Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 20, 21 or 22
Seeger was 94, an artist and activist who began his career singing tunes such as “Union Maid” and “Talking Union” and became known almost as much for his 1955 grilling by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the shameful McCarthy era and the subsequent 1961 conviction for contempt of Congress (reversed on appeal in 1962) as he was for his songs “If I Had a Hammer,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” plus his distinctive arrangement of “We Shall Overcome.”
Working – and playing – for unions, civil rights, the peace movement and environmental issues, Seeger teamed up with Springsteen to sing “This Land Is Your Land” at President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.
Springsteen – who’d played with Seeger several times and even honored the progressive troubadour with the 2006 CD “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” – in “High Hopes” produced an anthology of sorts that’s part anthems and part epitaphs, more stirring than saddening.
The opener, the title cut, is a lively prayer and assertion wrapped in a Bo Diddley shuffle, and “This is Your Sword,” for instance, is a sweeping, graceful gospel tune seemingly lifted from a Seeger/Woody Guthrie broadside of union songs.
Put together during a world tour, “High Hopes,” Springsteen’s 18th studio album, is also unusual, a collection of unreleased or discarded recordings, cover versions and remakes. Throughout, however, Springsteen created Big Band rock ’n’ roll, with horns and backup vocals, its rock-soul sizzle as nourishing as drink in a desert.
It’s no mirage to hear guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave – and an awesome solo act as the Nightwatchman – here, featured on eight tracks. Plus, band members Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt are still in the band, too, making Springsteen’s group a guitar army.
Some purists may find fault with Springsteen returning to familiar subjects, yet they’re still relevant and fresh, like a food or a wound. Besides the topics, the emotions run the range from unsettling anguish to fortified, even joyful, resolve.
Featuring the late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici, “Harry’s Place” has a foreboding-but-determined sense of frailty and grit, a depressing song that leads haltingly into the plaintive “American Skin (41 Shots),” a track with outrage, shock and longing, remembering the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo and offering the insight, “We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.”
Likewise, later on the record, there’s “Down in the Hole,” a ballad/lullaby that goes down with an ethereal ease, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Wall” (almost a melancholy echo of the traditional “Shenandoah”), and listeners are tempted to surrender to despair or acceptance of the dread or the doom.
Then, there’s the upbeat urgency, if not outright optimism, in “Just Like Fire Would,” a positive acoustic number soothed with a smooth organ wash; “Heaven’s Wall” is an up-tempo hymn, asking for volunteers with Morello’s blistering guitar; “Frankie Fell in Love” starts out like John Mellencamp at a campus coffeehouse then ascends to classic raspy, orchestral Springsteen; “Hunter of Invisible Game” is simultaneously calming and striving, like John Prine or Jerry Jeff Walker on some Occupy picket line.
Throughout, Springsteen ends up offering those high hopes, especially the re-worked “Ghost of Tom Joad,” moving from a mournful, fiddle-focused cut to a heavy, hard-rock blast, and the sensitive but thundering “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Like Seeger, Springsteen wears his heart and brain on his sleeve, his music settled in our own hearts and on the barricades, whether in moody reverie or informed dismay.
The Rev. Martin Luther King is remembered as saying, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Springsteen and his E Street Band – E for Emotion, Excitement, Energy, Expectation and Engaged? – grab the baton from Seeger as if running the next leg in a long relay race. On the tracks or in the stands, we can cheer, even in grief.
“Keep the light burning,” he sings in“Dream Baby Dream” (from Suicide, circa 1980) – a pledge from someone resisting wrong and working for right, a sweet concoction that’s romantic and personal but also connected and social.
“Come on, keep the fire burning.”
[PICTURED: Seeger and Springsteen performing at Obama's 2009 Inauguration. Photo from Alternet.org]