The accidental side-effects of Bruce's ragtime detour
(Read the original review of “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” here.
Bruce Springsteen’s pre-emptive strike into the land of Pete Seeger-style protest folk, New Orleans-style ragtime and the judicious use of the tuba began life, not surprisingly, as a lark, a what-the-hell detour that he probably expected to catch on as much as it did, which is to say not much (the subsequent tour played to half-empty sheds throughout the Midwest, where the prospect of a “Glory Days”-less Springsteen concert apparently threw folks into a state of white noise and befuddlement).
But a funny thing happened when Springsteen took what was conceived as a toss-off weekend recording session on the road: it quickly turned into a conduit for the most personal and political music he’s ever produced, hence this “American Land” edition of The Seeger Sessions, an added-value (ugh) director’s-cut released six months after the original that would scream cynical cash-in if it didn’t seem more like the most efficient way he could think of to get timely music out there.
“American Land” isn’t a crucial upgrade; of the five new songs here, two—“Buffalo Gals” (no, really) and the choir singalong “How Can I Keep From Singing”—appeared as DVD extras on the original, and two others were streamed for free on Bruce’s Web site (which means finding MP3s of all them will not tax your detective abilities). But those new songs are worth the trip to the store. “American Land”, recorded during its debut at a MSG tour stop this summer, is, of all things, an Irish foot-stomper: it’s what would happen if Bruce and Shane MacGowan ran into each other and—you may want to sit down for this hypothesis—started drinking. Over lilting bagpipes and roaring key changes, Springsteen makes an extremely unsubtle argument regarding immigration—“There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard-working man, who makes his home in the American land.” Catch the video when it airs on CMT, for some reason. “Bring ‘Em Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)” is a Pete Seeger rewrite and a pretty somber plea to play for anyone still a little confused by “Born in the U.S.A.”
But the killer is “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”, a brutal, driving rewrite of a Blind Alfred Reed song and a poison arrow aimed directly at the man Springsteen took to calling “President Bystander” after Katrina. “He said, ‘Me and my old schoolpals had some mighty high times ‘round here / And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain’t fair,’” Springsteen howls, emphasis on “high”. “He took a look around, gave a little pep talk / said ‘I’m with you,’ then he took a little walk.” To these ears anyway, it’s the flagship track for people who continue to find the non-response to Katrina demoralizing and appalling, and the accidental focal point of the entire Seeger Sessions detour.