(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
For those who thought folk music was a museum piece and that Pete Seeger was but a relic from the dim past, Bruce Springsteen re-energizes both a valuable music genre and a vital singer, songwriter and preserver of musical traditions with his new recording We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
If you’re not old enough to remember the term “hootenanny,” that’s precisely what this CD is: a raucous, acoustic session that was sung and played spontaneously. This one happened to be recorded live in one room as a celebration of a unique music.
The folkie movement that was defined by the hootenanny movement was actually fairly exciting. It centered around the Newport Folk Festival and other folk fests and was hugely influential on many college campuses throughout the 1960s. It was popularized mainly by Seeger’s “children” even then — such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and popular groups including Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters. The latter group’s musical accompanist, Jim McGuinn, later became a founder of the Byrds and eventually renamed himself Roger McGuinn.
In this case with Springsteen, this hootenanny was recorded in two days in a farmhouse in New Jersey with a big crowd of musicians and with plenty of liquid lubrication on hand. The aura of the album — and especially the package and the photographs of the musicians — particularly recall the release of the epochal debut album by The Band in 1969 — which marked a rural retreat by musicians to regroup and get back to the music that especially mattered to them.
Springsteen has always paid close attention to the roots of American music, especially listening to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and such influences were heavily on display in works such as his Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Here, he looks back on what at first seems to be a random selection of songs from Pete Seeger’s long-ago catalog: “We Shall Overcome,” “Erie Canal,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Pay Me My Money Down.”
Seeger has been an activist, a conservationist, a founder of the landmark folk music group the Weavers, a collector of early music, a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, and he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s for supposed ties to Communist organizations. Those allegations did not ultimately amount to anything much in those witch-hunt days, although his concert bookings suffered for years. He’s still flourishing and appearing at folk festivals in his 80s, as he did this past weekend at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C.
Ultimately, the Seeger songs that Springsteen selected are an incisive window on American history. It’s not the dry history written by the academics, and it’s not the politicians’ rewritten spins of history but instead a gritty saga told by and about the common people: the busted-down refugees from the Dust Bowl telling their story in “My Oklahoma Home,” the displaced pioneer’s homesick tale of “Shenandoah,” the black Georgia stevedores’ chant of “Pay Me My Money Down,” the spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder” and, of course, the old Baptist hymn “We Shall Overcome,” which became in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as Springsteen notes, the “most important political protest song of all time.”
Springsteen’s selection of a band is also key. He has wisely, I think, combined country and folk and blues and New Orleans jazz for a joyous fiddle and banjo and accordion-driven ride through some of the best of what America at her best sounds like. I think there are 17 musicians romping together live here. This is a valuable pilgrimage through America’s musical attic.
Along with other such recent roots and country-leaning works as Neil Young’s Prairie Wind, Van Morrison’s Pay the Devil and Bob Dylan’s new XM satellite radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome is an affirmation of American roots music. It’s true populist music. And that’s a music that will endure.
Editor’s Note: The documentary Bruce Springsteen: The Seeger Sessions premieres Friday (May 5) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.