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No surprise which side Bruce Springsteen was rooting for in the US mid-term elections. “Some small semblance of sanity has returned to the United States,” he exulted in a break between songs, having seen his campaigning efforts for the Democrats come to nothing in the last presidential election.
The Bush years have had a mixed effect on Springsteen. They’ve inspired in him a bout of creative activity – between 1995 and 2002 he released no albums of new material, and since 2002 there have been three – but the results have been variable. On The Rising (2002) he was in voice-of-America mode as if duty bound to comment on 9/11, which had a stifling, deadening effect on his music. Devils & Dust (2005) was better but still suffered from excessive gravity, Springsteen again acting as self-anointing spokesman for the nation.
But then came this year’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a freewheeling collection of covers of folk songs popularised in the 1950s and 1960s by the great American folklorist Pete Seeger. At last Springsteen sounded energised by his resistance to the most polarising president since Richard Nixon. The musical traditions he tapped into were an implicit rebuke to George Bush’s all-American folksiness – there is more to America than is dreamt of in your philosophy, they seemed to say – yet Springsteen also sounded liberated, as if having the time of his life whooping it up with a bunch of musicians in the living-room of his farm house, where We Shall Overcome was recorded.
These songs, many of them hundreds of years old, are made to be played live. Springsteen has rearranged them in a bustling, brassy fashion, and his near-20-strong backing band, dressed in Depression-era outfits, did them full justice. It was a spit-and-sawdust journey through country blues, gospel, Irish fiddle and ragtime, topped off by Springsteen’s hollered vocals, like a New Orleans wake taking place in an unruly Wild West saloon. If music is one of America’s great expressions of identity, Springsteen, following in Pete Seeger’s footsteps, has renewed himself in its traditions.
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