Springsteeger and the national conversation

The Wednesday night after the release of Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, I chatted with a friend over at the “Americana Ramble” at Marilyn’s on K. He recalled a long-ago but very crystalline conversation—one between 30,000 people and a wiry guy with a banjo. It was Pete Seeger at Stern Grove, a glorious natural amphitheater surrounded by giant redwoods in San Francisco. “One guy and a damn banjo,” my friend said. “He split the crowd up in three parts, and we sang harmonies. … Everyone knew every word. Amazing.”

The Seeger songbook was the national conversation for decades. Seeger, now 87, wrote or discovered songs about all aspects of life: kids’ songs, love songs and protest songs. These were songs that families sang together. When was the last time you sang songs with your parents and kids? His were songs of longing for place and songs of home. He meant to cause dialogue, more, it seems, than he wanted to make his commentary.

You know the songs, but did you know Seeger wrote them? Little ditties like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “The Bells of Rhymney.” And the songs he adapted: “Turn, Turn, Turn” from Ecclesiastes, “Guantanamera” from Cuba and “Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight” from Africa. Seeger demonstrated that mainstream songs could lead a civil-rights movement. He also clearly proved that broadsides and freedom songs could kill your bank balance and get you blackballed professionally. That, too, was a conversation he was willing to have—with the government.

Now the world’s biggest rock icon has launched himself upon Seeger’s river of song, albeit with lesser-known, but no less powerful, choices. That Springsteen would opt to do this outside the folk idiom (guitar and voice) is, well, very rock ’n’ roll. We Shall Overcome begs the question: Can this, or any piece of music today, capture the critical mass of many generations like Seeger’s managed to do? Can we have music that celebrates America anymore? Is a restless country in perpetual anxiety allowed that, without sounding jingoist or Pollyanna? Are we finally tired of shoe-gazing?

Friends who saw Springsteen debut the album’s material down in New Orleans during the Jazz Festival described a community onstage with Dixieland brass, fiddles, mandolin, accordion, guitars, doghouse bass, pump organ, tambourine, piano, cymbals and voices. It was boisterous revival shakedown music, and it was big—life-changing.

I first encountered Pete Seeger as a spry older guy on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the mid-1960s. I remember his stance as much as his song. Here was a proud patriot: feet planted, head up and flannel chest out, leading a national conversation.

Now, Springsteeger. It does ring out, doesn’t it?