Three hours before the start of Bruce Springsteen’s first US concert in tribute to Pete Seeger, the huge parking lot around the suburban Boston arena was already gorged with scores of tailgate parties that had gathered from all over the eastern seaboard. The core of the crowd seemed pretty much the same as Springsteen’s rock following. It was overwhelmingly white, made up of largely suburban working and middle class women and men from their thirties to their early fifties. For more than a generation those fans had embraced Springsteen’s buoyantly desperate bar songs, his paeans to restless youth “born to run” from spiritually empty suburban lives as well as songs about the crushing weight of abandoned rust belt factories and the devastating impact of lost jobs and lost dreams upon working class families.
Beyond that traditional core of fans were atypical smatterings of older people and families with small kids drawn to Springsteen’s homage to Pete Seeger’s kaleidoscope of folk music. Release of the “We Shall Overcome” album a month before the tour had already prepared the crowd for a departure from Springsteen’s standard rock show. But the sheer power of seventeen live musicians blasting away from a back porch set with accordions, fiddles, washboards, banjoes, steel guitars, and blowsy horns backing the stomping, shouting rock star was enormous.
True to Seeger’s devotion to the breadth of the country’s multicultural traditions, the concert ranged over outlaw ballads, dustbowl songs, sea chanteys, gospel, work songs, political songs, Cajun Zydeco, mariachi, polka, New Orleans jazz, soul, even World War II jitterbug. That triggered thoughts about Pete’s love of country that deigns to celebrate its wealth and power, but rather is devoted to its rich, diverse people’s culture. Recognizing that historically much of the spiritual – and financial – support for music from the country’s soul came from the left, one was reminded about how vapid and ignorant are the recent claims of some that the left is deficient in patriotism.
The “We Shall Overcome” album had folk, gospel and social movement songs from the African American musical tradition. But black musicians were absent. The touring “Seeger Sessions” band corrected that indefensible omission. Four top African American musicians and singers led by vocalist Marc Anthony Thompson visibly affirmed the inseparably multinational and multiracial character of Pete’s art.
Two thematically timely and politically impacting songs not on the album were added to the tour list. Blind Alfred Reed’s indictment of racism and impoverishment, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” was written at the onset of the Great Depression.
Springsteen added lyrics reflecting his response to the “unbelievable devastation” that he recently witnessed in New Orleans:
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to Hell
I got family scattered from Texas all the way to Baltimore
And I ain’t got no home in this world no more
Gonna be a judgment that’s a fact, a righteous train rollin’ down this track
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
The second significant addition was Seeger’s updated anti-Vietnam War song from 1965 with searing relevance today: “(If You Love Your Uncle Sam) Bring ‘Em Home.” Introduced by Springsteen as an appropriate theme for Memorial Day, the audience responded with applause and cheers. Two pivotal political and moral issues of the time were addressed with humanity and art: Katrina and Iraq. Along with the 1815 Irish antiwar ballad “Mrs. McGrath” and a mournful, yet hopeful rendering of “When the Saints Go Marching In” along with Thompson, Springsteen manifested his growing maturity as an artist and political thinker. Neither hectoring his audience nor pandering, and with an economy of words, he managed to convey tragedy, urgency and hope for change.
Much has been written recently about the upsurge of protest in popular culture. From the Dixie Chicks who won’t back down, to Pink who wrote a lacerating letter to Bush, to Neil Young who wants to impeach him, to Mos Def and a growing array of hip hop poets and rappers who increasingly voice their determination to fight within society and within themselves the scourges of racism, sexism, violence and oppression, and many more.
All such political art is nurtured by a latent and increasingly manifest progressive majority and in turn strengthens that majority.
But little has been said about the impact of popular culture’s protest on the mindset of audiences. At the Springsteen concert, an unscientific observation suggested that Greater Boston’s ample peace and justice community was not there. Yet, an audience most likely not engaged in day-to-day activism reacted to “We Shall Overcome” and the panoply of music celebrating work, joy and struggle with affirming warmth and appreciation. With apologies for repetitive strategizing, all that underscores not only a changing national mood (while the right, of course, remains powerful, cunning and very dangerous), but also the potential for productive engagement by organized progressive forces with ever-broader publics.
It’s unfortunate and unfair that access to such significant cultural events is undermined by outrageous ticket prices. Let’s hope the artists and their fans start slugging it out with promoters, ticket agencies and whomever else is responsible for those prices so that those events become accessible to more socially, racially and nationally diverse audiences. In the meantime, if the Seeger Sessions Band comes to your neighborhood and you are able to attend, perhaps you might consider bringing along some leaflets. You’ll get a positive response.