush's relentless assault on the planet. On Earth Day 2006, we salute those who took part in the top five environmental victories of the past year.

Saving ANWR: In what the Sierra Club called an "against-all-odds victory for wildlife, wild places and all Americans," the Senate rejected Sen Ted Stevens' (R-AK) attempt to attach provisions to the Defense Appropriations Bill last December that would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil. And weeks ago, the House Budget Committee also refused to appropriate funds for ANWR drilling in the FY2007 budget. Thanks to overwhelming pressure from environmental advocates, one of our nation's most pristine natural refuges remains safe from corporate poachers.

Governors Embrace Apollo: In July, The Apollo Alliance, one of the best progressive ideas of the millennium, gained some important new supporters. Six new Democratic governors--Rod Blagojevich (IL), Jim Doyle (WI), Christine Gregoire (WA), Ted Kulongoski (OR), Janet Napolitano (AZ), and Brian Schweitzer (MT)--joined an earlier trio--Jennifer Granholm (MI), Ed Rendel (PA), and Bill Richardson (NM)--in embracing the Alliance's goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade. The nine governors are all leaders in state-based efforts at energy efficiency and increased use of renewables, the core twin planks of the Apollo program. That program calls for a national investment of $300 billion over the course of ten years to build the basic production and distribution infrastructure needed for a cleaner energy economy.

Cleaning Up Mercury Pollution: While Bush's EPA has deregulated controls on mercury emissions--making it easier for power plants to emit this deeply harmful chemical into the environment--several states have strengthened anti-mercury laws. Gov Rod Blagojevich of Illinois announced a proposal to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent, and weeks later, Gov Jennifer Granholm of Michigan http://www.mlive.com/enter/index.ssf?/newsflash/business/index.ssf%3f/ba... ">followed suit. Massachusetts' legislature http://www2.townonline.com/lincoln/localRegional/view.bg?articleid=475057 ">just passed legislation that would prevent mercury pollution in household items such as thermostats, automobiles, fluorescent lights and electrical switches. And Idaho just passed a two-year moratorium on the building or operating of mercury-emitting coal-fired power plants.

Mayors Say Yes to Kyoto: We remain one of only two major industrialized nations that have not signed the Kyoto Protocol. Yet America's mayors are letting the world know that they stand with the global community--not Bush--on Kyoto. So far, 220 mayors, frustrated with federal environmental inaction, have created their own Kyoto-complying standards, investing in cleaner vehicles, cutting dependence on oil, and promoting efficient and renewable energy projects. Check out Cool Cities for more info on this growing movement.

Clean Cars Movement Rolls On: Last year, Clean Car legislation--requiring the reduction of harmful auto emissions--was adopted in California and now eight other states have followed suit. These states combined cover a full third of the car and SUV market in the US.

Honor Roll: Madison Gas and Electric Co. of Wiconsin decided to stop burning coal at the state's dirtiest coal-fired power plant and switched to renewable energy. Gov Tom Kaine of Virginia http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/releases/pr2006-04-07.asp ">rebuffed a proposal that would have opened up the state's beautiful coastline to offshore drilling. Atlanta's Development Authority greenlighted an innovative new public transportation plan for a beltline connecting the entirety of Atlanta's downtown and surrounding the line with green space for walking, jogging, biking, and public enjoyment.

Thanks to our friends at NRDC and the Sierra Club for their nominations!


Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.


Nation Event Note

The Nation is visiting Yale University on Wednesday, April 26, 2006. Click here for details on a free public event, sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute, featuring Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Giuliani Distancing Himself From Pro-Gay Past?

An interesting tidbit from the Advocate shows Giuliani's continuing campaign to woo evangelicals. Seems he's really going all-out in embracing these guys, as was reported during his recent swing through right-wing Southern churches. Now Ralph Reed and Rick Santorum, too!

Bush the Unpopular

The numbers from the new Survey USA polling on President Bush are stunning. As EJ Dionne notes in his Washington Post column today, a majority of voters approve of Bush in just four states--Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nebraska.

Ouch.

It's no secret W's numbers are bad. But this bad? Fifty-nine percent of respondents disapprove of Bush in Kentucky! Similar stats prevail in once reliably red states such as Indiana, South Carolina and South Dakota (where abortion is practically illegal). A majority of Texans now frown on their old Governor.

In swing states like Ohio Bush has a net approval rating of -29 percent. No wonder Republican candidates tell Bush to stay away from their states, won't appear publicly with him or get "stuck in traffic" and arrive fifteen minutes after his Vice President has already left.

My favorite anecdote: Illinois Gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka would only let Bush raise money for her "late at night, in an undisclosed location."

Populist Potential in the South

At a time when the red-blue political map looks close-to-obsolete, check out the fascinating snapshot of Southern politics offered up in the Pew Research Center's latest poll. The study challenges those who still discount the idea of economic populism being a winning issue in the South. But, as Chris Kromm lays out in Southern Exposure's invaluable blog Facing South--the survey also describes what many have long felt is the core challenge for Southern progressives: "How do we draw on the strengths we have with economic populism"" Kromm asks, "while finding ways to creatively neutralize/ challenge social conservatism... There are no magic bullets."


Nation Event Note

The Nation is visiting Yale University on Wednesday, April 26, 2006. Click here for details on a free public event, sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute, featuring Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.