Seeger, Springsteen, and American Folk Music
Thurmaier, David, Phi Kappa Phi Forum
In the liner notes to his new album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Bruce Springsteen recounts how the recording took place the first day his band arrived at his home: "'Till that moment we'd never played a note together. I counted off the opening chords to 'Jesse James' and away we went. It was a carnival ride, the sound of surprise and the pure joy of playing." The "sound of surprise" is one of the most powerful aspects of performing music, and usually results in the "pure joy of playing" (unless the performers are having an off night!). For example, consider jazz musicians, who, while improvising, are not always sure where their solos will lead. This interaction between musicians and their sources spawns creativity, culminating in a joyous and meaningful emotional experience.
Surprise and joy also translate to the performance of folk music. In this essay, I will focus on American folk music, and specifically the efforts of two seminal American musicians: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. For those unfamiliar with the recording cited above, the pairing of Seeger and Springsteen may seem peculiar. What could Seeger, the eighty-seven-year-old folk singer and political and environmental activist, have in common with Springsteen, the fifty-seven-year-old rock star known for his enormous commercial success? As it turns out, many things. In the course of examining Seeger's and Springsteen's music and lives, I wish to explore three areas: first, how each singer's background influenced his musical path; second, the issues concerning American history and music raised by several songs on The Seeger Sessions; and finally, what Springsteen's album tells us about folk music and America in 2006.
FOLK MUSIC AND "GRASS ROOTS"
What is "folk music?" In a recent interview in Guitar World Acoustic magazine, Seeger explains that the term "was invented in the middle of the nineteenth century to mean 'the music of the peasantry class, ancient and anonymous.'" He also suggests that thinking of folk music as a process may be more fruitful to its understanding; for instance, consider the standard practice where a musician writes new words over preexisting music (often hundreds of years old). In addition to this fluid interchange between words and music, most folk music shares some common thematic threads. The lyrics often draw from experiences of everyday people, including those who may be subjugated in society (women, children, workers, the poor). Moreover, these lyrics can convey subtle--or not so subtle--political messages or thoughts on morality. To complete the songwriting process, these lyrics are combined with simple, repetitive tunes and basic harmonic structures to allow the lyrics to be heard prominently. This fusion of words and music that continues today is hardly a new one; in medieval France, performers known as troubadours and trouveres journeyed from city to city, singing secular songs written in vernacular French. Their songs usually contained a refrain (what we would call a chorus) and were constructed with clear, short phrases that accentuated the lyrics.
I would argue that Pete Seeger's greatest contribution to folk music is his integrity and honesty in singing songs about those forgotten or ignored in society. This ability to empathize with and organize on behalf of others was ingrained in Seeger as a child by his father, the eminent musicologist and activist Charles Seeger. Charles wrote the following in a 1939 essay entitled "Grass Roots for American Composers":
Music is unquestionably the most highly developed of our native arts, excepting only speech. It is a dynamic folk art: while it continually loses old songs, it continually adds new ones.... If, therefore, a composer is going to sing the American people anything new ... he must first get on a common ground with them, learn their musical lingo, work with it, and show he can do for them something they want to have done and cannot do without his help. …