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Springsteen Reignites the folk song

In 1997 the rock god Bruce Springsteen was asked to contribute to an album commemorating the folksinger Pete Seeger. Immersing himself in Seeger’s music, Springsteen decided to take an unconventional approach to the American folk song. He convened a motley ensemble of 17, including a 4-member horn section, an accordionist, 2 fiddlers, and assorted others, and recorded a brace of tunes popularized by Seeger. Over the next few years Springsteen found himself returning again and again to the session tape. “Listening to it was a relief,” he said recently. “It was just people playing. It sounded like fun.” In 2005, and again earlier this year, the singer invited the same group of musicians to his home in Rumson, New Jersey, to cut more tunes, many of them more than a century old and all of them recorded by Seeger. The result, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions , is a splendid piece of work, capable of changing the way you think about folk music.

Springsteen shows that the American folk song is a capacious vessel. Instead of the pick-and-strum acoustic-guitar sound we inevitably associate with folk, this band brims over with different styles. On “Old Dan Tucker” the southern Appalachian strains of the banjo and fiddles encounter the horn section’s big-band sweep and the Hammond organ’s sweet soul music. On the old Negro spiritual “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” keening klezmer violin meets a rousing gospel choir. Amazingly, everything coheres. “We Shall Overcome” sounds to be as much about a couple’s struggle for stability as it is about the quest for social progress. It is a little off-putting to hear a zillionaire like Springsteen sing the old stevedores’ tune “Pay Me My Money Down,” but then again, Springsteen may be making an ironic point about a zillionaire’s singing the song in the first place. This album’s careening, rip-roaring music bears about as much relationship to Seeger’s quiet, almost genteel sound as a Hummer does to a bicycle. Seeger winds up being almost incidental to the project, the conduit through which Springsteen discovered this material.

An important item on Springsteen’s agenda—accomplished—was to capture the feel of music spontaneously coming together, being assembled even as it is being recorded. According to Springsteen’s liner notes, there were no rehearsals; everything, presumably, was put together on the spot. On the accompanying DVD, Springsteen says of these songs: “You get the sound of music being made . There’s an energy to that, when no one knows [the music]. That’s the moment when opportunity and disaster are close at hand. If you can push it to opportunity, you get something really special.”

They did. Tony Scherman

Road Movie

Brilliance in a Bus

The road movie, from It Happened One Night to Sideways 70 years later, is wholly American—born of an abundance of open space and cheap vehicles, it is our picaresque novel. In recent years it’s become the perfect genre for independent moviemakers with small budgets. The first-time feature filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, producers and directors of numerous music videos, would seem unlikely candidates for a leisurely, nuanced comedy based on character development and satirical kick. But completely unanticipated, Little Miss Sunshine arrives out of the Southwestern desert as the best comedy of 2006.

A family of misfits headed by Greg Kinnear, a failed motivational pitchman, and his exasperated wife (Toni Collette) drive from New Mexico to Southern California so their seven-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Their battered Volkswagen bus must be pushed to restart after each stop, about as funny a metaphor for pop self-help programs as there is. The family includes Alan Arkin, inexplicably and hilariously Jewish as Kinnear’s cokehead father, and Steve Carell as the first gay, suicidal Proust scholar in American film. The pageant itself seems too hideous not to have been inspired by reality.— Allen Barra


The Incomparable Toots

A fixture from the good old days at Toots’s.
collection of richard f. snow2006_6_17

How can a documentary about a Jewish kid from South Philly who ran a saloon in Manhattan be a veritable cutaway view of a city and a time (in this case, New York from World War II to the early 1960s)? How can you watch a film and feel like you’ve just inhaled 90 minutes’ worth of cigarette smoke and downed three Scotch and sodas but still have a clear head?