The Avid Listener: Music and Politics

19 posts categorized "Music and Politics"

December 12, 2016

“Hard Times Come Again No More”: Springsteen’s Vision of Community

Joanna Smolko (Athens, GA)

 

May 23, 2009, Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen sings Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” with a spoken introduction asking for people to support local relief efforts. “We’ve gotta stand up, support our neighbors, and please support the local community food bank of New Jersey.”

 

As Bruce Springsteen’s career unfolded, he became increasingly overt about his political framework and his belief that music can be a powerful means both for illuminating issues of social injustice and for bringing people together in community.  Springsteen mined the rich lodes of traditional American music in his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). Here, he found a treasure trove: traditional songs that glimmered and shone as he gave them roots—rock inspired settings and elements that could also be forged and shaped into new works. Following this album, he continued to explore the ways that traditional songs could be melded together with rock and roll. Springsteen’s performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” was part of his 2009 Working on a Dream tour, and his subsequent reworking of the lyrics in new songs shows his process of adaptation. In particular, “Hard Times” can be read as a song of mourning in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and a call to respond with community-based activism and cooperation.  

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November 14, 2016

Springsteen and Human Rights: “Chimes of Freedom”

Joanna Smolko (Athens, GA)

 

Bruce Springsteen singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” live in Copenhagen in 1988, prior to his tour with Amnesty International.

 

Since the beginning of his career, Springsteen has been haunted by his label as “the next Dylan.” Though promoted by John Hammond at Columbia Records (as Dylan had been), and admiring Dylan greatly (as he recently articulated while reflecting on Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature), Springsteen consciously chose to distance himself from Dylan’s musical style and forge his own path as a songwriter, embracing instead a carefully orchestrated, hard-rocking sound. In a 1999 interview with Mark Hagen, Springsteen recounted that in his early twenties he began to avoid writing lyrics that relied on loosely strung-together images, a stylistic feature that was emblematic of Dylan’s music. However, from the late 1970s on, Springsteen covered songs written by Dylan, perpetuating—purposefully or not—the link between his work and that of Dylan. In particular, Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” was central to Springsteen’s political awakening in the years following the release of “Born in the U.S.A.” In 1988, two key performances of this song embody Springsteen’s quest for social justice: his concert in East Berlin and his participation in Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour. Springsteen suggested that “Chimes of Freedom” embodied his ideal of rock music as a vehicle for expression of community—rather than simply individual—autonomy, when he stated, “This is one of the greatest songs about human freedom ever written.”

 

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September 19, 2016

Politics and Protest in Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

Joanna Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

“I liked Springsteen before he became political,” a friend of mine commented on Springsteen’s performance at the 2009 Super Bowl. But in actuality, Springsteen has always been political. From the outset, he infused his music with elements of working class identity: unions and families, steel and rust, coal and dust, machines that bind you to a community and way of life, and machines that allow you to ride away in a cloud of exhaust and defiance. But there was a specific moment that galvanized Springsteen’s self-identification as a political spokesperson. As Marc Dolan narrates, “Born in the U.S.A.” was used as an anthem in Ronald Reagan’s 1985 campaign without Springsteen’s permission, and in a speech, Reagan cited Springsteen as a beacon of the “American dream.”

 

Video compilation of conflict around “Born in the U.S.A.” between Reagan and Springsteen. Here Reagan praises Springsteen, stating, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” In an interview, Springsteen articulates his response, including his opposition to Reagan’s economic policies, and his support for locally based community efforts, such as food banks.

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September 5, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger: “This Land Is Your Land”

Joanna Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

 

Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tao Rodríquez-Seeger, and choir singing “This Land Is Your Land” at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration (2009). Springsteen draws attention to Seeger, and Seeger sings in a call-and-response fashion, inviting the crowd to sing, speaking out the words between verses as they sing along with other musicians and a choir.

 

On January 18, 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang together at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodríquez-Seeger and a choir. Seeger invited the crowd to sing along, reflecting his lifelong commitment to group singing; even in staid places like Carnegie Hall, his concerts were less about performing than about community music making. The song they chose was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song much-beloved by both musicians. As they prepared for the event, Springsteen asked Seeger on how he wanted to perform the song. Seeger replied, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote. Especially the two that get left out: about private property and the relief office." After Seeger’s death in 2014, Springsteen memorialized this moment: “And I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends.” 

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May 2, 2016

Silly Songs about the Space Race

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

 

CBS special news coverage from 1957 about the launching of Sputnik

 

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, on October 4, 1957, triggering the space race with the United States. Although the satellite was only the size of a beach ball and emitted nothing more than radio beeps, many Americans feared it, supposing that it had some sort of militaristic purpose. This fear can be tracked through three novelty songs from the late 1950s: “Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down),” “Sputniks and Mutniks,” and “A Russian Love Song.”    

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