Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Folk Off

Wun! Toe! Thray! Fo!

That's how Bruce Springsteen starts off his new album, We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions: a cornpone, Okie-by-way-of-early-Dylan countdown. "Old Man Tucker" is a banjo-driven jaunt, galloping along like a jallopy in a Cohen Brothers remake of The Grapes of Wrath, or a cut from a Broadway musical -- Nebraska!

If that sounds jaded, I'm actually won over by the thought of reanimating the Seeger/Guthrie American folk geneology. Having seen Springsteen during the 2004 "Vote for Change" tour, having heard his heart-wrenching 12-string acoustic version of "The Star Spangled Banner" seguing into "Born in the USA" and been entirely moved by it (these samples are from Cleveland, Oct. 2, 2004), I fully sympathize with the need to overcome. What remained of the tattered identity of the American left was destroyed by that election. Over the years, people have largely abandoned the idea of a "folk" music as a vehicle for anything other than chin-scratching pop criticism. If anybody could reconnect the spinal cord -- the vertebrae of the Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan lineage, which straightened Old Weird America into leftist history -- it would have to be Springsteen, right? Who else?

And let's not forget the power of that lineage. I was recently traveling through the rolling hills of the Catskills on a sunny Sunday afternoon, listening to Seeger's "This Land Is Your Land" and found myself genuinely choked up, thinking: We really forgot about this. It IS our land! What happened to America? We forgot about this large-hearted Whitmanian idea of America, one that wraps its cosmic arms around the common peeps and brings down the hammer on the rich and corrupt. Just listen to Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ," which is almost shockingly candid in how it appropriates Jesus for an anti-authority world-view, a place where bankers, landlords, soldiers and cops are inherently anti-Jesus.

Poor working people, they follered him around,
Sung and shouted gay;
Cops and the soldiers, they nailed him in the air,
And they nailed Jesus Christ in his grave.

Well the people held their breath when they heard about his death,
Everybody wondered why;
It was the landlord and the soldiers that he hired
That nailed Jesus Christ in the sky.

This song was made in New York City
Of rich men, preachers and slaves
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galillee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

I love this stuff, even if that view of the Messiah has never really taken off. And to judge by this article in the Washington Post, the supposedly reconstituted religious left in America won't be a force anytime soon. "People who say they are frequent churchgoers vote Republican by a ratio of about 2 to 1."

With that established, back to Springsteen. If you squint a little and try to forget that he's not really from Oklahoma, these Seeger covers aren't terrible. I think his version of "Jacob's Ladder" is pretty compelling. But there's something more curatorial than true about them. They're forced. Or maybe the whole idea is forced. I've always known that Springsteen's a performer, unafraid to siphon Broadway pizzazz through the tube of the Holland Tunnel and transform New Jersey into his mytho-poetic Camelot. Or Nebraska into a grim, black and white independent movie starring Bruce Springsteen. I kind of love him for precisely that reason.

But in this case, we need him to take off the pancake makeup so we know he's not just playacting. Unless he intends to go around the country holding free folk rallies, teaching these songs to The People, selflessly dedicating his time and energies to preserving traditional song through education and musical proselytizing, he's just tipping his hat from afar -- or worse, coopting worn-out lefty idioms to make a self-righteous political point.

I can hear a counterargument out there: If you really dig into the history, you find that Woody Guthrie and Dylan also put on fake Okie accents and managed to make great, rousing folk anthems that people could latch onto. Yes, but I would argue that the use of the Okie accent as the lingua franca of American folk doesn't ring true any more. What Springsteen really needs to do is pay attention to who exactly the folk really are nowadays. He needs to start sing'em in Spanish.

Uno! Dos! Tres! Quatro!

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