Friday, January 30, 2009

This Train; This Land is Your Land

Usually I save this feature for songs written by Springsteen. Today we’re making an exception by looking at the history of this seminal piece of song writing. This Land is Your Land, in my mind, reflects America and its dream better than the official national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. It certainly has more eye for the harsh reality of the American dream than the song Woody Guthrie wrote it in response to, Irvine Berlin’s God Bless America. While Berlin had originally written the song in 1918, while serving in the U.S. army, it didn’t get a proper recording until 1938 when Kate Smith sang it on her radio show. The song soon became a hit. Round the time God Bless America hit the juke-boxes across the country, Woody Guthrie was roaming it like a hobo. During his travels Guthrie was confronted with the poverty and social injustices that gnaw at the American Dream. The rot in that apple was at the time amplified by one of the fiercest economic crisis the nation had ever known. The gap between the haves and have-nots seemed impossible to bridge. Guthrie felt God Bless America was too overtly patriotic to reflect the painful realities he was confronted with on the road.

Guthrie’s first attempt at writing a response to Berlin’s saccharine anthem came to him on February 23rd, 1940. According to Joe Klein’s excellent biography on Woody Guthrie, A Life, the song was originally titled God Blessed America. Woody supposedly took the tune from the Carter Family’s Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine, which the Carters in turn swiped from an old Baptist hymn, Oh My Lovin’ Brother. So the basis of This Land is set in prayer. Seeing the form the song would take four years down the line, this seems strikingly apt. This Land is Your Land would become a song that reflects as much the harshness of the American dream as the yearning to make that dream more inclusive. Though the lyrics are very close to the shape they would eventually take, each verse closes with “God blessed America for me” instead of “This land was made for you and me.”

At the time Guthrie’s biting social critique still found warm grounds in America. Steinbeck had just published Grapes of Wrath two years prior and it was already made into a John Ford movie. Tied in with that movie Guthrie appeared on a benefit for the “John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers,” where he announced to be pleased to be pleased to be performing in a “Rapes of Graft” show. It was on this show where he was discovered by Alan Lomax. By the early forties, Lomax was hard on his way of becoming an institution himself. Spurred by his father John Lomax, Alan had made it his career to preserve the American folk song. Alan had travelled the Deep South with his father, recording prisoners and Gospel choirs with their 350-pound Presto machine, funded by the Library of Congress, of which archives the recordings would become a part. In his day to day business at the Library Alan was aided by the shy, skinny, acne covered, Harvard drop out Peter Seeger. In Woody, Alan saw a raw talent, untainted by the popular styles that had diluted folk music in Alan’s mind ever since Jimmy Rodgers broke through. Impressed by Woody’s performance at the benefit, Lomax convinced Guthrie to come to NY where he would record him. While in NY Guthrie struck up a friendship with Seeger, which would lead to the latter’s performing career. Guthrie and Seeger formed a socialist folk group called the Almanac singers of which they would be the core. Living in a Greenwhich village commune that stayed close to socialist ideals, while other musicians would drift in an out.

Woody Guthrie; This Land is Your Land

It wouldn’t be until April 16th, 1944 however that Guthrie would record the song that would prove to be his lasting legacy as part of what would become known as the Asch recordings. The recording session was ‘produced’ by Moe Asch of Folkway Records. The sessions recorded by Asch were mostly informal affairs. Moe would pay Woody twenty to twenty-five dollars and a steak dinner, Guthrie sang his songs in return. The results are rudimentary even for those days. The crackling nature of the recordings do not make them easy to digest, but for those willing to listen they’re a treasure chest of folk poetry and raw politically commentary with a satirical twist. Ironically Guthrie delivered his seminal works at a time where it would become increasingly hard for him and Seeger to perform in public. In the slipstream of World War II the cold war began, Guthrie’s vision of America would soon find itself in hostile grounds. The lines that Woody had written for This Land simply reeked too much of socialism for the likes of McCarthy and his committee for un-American activities.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Though This Land became widely popular in school and scouting, these lines were dropped in popular use under the pressure of times. The same pressure that would seriously side track Pete Seeger’s career. When Seeger was forced to appear the House Un-American Activitees Committee, designed to smoke out communist by paranoid pit-bull senator McCarthy, Seeger was enjoying the golden age of his career with the Weavers, an enormously popular folk group. As a result of McCarthy’s which hunt, the Weavers and Seeger were blacklisted and found it difficult to find work. Seeger himself was initially even sentenced to ten years of prison for contempt of court in 1961 because he defied the committee. Seeger had refused to plead the Fifth (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) when he appeared before the committee in 1955. Instead he opted for the First Amendment: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." As a result of the blacklisting Seeger had to make a living out of teaching children banjo and folk songs for the longest time. Something he himself found highly ironic, as teaching children would be the perfect channel to indoctrinate a future generation with communist sympathies should that have been his objective.

Allegedly encouraged by Jon Landau, Springsteen began his life long obsession with Guthrie in the early eighties when Landau set him down to watch Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. This Land is Your Land first appeared in the set list in New York on December 28th, 1980 after Springsteen had read Joe Klein’s book on Guthrie. Introducing the song we hear a Springsteen that is still budding when it comes to his political awareness, though the song and Guthrie’s life grabbed him, much of it still appears to be on an instinctive level. Fittingly, Springsteen’s performances of the song in the eighties would be the ‘censored’ lyrics, with the earlier mentioned sharp edges taken off. Springsteen’s version of the song here is still a tad slow and dragging, feeling more like a meditation, evoking a feeling of America rather than a commentary. Ironically, with the lyrics cropped, the song, in feeling, feels a bit too close to Irvine Berlin’s God Bless America for comfort. After being frequently appearing in the sets throughout the River and the Born in the USA tour, the song was dropped for a near 25 years, getting a mere a sole appearance in 1996 during the peak of Springsteen’s Guthrie obsession with the Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Guthrie’s political vision had, however, firmly edged itself in Springsteen’s take on America. Nebraska, for a large part, was built around the people who fell short of the American Dream and you could argue that Born in the USA is Springsteen’s own This Land. Like Woody’s song Born in the USA is at once an anthem celebrating America while venomously biting at its dark shadow.

As the decades progressed, Springsteen’s political awareness grew more pronounced. The instinctive feeling would gradually be replaced by a sharper political vision that would eventually result in blatant and oft criticized partisanship under the Bush administration of the passed eight years. To underscore this, This Land started to resurface during last falls Obama Rallies, including some the lines that originally gave the song its sharp edge. With a more staccato and biting phrasing Springsteen added the relief office verse, before allowing the audience to take over, pushing the song in the Yes We Can chant he started it with. With the economic crisis, finding millions of Americans out of a job and thousands living in tents, those lyrics suddenly seem eerily contemporary. The song’s dark shadow feels as real today as it did when it was first written. Yet in Springsteen’s hands the song becomes an resilient pro-active anthem of hope, as much as his own song the Rising. Though the latter arguably will never become as engraved in our collective conscious as Woody Guthrie’s folk masterpiece.

After President Obama’s election Springsteen helped rehabilitate the song even further with the help of Pete Seeger, on who’s insistence the songs most controversial lyric was added, at then still President-elect Obama’s inauguration concert. This performance also saw the “No Trespassing” sign lyric restored. No inauguration concert and no actual inauguration did ever breathe the sense of history in the making as much as Obama’s. The proceedings mobilized a staggering 2 million people wanting to be a part of it. Obama would be sworn into office not only after 8 years of devastating policies of the Bush administration, but also the day after Martin Luther King day, 40 years after he was shot outside his Memphis hotel. In all the fuss it is easy to miss that the event was also the rehabilitation of Pete Seeger who was blacklisted some 55 years earlier. Seeger, now 89, has found himself enjoying a full re-evaluation in recent years. Hot on the heels of Springsteen’s world tour and album, celebrating the music he had strived so hard to preserve, Seeger had been the subject of an impressive documentary that not only chronicled his life but was a testimony of the power of music as well. The inauguration concert seems like a crownpiece on this rehabilitation. Though perhaps only visible for the keen observer, to me at least, it added to the promise that America is able to rehabilitate itself and truly make this land a land for you and me.

The inauguration concert wasn't the first time the Boss and Pete colaborated. Appleseed records released two duets with both gentlemen in 2007, Hobo's Lullabye and Springsteen's own Tom Joad. The first featured on the Give Us Your Poor CD with the proceeds going to the homeless.

Sharon Jones; This Land is Your Land

This wouldn't be Boss Tracks if I wouldn't slap you in the face with a fine serving straight from one of those half forgotten 45 rpm records. One of my favorite recent versions of This Land is Your Land comes from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse on her Back to Black album, but if you ask me Sharon Jones is the real deal. This serving is the flipside to her single What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Right on Track, Working on a Dream

An advance copy of Working on a Dream slipped into my mail box today. Exactly the excuse I needed to re-start this blog again. I realize I have been absent for a couple of months. A thing or two changed in my private life, things which are a happy distraction away from the Internet. Keeping up Boss Tracks in the way I did was time consuming, a luxury that only a single man can allow himself. I'll try to get things back on track, be it on a slowed down pace. Seems a waste to let all the work I had up till now go to waste.

Working on a Dream comes hot off the heels of the Magic tour. In advance press releases Springsteen had already explained that the album was born out of the excitement of that tour. Springsteen wanted to channel that excitement into the studio with tracks recorded in between dates and finished after the tour. Considering the schedule of the Magic tour and the events that followed, that notion alone makes the album a tour the force of sorts. Those who followed the tour closely will have noticed how that tour evolved from an angry burst of R&R exorcism of Bush's administration and the damage that did to America to a celebration of life and the following the tragic death of Dan Federici. Near the tail end of the tour that celebration was injected with a large dose of hope when Springsteen aligned himself closer to the Obama campaign. It is that energy that finds its way into his latest serving.

Working on a Dream is an album of mixed blessings. Like most fans I'm exited that there's new material the Boss is going to tour behind. But like a lot of those fans, I'm not sure what to make of this album. I've always been the type of fan who's admired his craftsmanship. In my mind Springsteen's lyrics were his forte. His economic cinematic portraits of America and his vivid sketches of human relationships were in my mind without peer. Influenced by Flannery O'Conner and other, Springsteen lyrics were short stories set to music with an uncanny eye for detail and the complexities of life. Springsteen's best lyrics, like Brilliant Disguise, Used Cars or You're Missing never compromised those complexities. This album, unfortunately, does. Though the album's lush production and graceful melodies breathe an hopeful, carefree and happy Springsteen dealing with his own mortality and the value of love and life, the lyrics never reach the level we've grown accustomed. The title track is a prime example of this. Never before was there a Springsteen song that breathed hope without reserve or fear like the first single of the album. Breezy and catchy the song sticks like bubble gum on your sneakers. While the song is nice enough to whistle along to when feeling down, it misses the double layers and complexities to make a real connection to our daily challenges.

More songs suffer from underdevelopment of the lyrics. The opening track Outlaw Pete has the sound of grandeur. In quick passing it seems a Jungleland with a Morricone twist. Yet the song's clumsy comedy and likewise metaphors keep it from epic status. Something similar happens with Queen of the Supermarket, a rather akward tale about a crush on a checkout girl. While the arrangement is exceptionally subtle and graceful for a Springsteen song, it fails to hit mark, it doesn't become another Sandy, while the music promises just that. In short, I haven't been this ambivalent towards a Springsteen album since Human Touch and Lucky Town. Working on a Dream seems a photo negative of those two offerings. Where those '92 albums offered us some of Springsteen's best songs on relationship packaged in a dismal and uninspired production, his last goes the other way around.

Because of its lush production however, Working on a Dream is much easier to digest. Set apart from his impressive catalog of lyrics, Working on a Dream works surprisingly well. On prize songs like What Love Can Do, Tomorrow Never Knows or the homage to Phantom Dan, The Last Carnival, Working on a Dream shines in pop delight. On the best moments this album becomes a forgotten relic from the sixties. Working on a Dream sounds like it drags the Byrds, Brian Wilson, the Stones, Leiber and Stoller up to E-Street. The band haven't sounded this good on a record since the River, which doesn't mean they are revisiting. Springsteen still manages to explore new forgotten corners of American music's past. Though the album doesn't have the backbone to really shelter you from winter's bitter cold, it is a nice and pleasant spring breeze that reminds you of the promise summer holds.

Rolling Stone gives the album a full five stars. Let's be honest, three or four would have been enough.
NPR offers an advance listen for those who haven't made their minds up yet.
The Boss himself talks extensively to the Observer about Working on a Dream here.
On a side note, you can find Van Zandt's comments on the Guitar Hero release here.