Tribune archive: The Boss pulls off celebrating Seeger

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Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen

Pete Seeger (L) and Bruce Springsteen (R) performing during the "We are One Inaugural Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial. (Mandel Ngan/ AFP/Getty Images / January 18, 2009)

This column was originally published on June 16, 2006.

Had this been one of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band tours, the place would've been packed to bursting.

But with his rock persona on temporary hiatus, Springsteen faced a sea of empty seats Tuesday at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Tinley Park. The 11,000-seat pavilion was barely half full, and the 17,000-capacity lawn was barren.

It was less a commentary on Springsteen's still-considerable magnetism than on his recent artistic choices. On the current tour, he's focusing on music from his latest album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," an acoustic outing covering songs associated with 87-year-old folk laureate Pete Seeger.

Sure, the idea of a rock icon dusting off tunes that your grandfather's generation chanted at union rallies might sound a bit suspect. Combine that with the prospect of seeing a bunch of folkies playing in what Springsteen described as "a big black box outside of Chicago," and no wonder the majority of the singer's fans said, "No, thanks." Clearly, the choice of venue was a major deterrent to a show more suited to an intimate theater. Memo to the Boss: How about multiple nights at the Auditorium Theatre or even the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island? And, while you're rethinking things, what's with the gaudy $92 ticket for a show ostensibly all about folk populism and the working man?

But take it from one skeptic who harbored many of the same doubts: The no-show Springsteen faithful missed a good one.

The graying but still boyishly energetic singer took the "Seeger Sessions" songs to a deeper place, and brought a zeal to this performance that stamped it as a keeper. Like last year's solo tour, in which he took huge chances in reinventing many of his songs, the new show finds Springsteen in high spirits, his joy infectious as he explored the various strands of American music that preceded rock 'n' roll. With a 16-piece band that combined accordion, banjo, fiddles, guitars, piano, pedal steel, brass, voices and percussion, he blended Dixieland and Appalachia, swing and gospel, Celtic jigs and Tex-Mex two-steps.

Hurricane Katrina and the fate of New Orleans were fresh on Springsteen's mind. Only seven weeks ago, he had launched this tour at the city's Jazz and Heritage festival, and witnessed the storm's devastation firsthand. "We owe the city a debt," he said. "We need to bear witness." And then he joined a time-honored folk tradition by updating Blind Alfred Reed's Depression-era blues "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" with three newly written verses very much of the moment.

"Them who's got, got out of town," Springsteen sang of the Katrina disaster. "And them who ain't got left to drown."

He read "When the Saints Go Marching In" not as jaunty celebration but as an elegy. He zeroed in on words that we have probably heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times, but never quite appreciated for the horror they contain. In its images of blood-red moons and a sun that refuses to shine, here was a redemption song like no other.

The relevance of Seeger's "Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)" and the civil rights anthem "Eyes on the Prize" couldn't be missed. The more subtle but no less urgent message about broken promises in "Pay Me My Money Down" was just as stirring, even as it was refashioned into a wild-eyed zydeco whirl.

For relief and release, there were hootenanny-style bashers such as "Old Dan Tucker," "O Mary Don't You Weep" and "Jesse James." Springsteen also had a blast recasting his own songs: "Ramrod" drove south of the border with accordion pumping, "Johnny 99" became a polyrhythmic Creole swoon, and "Open All Night" was reincarnated as swinging big-band boogie. This was music meant to be shared and sung over drinks and on the dance floor, with horns blaring and guitars thrashing.

Springsteen turned a bunch of enthusiastic strangers in his audience into an impromptu choir and a community of co-conspirators, much as Pete Seeger had done at his historic 1963 Carnegie Hall concert. Even as war loomed abroad and racist skirmishes flourished at home, Seeger understood the value not just of protest songs, but also of nursery rhymes, singalongs, melodies and tall tales. 

Back then, Seeger marveled at how folk artists such as Malvina Reynolds, Tom Paxton and a new kid named Bob Dylan were following in the footsteps of his peer Woody Guthrie and writing "songs about everything that happens . . . every imaginable subject." These were singers who turned the political into the personal, and the personal into the universal. Seeger sang their songs as if they were news bulletins from the front lines of the human experience.

That's the impulse that turned Springsteen, a pretty decent chronicler of the human condition in his own right, into a born-again folkie. By invoking Seeger, he's not dusting off a sepia-tinged photograph of a nearly forgotten past. Instead, like the master, he sees folk music as a rocking and rolling commentary on who we are now and where we're going next.

Essential Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger is among the 20th Century's pivotal musical figures. He was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s even as his folk group, the Weavers, was atop the pop charts. Yet he found even greater fame as a solo artist and helped birth the folk movement that gave rise to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the '60s. An ardent anti-war and civil-rights activist, Seeger released countless albums chronicling his encyclopedic knowledge of folk music ranging across centuries and continents. His work contains everything from children's songs to banjo instructionals, but the core of his legacy lies in his abiding belief in the song not just as an entertainment but as a living and endlessly mutable history of human endeavor that could be passed down across generations. To that tradition, he contributed a number of his own compositions ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Waist Deep in the Deep Muddy" and adapting Old Testament passages in "Turn, Turn, Turn") that endure as classics. Here's a quick guide to Seeger's finest music, both as a songwriter and interpreter:    

The Weavers, "Wasn't That a Time" (Vanguard): This boxed set chronicles the exploits of Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, the group that launched the postwar folk revival in 1948.    

"We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert" (Columbia): Seeger at the peak of his powers in a commanding 1963 solo performance, encompassing everything from new Dylan to "Skip to My Lou."    

"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs" (Columbia): The fearsome Seeger intellect is at work in this 1967 classic, punctuated by his characterization of the lacerating title tune as a "love" song.    

"If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle" (Smithsonian Folkways): This overview distills the singer's social and political consciousness to 26 tracks that mince neither words nor notes.    

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger" (Appleseed): Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt are among the artists who pay tribute to the master on this 1998 double-CD.

gregkot@gregkot.com

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