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Seeger Sessions: How Can I Keep From Singing?

posted by wschuman

Whatever happened to music that can change the world? I’m talking about folk music, music with roots and wings and a message.

Folk music is dead, you say? Tune in to your local PBS station starting July 5th for Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” on Great Performances to hear music with more vitality, joy, and, yes, meaning than you’ve heard in a long time.

I admit it: I’m a dyed-in-the wool folkie. During my NYC high school years, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were just starting out in Greenwich Village, and I’ve never recovered. A few years ago I was somehow lured to a Springsteen mega-concert in Giants Stadium in New Jersey where 60,000 people were standing on their seats, grooving to every word. But I bolted before the break–I didn’t recognize a single song except “Born in the USA.”

So it was with joyous disbelief that I got hold of Springsteen’s new Seeger Sessions album. The Boss, a rock ‘n roll kid from Asbury Park, N.J., came late to folk music. It wasn’t until 1997 when he recorded “We Shall Overcome” that he got to know Pete’s music and influence. He loaded up on Seeger records and was converted.

Over the next few years he gathered a group of singers and musicians who played accordion, fiddle, banjo, and washboard and in three unrehearsed sessions recorded 13 songs popularized by Seeger. Springsteen says in the liner notes: “Street corner music, parlor music, tavern music, wilderness music, circus music, church music, gutter music, it was all there waiting in those songs, some more than one hundred years old.”

What he got was some of the most uplifting, spiritual, rollicking, spontaneous, and world-changing music ever created, most of it by that great old songwriter, Traditional. It’s part of what Seeger calls the folk process, the borrowing and rearranging of old songs for new times.

When you hear “Mrs. McGrath,” an 1815 Irish ballad about a soldier returning legless from war (“A cannonball on the 5th of May tore my two fine legs away”), you can’t help thinking of the recent news photo of Sgt. Christian Bagge, who lost both legs in Iraq. “All foreign wars I do proclaim/ Live on blood and a mother’s pain” calls to mind Cindy Sheehan.

The beautiful Pentecostal hymn “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” which became a civil rights standard, contains this chilling prediction, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/Said ‘No more water but fire next time.'”

“Jacob’s Ladder,” a Negro spiritual, was transformed into a worker’s hymn when the chorus “soldiers of the cross” was rewritten as “brothers and sisters, all” by striking textile workers in the 1940s.

“Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” a Holiness hymn, became “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a staple of the civil rights movement.

“My Oklahoma Home,” an ironic memoir of the Dust Bowl by “Sis” and Bill Cunningham, in which a man loses his farm, crops, animals, and wife (“Everything except my mortgage blown away”), calls up thoughts of New Orleans.

And of course “We Shall Overcome,” the inspiration for this album, about which Springsteen writes: “The most important political protest song of all time, sung around the world wherever people fight for justice and equality. Originally a Baptist hymn, brought into the labor movement in the 1930s, popularized among civil rights workers in the 1950s.” It is every bit as timely today as in the ’60s and ’70s. Note to today’s generation: Listen up.

Layers upon layers of meaning and history infuse these songs. But that doesn’t make them less fun–the arrangements have a strong Louisiana zydeco flavor and rhythm that beckons you to let the good times roll.

As Seeger, a cradle Unitarian, might put it: How can I keep from singing?



  • Mark

    Not dead, just boring.>

  • Anne

    I love folk music, and don’t find it boring at all. Sometimes I think the politics are expressed simplistically, but that’s okay if the harmony is good. Also it’s true that folk singers can sometimes take themselves a bit seriously — I love the Tom Lehrer lyric: “We are the folk-song army, Every one of us cares! We all hate poverty, war and destruction — Unlike the rest of your squares!” Still, I think folk songs are a symptom of good in the world, and I’m glad to see them getting some attention from some big names.>

  • Anne

    Oops, shoot — The last line of that Tom Lehrer lyric is “unlike the rest of YOU squares.”>

  • Dave

    Music that changes the world changes each of us individually and in a group context, in concert. I have found that in one place and for more than 20 years and that was in the power of the music and gestalt of the good ol Grateful Dead, the religion, as they say without a god. Just my .02 here, but to paraphrase lyricist and poet Robert Hunter, since last that crew of misfits, rebels and raucous good spirits (both band and fans) have roamed the land, the world has in fact turned dark and mean. Thanks to all musicians everywhere who share their gifts, by the way.>

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