Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Boss Goes Trad

Today I say thanks for Bruce Springsteen. His new release, We Shall Overcome, is a bit of inspiration and validation for us corny trad fans.

On his latest effort, The Boss offers up some of the most loved and inspiring songs in our nation's history. He modeled his selections on the work of an American folk legend and a musician for whom I have nothing but the deepest reverence and admiration, Pete Seeger. I can think of no more touching and appropriate nod from a rock and roll icon to a guardian of America’s folk music heritage.

I have never bought a Bruce Springsteen album although “x” was a big fan so I was exposed to a great deal of his work. He is pure raw energy and talent, and his honest and straightforward, if slightly off-key singing is quite compelling. While not a genuine fan, I am drawn to this recording for many reasons.

The first is that I’m intrigued by Springsteen’s journey. It appears that, like me, he sort of stumbled across a genre he wasn’t very familiar with but with which, as one of America’s contemporary folk heroes, he could swiftly and deeply identify. He immersed himself in the music and then realizing its value sought a way to share what moves him about it with others. Granted, he’s got a bit of an edge over me where that’s concerned, but I do fully understand the thrill of sharing some new joy.

The next is that it truly is touching to see a star like Springsteen align himself with the work of a musical hero like Pete Seeger. While I haven’t heard Seeger’s reaction to Springsteen’s interpretation, I imagine there to be some degree of admiration and appreciation. Springsteen’s music has always struck me as working-class anthems, which Seeger collected or pioneered in spades. Farmers, factory workers, and other unsung heroes of America'a rural and urban landscapes have been the subject of many a song in the discography of both singers.

Another reason I’m excited about this recording is of course the fact that a figure like Springsteen comes with a ready market of millions of fans, and that means this music is going to be in their hands like lightning. Those fans might hunger for more, and like the “O Brother” phenomenon of a few years back, we have before us an opportunity to bring into the fold a multi-generational audience of considerable size.

The most exciting part is really just an extension of my last point. Springsteen presents a fabulous selection of songs that anyone can learn to sing and play, and he presents them with a wide assortment of instrumentation, including banjo, fiddle, washboard, tuba. This album is a tribute to what folk music is really all about: to paraphrase Woody, Pete, Mike, Joan, and many other troubadours, these songs were made for you and me.

Read or hear the story and interview by NPR’s Melissa Block, and samples from the album, here.


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