Soundbites | Diary

Thomas Hampson – the leading American baritone gets folksy on his iPod with Bruce Springsteen
Originally published in Gramophone (August 2006)

For the last couple of months, in addition to a full opera schedule, my life in song has never been more fulfilling –and not just in a musical or spiritual sense either. From travelling around concert halls across America on the ‘Song of America’ tour (my 11-city tour, sponsored by the Library of Congress, has just come to its end) to visiting Heidelberg in Germany, home to the initial bloom of German Romanticism as experienced in the poems collected in das Knaben Wunderhorn first published in 1806, my passion for songs and poems of various cultures has enriched my frequent flyer mile account significantly.

As you can imagine I look at a lot of songs and collections on the road – which actually means on my computer via the internet – and am always listening to some type of music, either in my head or on my iPod as the case may be (yes, I am a Mac ‘geek’). I admit I enjoy an eclectic listening habit of musical genres styles and artists, from folk music to jazz to lieder to the avant garde. I am truly fascinated by all the various ways that different cultures preserve their identity in word and music, and then of course how their respective artists re-create the thoughts and emotions. For while such music is born in the context of those various cultures, it is, in fact common to us all. These lofty musings make for a crazy collector of recordings!

image Talking of which, my eye was caught recently by Bruce Springsteen’s new album ‘We shall overcome’. Or rather, initially by its subtitle, ‘The Seeger Sessions’. This direct reference to one of the most popular, esteemed folk musicians- political activist-story collecting Balladeers that we have ever had in America, made me very curious. What would bring a ‘rocker’, ‘man of the people’ kind of singer like Springsteen to Pete Seeger, the ‘unplugged’ hero of an aural tradition passed on through time by an art for listening and memory that we have all but forgotten to cherish? Such a tradition is probably nurtured more by contemporary ‘classical’ composers than today’s commercial music industry would tolerate. American concert songs which can be heard from the times of Stephen Foster, the famous minstrel singer Dan Emmet (‘old Dan Tucker’ on the Springsteen album), the vast collections of Alan Lomax (which can be found in the Library of Congress), the enormous gospel and spirituals repertoire, and of course the ever popular ‘Old American Songs’ arranged by Aaron Copland – all draw on this rich reservoir of stories of the spoken/sung tradition that is Pete Seeger’s legacy. Well, I plunged into the album, recognising a little over half of the titles by name, to hear what the charismatic Springsteen’s take on old ballads and homespun tales could reveal. And yes there was Springsteen to be sure, with his earthy gritty sound wrangling emotion out of every mangled syllable and then shaping each story into a compelling world of it’s own. But what he finds in the songs and gives back so unflinchingly is the essence of storytelling, that kind of performance where you feel like it’s being made up the moment you are hearing it.

First of all, to get a bunch of terrific musicians to ‘get together’ and play the fiddle, mandolin, washboard, accordion,banjo, slap bass, or whatever else you’ve got with you, like a bunch of rowdy friends at a Sunday picnic on somebody’s farm –that generates an energy and spontaneity you don’t often get in modern recordings. But it’s the songs or the stories that are the real heroes here. And thats what Seeger was all about! Tell a story and invite anybody in ear shot to remember their own. Or maybe better yet, to recognise that your story is sometimes everybody else’s story too. That was when Pete Seeger was at his best: singing a galvanizing social consciousness with songs praising, protesting, preaching; never allowing the complacency of ignorance or the apathy of time. We very often and regularly forget the myriad details of our life’s experiences, but we never forget how we felt when those same events shaped our lives and memories. And that ‘collective memory’ we all share is the domain of poems, stories and songs. Good on you Bruce Springsteen, you help so many remember so much that is ours to sing…from memory.