Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Springsteen and Jesse James--and Seeeger

Tom Watson disapproves of one song on Bruce Springsteen's much praised Seeger Sessions CD.

Being both a careful producer and a careful liberal, Springsteen is always controlling about both his musical releases and his statements. But this record is sloppy, haphazard. So is the message, but the results are less joyful. Because there in lineup is that old folk warhorse, the Ballad of Jesse James - and because of it, the calliope crashes to the ground.

Everybody knows the song, and perhaps in its inherent long-standing myth, there's an innocence that calls for forgiveness to actual history, at least for aging rock musicians:

Jesse James was a man
And he killed many men
He robbed the Glendale train
And he took from the rich
And he gave that to the poorer
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain

History tells a different tale. Skip the heart - in history, Jesse James had a hand, and a gun, and a brain - that brain belonged to the lost cause of the Confederacy, to race hatred, and to revenge. And the gun belonged to American terrorism.
It's worth reading the whole thing.

I do have one problem with Watson's critique, leaving aside the most common objection that to sing a song is not to endorse its lyrics. Watson writes "Bruce Springsteen should know better. This pining away for the Confederate past and its post-war terrorist followers shouldn't make his latest record - no matter how traditional the tune is. The hero myth should die."

In doing so, Watson lets Pete Seeger off the hook. According to the fan-site Songs of the Seeger Sessions, Seeger recorded Jesse James on several ocassions, while Allmusic lists five . (Which may well include some recycled items.) Since Springsteen presents his latest project as a tribute to Seeger, it is unfair to criticize him for doing song perfomred by Seeger as Seeger performed it.

If Springsteen is an "aging rock star" who should know better, how about Seeger a long-time political activist? Indeed, Seeger, in fact, was a member of the Communist Party, which prided itself on its advanced views on race.

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