It's no secret that Bruce Springsteen is a left-leaning populist. "Born in the U.S.A." was a sneaky anti-war anthem; he headlined a defeat-George W. Bush concert tour in 2004, and he cut a whole album of covers by the folk and union-song legend Pete Seeger. But at a recent concert in Berlin, he unloaded on America's fat cats in a novel way — he did it in German.
His Wednesday set at Berlin's sold-out Olympic Stadium was tied to his new album, "Wrecking Ball." But his between-song banter took on the 1% as well, acknowledging that American unemployment is unacceptably high and that Eurozone nations including Germany aren't faring any better (and by some measures, even worse).
Then in German, he reportedly added "This song is for all those who are struggling" before diving into the working-person's lament "Jack of All Trades."
In “This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folksong” (Running Press, $24), author and Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli traces the extraordinary life of what is arguably America’s best-known and best-loved folk song, written by America’s greatest folk troubadour.
It’s long been known that Woody Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as his reaction to -- and dissatisfaction with -- Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America, which became ubiquitous throughout the Depression, primarily from Kate Smith’s signature recording and her countless performances on live radio broadcasts.
Among the many examples of cultural detective work in Santelli's book -- published in conjunction with this year's Woody Guthrie centennial -- Santelli traces a journey that culminates in the song being sung by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at a 2009 inauguration concert for President Obama. Along the way, he also answers the question: How exactly how did “This Land Is Your Land” become part of the elementary school standard repertoire, where virtually every kid in the United States can sing it -- or at least, the best-known parts of it -- by the time they’re 7?
It partly can be traced to the inclusion of “This Land Is Your Land” on a 1951 album of children’s songs called “Songs to Grow On,” the third volume in a series of children’s music released by producer Moses Asch on his new Folkways record label.
Asch, who had made records with Seeger and Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and other folk and blues artists in New York City in the '40s, first met and recorded with Guthrie in 1944. He was so bowled over by the quality of Guthrie’s songs, which had not been captured extensively in recordings before that, that he got Guthrie to lay down dozens of tracks, including “God Blessed America,” the song that eventually would come to be known as “This Land Is Your Land.”
But it wasn’t an immediate breakout hit, just one among the slew of songs Guthrie recorded for Asch. Seeger also loved the song’s sing-along and routinely included it when he performed in schools and at summer camps in New York and elsewhere around the Northeast.
The genius stroke, however, came with Guthrie’s introduction to music publisher Howie Richmond. Even into the '50s, Guthrie may have established a body of work as impressive as that of any songwriter in history, but he had no publisher to represent and promote his songs. “Either because of his unconventional ways or his political stance, he was turned down wherever he went,” Santelli writes.
Folklorist Alan Lomax, who with his father, John, made field recordings for the Library of Congress documenting the nation’s folk and blues traditions, met with Richmond to float the idea of extending the reach of such songs beyond the walls of the Library of Congress. Perhaps, Lomax suggested, there was a way to educate the country’s youth to their musical heritage by including some of them in elementary school textbooks.
Richmond took the idea and ran with it, lobbying textbook publishers to include words and music to some of the songs from the Lomax collection; as an incentive, he reduced the normal licensing fees and threw in “This Land Is Your Land” as an added bonus -- he would charge only $1 to include it.
“I really believed that ‘This Land’ -- a truly great song about America, its natural wealth and beauty -- was something that kids sitting in classrooms ought to know and learn to sing,” Richmond told Santelli. “Plus, it was a great song for entire classes to sing. It had a great melody, great chorus, and those lyrics, well, they were so beautiful. I didn’t mind practically giving it away.”
The gambit worked and “This Land” quickly began landing on the desks of American schoolchildren with their next round of new books and incorporated into classroom music time.
The published version, however, omitted two verses that made “This Land” more than a celebration of America’s natural resources, but also a pointed political protest song in which Guthrie spoke on behalf of the millions he’d seen left by the wayside of the American dream during the Great Depression.
In addition to his poetic imagery about the nation’s endless skyway, golden valley, redwood forests, gulf stream waters, sparkling sands and diamond deserts, Guthrie also made a point to note:
As I was walkin’, I saw a sign there And that sign said ‘No trespassin’ But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’ Now that side was made for you and me
Another often-overlooked verse says:
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple Near the relief office, I saw my people And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ 'If this land’s still made for you and me?’
(To head the folk purists off at the pass: Numerous variations on these lyrics have been chronicled over the decades, even as written down by Guthrie himself. The verses here are taken from Santelli's book, where they are rendered as "Original Lyrics.")
Half a century later, when Springsteen called Seeger to invite him to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with him at a concert celebrating Obama’s inauguration, “I told him I would, but only if he agreed to sing the song with its original lyrics,” Seeger told Santelli, himself a longtime Guthrie aficionado who had organized a tribute to him in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to launch the hall’s “American Masters” series of tribute performances.
“All these years I sang ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but never with so many people watching and listening,” Seeger said. “Washington, D.C., filled with people. Television cameras were everywhere. I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass by. I wanted to make absolutely certain that the world knew the lyrics that Woody originally wrote.”
Springsteen needed no coaching -- he’d been singing the song, including the usually missing verses, since the 1980s.
“We’d like you to join us in perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home,” Springsteen said to the massive audience by way of introduction.
No Teleprompters were needed that day. Nearly everyone there in Washington, D.C., and watching at home on television had long ago learned it in grade school.
Halfway through Thursday night’s miraculous revival meeting cum concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Bruce Springsteen stopped to recall his beginnings in the '60s and early '70s playing with a bar band. There was one type of music that was guaranteed to move a Jersey Shore crowd.
“You always had to have a little soul in your pocket,” said the 62-year-old artist with the vigor of a 30-year-old. Then Springsteen led the E Street Band — at 16 pieces, it’s officially a big band, not a rock band, now — through a medley of vintage Temptations and Wilson Pickett tunes.
Testifying from a platform in the middle of the audience (the concert was sold out, as is Friday night’s), Springsteen stopped to guzzle a beer. He tossed the empty plastic cup, then fell backward on the outreached hands of fans, who passed their (tipsy) messiah up to the stage.
Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.
By the point — two jaw-dropping, career-spanning hours into the 26-song night — that Bruce and the band boarded the train to the “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” he had some 40,000, mostly white, hands up in the air, vibrating with the spirit of the Holy Ghost.
Another ghost was very much present in the arena, acting as the night’s guiding spirit, so to speak. Springsteen lost his musical soul mate last year when Clarence Clemons, the band’s saxophonist and the bandleader’s right-hand man, passed away. Judging by his repeated direct and indirect references to missing persons — culminating in a powerful screen tribute during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — Springsteen feels the loss keenly.
Clemons’ nephew Jake has stepped in to ably fill the Big Man’s shoes on sax. But it was a gifted guest who drew out of Springsteen the kind of emotive, inspired interplay that made the old Boss and Big Man chemistry so joyous to watch. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Nightwatchman joined the band for several songs, adding his bent-metal cries to their already stellar guitar lineup. (All hail Nils Lofgren and Little Steven Van Zandt. Springsteen ain’t no slouch at the ax either.)
On the haunting 1995 protest ballad “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello proclaimed the lyrics inspired by "The Grapes of Wrath": “Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/ Or decent job or a helpin' hand / Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me.”
Those who made the trek to Austin for the South by Southwest festival indulged in five days of nonstop music from more than 2,000 acts and likely attended one of the many (aggressively branded) parties. Big names (Jay-Z, Springsteen), breakouts and booze kept Twitter popping:
“Been at SXSW for four days and the best music I've heard was a ska cover of Poison's “Nothing But A Good Time” playing at Chipotle.” -- @kylekinane
“Sounds like up and comers Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen got a nice buzz boost from SXSW” -- @donewaiting
“Excited for #SXSW! See you at the Taco Bell™ RealPlayer™ Blogger™ Underground™ Super Chill Lounge Fort Showcase Party Tent! ☮♥▲ #KONY2012” -- @yacht
“Trying to figure out what's worse at SXSW. Being drunk or being sober.” -- @pbwolf
“Can't figure out how to dress for both Al Gore & Jay-Z?! #sxsw” -- @txrocks75
Austin, Texas -- Amid all the lyrics about desperation, frustration, falling in and out of love and “heaven waiting down the tracks,” three words during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s set at the South by Southwest annual festival and convention captured what the singer-guitarist was getting at the whole night.
“We are alive!” he bellowed during his song of the same name.
If music is about celebrating the wonder of life, capturing its ups and downs, then on Thursday a wide-eyed and sometimes-winded Springsteen embodied that spirit. The 62-year-old did it through physical momentum, keen timing and a near-unparalleled talent for translating the human condition through music.
“And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark," he continued, "our souls and spirits rise.”
The Boss and his E Street Band -- 17 strong, including a five-man horn section -- not only captivated a few thousand giddy fans at ACL-Live at the Moody Theater in Austin, but also won over a fair number of hipster skeptics. Most in the audience had gained entry only after entering and winning a SXSW lottery for tickets.
Springsteen plays shows April 26 and 27 at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, the first of which is already sold out.
Touring in support of his raucous though uneven new album, “Wrecking Ball,” it's Springsteen's first tour without E Street Band tenor saxophone player Clarence Clemons, who died last year of a heart attack. His soaring saxophone runs were a key component to many Springsteen songs, and the question of who would fill Clemons' shoes after his sudden passing loomed large.
The answer was saxman Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence, and it appears nepotism had little to do with his appointment. Jake blew through the iconic solo from “Thunder Road” with the confidence, precision and soul of a seasoned player. He did the same, most exuberantly, as part of the brass section behind a bevy of guests who graced the stage during the 2 1/2-half hour set.
The guests transformed what was already a great Boss show into something truly remarkable: legendary reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, '60's icon Eric Burdon of the Animals, Texas twang king Joe Ely, the socially conscious Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, members of indie-rock's Arcade Fire and Rhode Island roots rock band the Low Anthem.
Earlier in the day, Springsteen had delivered the music festival’s keynote speech and spent nearly an hour telling the story of his musical life. He tried to verbalize the wonder he felt as a kid hearing Elvis Presley for the first time, coming to terms with heartbreak via Roy Orbison, understanding the social messages in Woody Guthrie's work.
But it wasn't all about the deep meanings in music, he said. Springsteen admitted that as a teen he posed with a guitar in front of a mirror -- and that, yes, he confessed, he still does.
He spoke in warm tones of hearing the message of Burdon’s Animals -- “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do” -- before declaring that those lyrics embody every song Springsteen has ever written. In short, he talked about hearing music and feeling alive.
That vitality has been embodied throughout the festival. It’s what L.A. rapper Busdriver conveyed on the roof of 512 on 6th Street, where, donning a raccoon cap and working his own beat box, he uplifted the crowd with tracks from his new album, “Beau$Eros.” Bogota, Colombia, duo Il Abanico translated that vigor in its beguiling beat music, and breakout British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka showered it over a rapt crowd, when he sang with strained longing that “one day I’ll be home again.”
Channeling a similar sentiment, Springsteen and his band opened with Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” But the Boss focused much of his set on new music from “Wrecking Ball,” and the material sounded fantastic live, especially “Death to My Hometown,” an Irish-tinged banger about robber barons and small-town depression.
“Shackled and Drawn” was more anthemic live than on record, and “Rocky Ground” felt like a gospel hymn. He augmented this new music with classics such as “The Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and “Badlands,” each as powerful as the last.
The E Street Band, of course, propelled the sound. It featured regulars “Miami” Steve van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Garry Tallent, Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg and was augmented by violin, extra percussion, backing singers and, most prominently, a big, beefy brass section -- an addition that added even more power to an already combustible machine.
Guests also added to the excitement. Wearing all red amid the dozens onstage dressed in black, Cliff sang, among others, his classic song of rebellion, “The Harder They Come,” and in the process confirmed that the E Street Band has a future as a reggae backing band if it so chooses.
Burdon came onstage for “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and Springsteen backed the singer whose creative life has so profoundly influenced his own work. Given the affection and reverence Springsteen directed toward Burden during his earlier keynote speech, the pairing entranced the crowd with the sight of two renegades swapping lines.
And then came the requisite fireworks, in the form of a rendition of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” For the song, Springsteen invited Ely, Arcade Fire, the Low Anthem and Morello onto the stage. The lights went up, and the mass of singers onstage converged with the thousands in the room who were singing along. We were alive, indeed.
Delivering the keynote address at the annual South by Southwest conference on Thursday, Bruce Springsteen was introduced as “the Boss of rock ’n’ roll” but spent his hour on the podium suggesting he was no fount of wisdom and urging listeners to embrace the music in all its diverse forms despite its uncertain future.
Springsteen acknowledged that “no one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore,” adding “there is no keynote. There is no unified theory of everything.”
With 2,000 bands spread among more than 90 stages, the 25-year-old SXSW increasingly represents a music fragmented industry. Earlier panel sessions debated new business models and the financial viability of music streaming services.
But Springsteen’s message was about inspiration. Noting some of the more unusual genres represented at the festival — Nintendo-core, pagan rock, heartland rock, screamo, swamp rock, death ’n’ roll — he said such a lineup would have been an “insane teenage pipe dream” when he first picked up a guitar in 1964.
Today, Springsteen declared, we are living in a “post-authentic world,” where “authenticity is a house of mirrors.” This means that the hype, the methods of making music and the story are second to “what you bring when the lights go down.” He then traced his own musical influences with stories and small performances on an acoustic guitar and at one point admitted to a packed convention center room that he still practices his rock ’n’ roll poses in the bedroom mirror.
He name-checked the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and more and said most everything he’s ever done with the E Street Band incorporated these influences. But, he said, it was English rhythm & blues rockers the Animals that had the most profound effect.
It was an arms-wide-open embrace of all that SXSW represents from a musical standpoint. Already the festival has welcomed soulful newcomers the Alabama Shakes and saw the return of pianist bad girl Fiona Apple to a major stage.
Springsteen talked about music like recalling a first love. He crooned a little doo-wop — “the sound of bras popping across the U.S.A.,” he said — and played a few bars of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” declaring the first time he heard the band as “a revelation, the first records with full-blown class consciousness.” The chorus of the song, in which working stiffs are simply looking for a better life, can be heard, Springsteen said, in every one of his albums.
“That’s every song I’ve ever written,” he said. “That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.’” Springsteen even went further and strummed the opening notes of the Animals’ take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and segued into his own “Badlands.”
“It’s the same … riff,” Springsteen hollered. “Listen up, you youngsters, this is how successful theft is accomplished.”
Springsteen laid out a theory presented by late and noted rock critic Lester Bangs — his assertion that “we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” His aim wasn’t to persuade SXSW attendees that the world should again have a unifying star who could “create a transformative self” but simply that the tuneful passion awakened by Elvis is in no danger of fading and rock ’n’ roll continues to “celebrate a sense of freedom that was Woody [Guthrie’s] legacy.”
He left the audience with a word of advice: Remember, he told the SXSW hopefuls, that “when you walk on stage tonight, to bring the noise. Treat it like it’s all we have, and then remember it’s only rock ’n’ roll.”
When Texas rocker Joe Ely asked, “I wonder if there’s another guitar player in the house?” on Wednesday night at the Austin Music Hall in Austin, Texas, who stepped up to the plate? Not one of the countless Lone Star State pickers on hand for the 30th annual Austin Music Awards show, but the Boss himself.
Springsteen took the guitar solo when Jeffreys tackled the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and also pitched in with vocals on Escovedo’s “Always a Friend.” The two had played the song together previously in Houston, which Escovedo later described as “three minutes that changed my life.” The remark harked back to Springsteen’s lyric in “No Surrender" about how “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.”
It's not necessarily a bad thing that “Wrecking Ball,” Bruce Springsteen's first studio album in three years, sees the 62-year-old artist updating his sound.
He's done it before, though not with as much apparent intent as on studio album No. 17, which often seems like a direct response to the music of Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire. After all, it's important for a boss to pay attention to the ideas of the upstarts in middle management from time to time. Inspiration often needs an external boost, and at some point an artist must acknowledge that the inheritors are now guiding the conversation.
But Springsteen doesn't always get it right on “Wrecking Ball,” a record that, more than anything he's done in a decade, sees him addressing Big Picture themes about America, war, the economy, provincialism and revolution.
Whether he's channeling Montreal's finest, his own New Jersey heart, Southern gospel, Irish folk music, New York rap (yes, there's a 16-bar rap — very ill-advised — on “Rocky Ground”) or Southern twang, the Boss is pumped up and full of anthemic energy.
In the liner notes to Bruce Springsteen's new album 'Wrecking Ball," which arrives Tuesday, amid the lyrics, line-up, thank-yous and production notes is a tiny-fonted paragraph listing the non-Boss recordings and songs that Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello either sampled or quoted on the record.
Bruce Springsteen, sample king?
It's not the descriptor that most would use when discussing the artist, but, according to the notes, Springsteen references no less than five other songs within his 18th album, ranging from funk vocalist Lyn Collins to Curtis Mayfield to the Alabama Sacred Heart Convention and a few different Alan Lomax-directed field recordings from the 1940s and '50s. He employs the sound of an AK-47 firing, and even swipes a chunk of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." (Alas, he doesn't use the classic "Apache" break.)
On the surface, the Boss' curiosity about cut-and-paste culture might come as a surprise; he is, after all, an American songwriter born and raised within the pure tradition of original musical storytelling. But Springsteen has long quoted others' music within his own, beginning with the first song on his second record, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," whose "The E Street Shuffle," is an acknowledged riff on Major Lance's 1960 hit "The Monkey Time." Too, he loves peppering his set with a good cover song, and is quick to list influences and inspirations when discussing his craft.
Judging by the list of samples for "Wrecking Ball," he dug into the well of American music during the construction of the record. Below, some of Springsteen's quotes and samples.
Lyn Collins, 'Me and My Baby Got Our Own Thing Going'
Lyn Collins' 1972 funk jam "Me and My Baby Got Our Own Thing Going" was produced by James Brown and written by Collins along with Brown, Fred Wesley and Charles Bobbitt. Springsteen references it on the third track on "Wrecking Ball," called "Shackled and Drawn."
Bruce Springsteen's forthcoming album, "Wrecking Ball," has a busy few weeks of marketing ahead; over the next 10 days, Springsteen will be premiering a new song a day from it as a way to build the proverbial buzz leading up to its March 6 release date.
The Boss first advanced the album with the single "We Take Care of Our Own," a tightrope-walking song about America that revealed Springsteen's gift for crafting lyrics just nebulous enough to avoid taking political sides while still feeling like a protest. The work week begins with "Easy Money."
Like "We Take Care of Our Own," "Easy Money" is a rocker with a big beat and a bigger boom, with a pound suggestive of a Tom Waits brawler and a raucous hand clap vibe suggestive of "Cadillac Ranch." Except that it's neither: It's a Bruce song through-and-through but somehow manages to sound fresh, with a folkish fiddle tying it together and a back beat that will no doubt translate well in the live setting.
"Easy Money" is, hands down, a better Bruce cut than "We Take Care of Own" -- though feel free to disagree in the comments below. Combined, the two songs suggest that Springsteen's returning to the anthemic rock music that first made him a household name.