Springsteen, Seeger, and the Joy of Political Music

Pete Seeger showed Bruce Springsteen how music can effect political change and raise a nation's spirits, while still bursting with spirit and joy.

Susana Vera/Reuters

In the Spring of 2006 Bruce Springsteen assembled a new band to begin playing live the songs that would appear on his The Seeger Sessions album.

His first shows were in Asbury Park, at a small run down Convention Hall that appeared destined for the wrecking ball.

The crowd, by Springsteen standards, was tiny, a few thousand lucky fans who managed to snag tickets to one of the "warmup" shows that Springsteen plays to kickoff his tours.

These were the hardcore -- men and women in their 60s, meeting on the Jersey shore, trading stories of their favorite shows and tours, one upping each other to see who went back the furthest with The Boss.

They knew every word to every song in Springsteen's extensive catalogue and recognized from the first chord what song the band was going to play. They could be counted on to sing along, with fists pumping and arms raised.Tonight would be different.

Springsteen and his large band -- some familiar faces in the group, but many new -- took the stage and opened not with one of his own songs, or even one of his familiar covers -- but with a spiritual recorded by numerous gospel groups and the folk singer Pete Seeger, "Mary Don't You Weep."

The version was rousing and emphatic -- horns blared, violins sawed, the piano barreled, backup singers took the song around the bend and back home again.

Springsteen seemed energized by the material and the crowd responded to his enthusiasm with sustained applause and grinning faces. These were the real fans and they were willing to go where Springsteen led them, even if that place was through the relatively unfamiliar canon of American music that Pete Seeger had compiled during his long career.

Still, there were questions. Why an album of songs sung by an elderly folk singer?

Springsteen's previous album, Devils and Dust, was a dark response to the election of George W. Bush that Springsteen had tried so hard to prevent in 2004. The Seeger Sessions was as joyous as Devils and Dust was depressed. Bush was going to be President for two more years -- why not try to make the best of it by playing the work, religious, and protest songs that had sustained generations of Americans through some of the nation's most difficult periods?

Seeger showed Springsteen that political music could be buoyant, even as it dealt with the weightiest issues. The first four letters in hootenanny spell hoot -- and The Seeger Sessions was fun -- with a purpose.

When Springsteen asked, "How can a poor man stand such times as this?" the answer was clear -- by singing joyously together, and finding common purpose through shared voice.

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It was as if the only antidote to the failures of electoral politics was an immersion in the deepest vein of American folk traditions -- a journey not dissimilar to one that Bob Dylan and the Band took while discovering "the old, weird America" in the Big Pink as the world burned around them. (A parallel Springsteen alluded to by covering the Band's "Long Black Veil" that April night)

"Keep your eyes on the prize," Springsteen sang. "We shall overcome," he promised.

Springsteen was right. Just two years after The Seeger Sessions was born of the failure to elect John Kerry, Springsteen and Seeger stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sang "This Land is Your Land" as Barack Obama prepared to take the oath of office.