RIP: Pete Seeger, Inexhaustible Avatar Of American Folk And Fearless Populist Troubadour, Dead At 94


EDITOR’S NOTE: This review of Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions originally ran in PW back in 2006. I think it ably serves double duty as a Pete Seeger obituary, which was in the back of my mind when I wrote it given that he was 87 at the time. Goodnight Mr. Seeger wherever you are.

It’s no accident that you don’t really know what Pete Seeger did. That he’s truly larger than life, an American original, the kind that walk out of storybooks, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, but more real. That he more or less singlehandedly carried the burden of pure roll-up-your-sleeves and speak-truth-to-power lefty populism, social justice and humanitarian conscience on his back for the better part of the 20th Century, with amazing grace and without complaint. For his trouble he’s been tarred and feathered as a commie rat, beaten and blacklisted, and officially written out of history text books.

In the hunched autumn of his life — he’s now 87 — he’s wandered in the same off-the-radar wilderness of hush puppy gentility that Jimmy Carter’s been exiled to, where nobody really listens and no good deed goes unpunished. For reasons that remain unclear, Jesus Christ is considered a savior and guys like Pete Seeger are considered fools — well-meaning possibly but unrealistic granola-munching ninnies just the same — even though their morality and politics are exactly the same. Maybe some day, when the Matrix is finally unplugged, the scales will fall from our eyes.

Sure he can be stick-in-the-mud and a fuss budget about interpretation, and it’s true he did get fightin’ mad when Dylan went electric. Boy, if Seeger had a hammer that day, well, thinks would be a lot different. Still, that was a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. It’s time for Americana’s Obi-wan to pass his burden to a younger Jedi. On We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, The Boss, bless his heart, puts a lotta elbow grease into spit shinin’ a legacy tarnished by neglect, and Seeger’s songbook — which he would be the first to admit is really America’s songbook, he’s just the wizardly shepherd — cleans up real nice, and the mantel fits the Boss like an old pair of jeans, the kind that make his ass look good to women of Certain Age.

Assembling a non-E Street magic band of jolly folkateers, the Boss mans the captain’s wheel, barking out orders, making up arrangements on the fly — all the songs recorded live literally in the living room, no rehearsal, just hit “record” and let’s go — and steers his wooden ship towards the same rockets red glare twilight so palpable on Wilco/Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue series. The result is easily the best Springsteen album, E-Street Band or no E-Street band, since Nebraska. The problem heretofore was that there was only two kinds of Bruce: Springsteen that’s good for you and Springsteen that feels good — jugband or “Jungleland.”. There was either the big rolling chromewheelfuelinjected rock n’ roll hot rod of the E-Street band or there were these solemn folk records, the musical equivalent of the Boss riding one of those old-timey bicycles with the big fuckin’ front tire. Problem is, people in Jersey think those bikes are gay.

The unintended irony is that despite The Boss’ efforts to the contrary, those big arena-rockin’ bar band anthems are the folk music — you know, music for folks — and the folkie records are kinda for highbrows and elites. At best those records and shows are endured, if not flat-out ignored by your 700 Level sittin’ working man, who waits patiently for another brewski-hoistin’ E-Street album or tour. The Seeger Sessions will change all that. It’s fuckin’ hoot: Dixieland stomps, blue grass highs, mountain rags, porchfront hoedowns, pass the jug-a-wine gang-yell singalongs. It’s gonna sound great up on lawn seats, where we will join arm in arm, beers-in-hand and sway. And on this much we will agree: That we think we’re so clever classless and free, but we’re still fuckin’ peasants as far as I can see. Still, we shall overcome. Someday. — JONATHAN VALANIA