The best entertainment news of the weekend had nothing to do with the Oscars (though kudos to George Clooney, who picked up a statuette as best supporting actor, for defiantly defending Hollywood’s out-of-touchness by hailing its ahead-of-the-curve support for civil rights and AIDS research). No, the most interesting showbiz 411 was the announcement that Bruce Springsteen next month will be releasing an album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, featuring thirteen traditional songs associated with Pete Seeger, the writer, performer, preserver and champion of folk music.
With this disc, Springsteen continues as a pop culture-political force. It’s an intriguing move for him. In the 2004 campaign, he spearheaded the anti-Bush and pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour–which also included R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Bright Eyes and John Fogerty. Toward the end of the presidential campaign, Springsteen appeared with Kerry at huge rallies, in which he excited crowds but–unfortunately–highlighted the real gap between himself and the supposed star of these events. From identifying with Kerry’s well-intentioned though poorly presented conventional liberalism to celebrating Seeger’s gritty authenticity and radicalism–that’s an intriguing pivot.
Seeger has had a decades-long career that has combined promoting traditional folk music and practicing political activism. The latter led him to being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, where he was grilled on whether he was a communist. Seeger declined to talk about his political associations or ideas, but offered to tell the committee what songs he had sung in public. The committee was not amused. He was sentenced to one year in jail for contempt of Congress, but the verdict was overturned. Still, Seeger ended blacklisted and banned from performing on network television.
Springsteen’s album is not an act of rehabilitation. That’s hardly needed. Seeger long-ago transcended those ugly days. His neverending devotion to traditional music and activism outlasted his foes. But what Springsteen is doing is reaching beyond his roots to honor a historian of American song–for Seeger’s mission has been to keep alive a certain slice of homegrown American music. The new album will include renditions of “John Henry,” “Eyes on the Prize,” “Shenandoah” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Springsteen started out as a fast-singing wordsmith who obviously had been influenced by Bob Dylan and bar-band rock of the 1960s. But the Dylan who hovered over Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, was not the early, political Dylan but the next-generation Beat/literary-fantasist Dylan, who threw together images and plot lines to create impressions, not manifestoes. In fact, Springsteen’s career path flipped Dylan’s arc. Dylan dropped the politics as his star rose; Springsteen expanded his range to include politics as his catalogue grew. It was after his Born to Run breakthrough that he began to identify with causes, perhaps first with his participation the No Nukes concerts of 1979. His songwriting, too, began to examine the plight–that is, stories–of living-on-the-edge Americans. “Born in the USA” was not a jingoistic anthem, as columnist George Will and Ronald Reagan falsely described it. It was a haunting tribute to veterans who had been screwed twice: first by the Vietnam War, then by the deindustrialization. The Ghost of Tom Joad, released in 1995, was a quiet-but-angry, Woody Guthrie-flavored look at the down-and-out of America. (Years earlier, Springsteen had started performing “This Land Is Your Land” during concerts.)
While Springsteen clearly made a conscious attempt to connect with Guthrie (as Dylan had done in his salad days), one might not have associated his decades of rock-driven work with Seeger. But by nobly nodding to Seeger in this way, Springsteen not only closes a circle, he advances it. This disc is a generous gesture. Fans of both men ought to hope the execution is as grand as the idea.