Bruce Springsteen live at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006.
It was 30 years ago at the Universal Amphitheatre when I saw Pete Seeger for my first and only time, but despite valiant support from Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near and his old Weavers bandmate Ronnie Gilbert, the years by then were taking their toll. His hands were trembling and his voice unsteady, but Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94, was still a powerful musical presence on that stage - a living link between the Old Left of the Popular Front and New Deal that battled the Depression in the 1930s and fascism in the 1940s, and the New Left of the anti-war, human rights and environmental crusades of the 1960s and beyond.
For us, the music that night was secondary: we were paying tribute to a cultural monument, and the air was thick with emotion. But some 20 years later and nearly two thousand miles away, I witnessed the greatest Pete Seeger concert he never gave, and out of the
hundreds of shows that I've seen through the decades, that's the one I'll never forget.
This story begins the previous summer. On August 29, 2005, as I celebrated my 50th birthday with a houseful of close friends in Los Angeles, Hurricane Katrina made landfall outside New Orleans. By mid-day, the situation was spinning out of control into unimaginable catastrophe, but the worst was yet to come. The levees breached in more than 50 locations, the water from the storm surge continued to pour into the drowning city. Two days later, Katrina had dissipated, but by then roughly 85% of New Orleans was under water. The vast majority of residents had been successfully evacuated beforehand, but many had ignored the evacuation orders. While at least 15,000 people were subsequently rescued, nearly 1,500 lost their lives in what is considered the worst engineering disaster in American history.
And so it was that eight months later, when I had the opportunity to join my wife for a legal convention in New Orleans, I strongly resisted. The city couldn't possibly be ready for convention business yet, I argued. It would be disaster porn - out-of-towners gaping voyeuristically at the ruined homes and debris-strewn streets, a decidedly un-magical misery tour of human suffering. I thought the convention planners, union-side labor lawyers, epitomized political correctness run amok - determined to express their solidarity with the Crescent City victims in the most vulgar and misguided way possible.
As it turned out, I was entirely wrong on every count. Tourism is the lifeblood of the city, and conventions like ours represented a desperately needed transfusion. The residents were only too eager to show and tell what they'd experienced. Their relief and gratitude that somebody still cared enough to visit - during a time when some were writing off the city altogether - was genuinely touching. The hotels and restaurants went overboard to share their hospitality and prove they could keep up their standards. I felt humbled, and deeply ashamed of myself.
The convention business concluded, we still had the weekend - and so on April 30, 2006, we found ourselves at the New Orleans Race Track for that year's Jazzfest, a massive annual musical bacchanal that few thought possible to mount successfully so soon after the disaster. But the show must go on, and once again, we had underestimated the city's grit and determination to pick itself up and forge ahead.
After several days spent sampling the wide variety of indigenous talent and local Cajun, zydeco, gospel and blues groups, the grand finale that Sunday afternoon was Bruce Springsteen, who'd been announced as previewing his upcoming album for the first time before the general public (after a small out-of-town tryout a month before in his own Asbury Park, New Jersey.)
Never a big Springsteen fan, I found myself intrigued by this project: "The Seeger Sessions" was Springsteen's wildly anti-commercial effort to mount a rock 'n' roll hootenanny built around traditional American folk songs and spirituals popularized by Pete Seeger. Springsteen had assembled a band of nearly two dozen musicians - guitar, bass and drums, yes, but also horns, fiddles, accordion and keyboards - held a couple of rehearsals, and gathered everyone over the course of a few days to just bang it out live in the studio, old-school. And there they were, filling the stage like excited kids auditioning for a talent show.
The set blasted off with Springsteen's rousing version of "Mary, Don't You Weep," a full-throated treatment of an old Civil War-era Negro spiritual first recorded in 1915 and widely popularized by Seeger during the civil-rights era. The next few songs, "John Henry" and "Old Dan Tucker" sent me hurtling back to my elementary school singsongs. Then things turned solemn with the purposeful gospel ballad, "Eyes on the Prize" - "Freedom's name is mighty sweet/And soon we're gonna meet/keep your eyes on the prize/hold on."
At the time of its release, some criticized the album for eschewing politics, a "missed opportunity" for pointed criticism targeting the Bush presidency, growing economic inequity and misguided military adventures abroad. But the critics, not surprisingly, got it all wrong. The collection is arguably Springsteen's most political album - and a fitting tribute to Seeger's skill for weaving sharp social commentary into accessible, non-threatening and easily singable folk songs.
"My Oklahoma Home," a superficially jokey tune written by two of Seeger's fellow Almanac Singers in the 1940s (a group that also included Woody Guthrie), tells the tale of a man whose Oklahoma farm is destroyed by drought and tornados, which also carried away his wife - "Mister, as I bent down to kiss her, she was picked up by a twister" - and concludes sadly, "Yeah, it's up there in the sky, in that dust cloud over 'n' by, my Oklahoma home is in the sky." Things turn even darker with "Mrs. McGrath," a mournful ballad about a poor Irish widow talked into sending her son off to join the British fleet, from which he eventually returns, maimed, his legs torn off by a cannonball. The anguished woman cries, "All foreign wars, I do proclaim, live on blood and a mother's pain, and I'd rather have my son as he used to be, than the King of America and his whole Navy."
The set continued with "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" (including another pointed Bush reference), another spiritual, "Jacob's Ladder," Seeger's civil-rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," then a song that Seeger first performed with The Weavers, "Pay Me My Money Down," and more. But by then, I had been seized by a kind of emotional delirium that I've never experienced in any concert before or since: I can only compare it to the kind of ecstatic religious fervor of a revival meeting.
As I said, Pete Seeger - by then, 86 years old - never performed at that concert. But he was surely there, channeled through the music and clarity of moral purpose and determination to stand up and sing out against injustice. That afternoon, beside the wreck of the city, we felt Pete's power of song lifting us up. He lifts us still.
Photo of Seeger and Springsteen at Barack Obama inauguration concert in Washington, January 2009.