Sunday 24 September 2017

'My my, hey hey, folk is here to stay'

When Bruce Springsteen hitched a wagon down memory lane for The Seeger Sessions, we saw him in a whole new light: the rock star intent on reviving the old-time standards of the American folk canon.

The idea was presumably to pass them on to a new generation who might not normally have sought out dusty old ballads like 'Shenandoah' and 'John Henry'.

The point The Boss seemed to be making was that we needed the ancient protest songs and anti-war ballads made popular by Pete Seeger 50 years earlier more than ever. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

With costly, unpopular wars continuing to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Springsteen reckoned that the best way to shine a light on modern times was by carrying the torch of the past.

As if inspired by Bruce's loaded history lesson, Neil Young has pulled a similar trick with his new album Americana. A collection of 11 time-honoured folk tunes, it's an eccentric project that is likely to bewilder as many people as it bewitches.

Now, the concept of Neil dabbling in American roots music is nothing out of the ordinary -- he's made straight country albums in Nashville (1985's Old Ways) and paid tribute to 1950s doo-wop (Everybody's Rockin'), and when he straps on his harmonica and acoustic guitar he's the epitome of the trademark troubadour.

What's notable about this new collection is that he has reconvened Crazy Horse for the first time in nine years. So we have one of the loudest, grungiest, most elemental groups in the history of rock laying down an arrangement for 'She'll Be Comin Round The Mountain When She Comes'.

There are murder ballads -- 'Gallows Pole' was made famous by iconic 1960s singer Odetta -- and civil war standards ('Tom Dooley' renamed here as 'Tom Dula') and familiar campfire tunes such as 'Clementine', whose last verse has a sting in the tail: "How I missed her!/ How I missed her!/ So I kissed her little sister/ And forgot my Clementine."

It's no surprise that Woody Guthrie should feature on any record that strives to reinterpret popular American anthems through the ages. Woody's 'This Land Is Our Land', which was originally written as a response to the cloying patriotism of 'God Bless America', is present and correct here, complete with the often excised anti-establishment lyrics.

At a time when unemployment in the US has shot through the roof and there are tent cities in Florida full of people whose so-called 'sub-prime' homes have been foreclosed, it's fitting to revisit a song which some would rather discard as a mere slice of heritage folk, all the better to neutralise its potency.

"In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people/ By the relief office I'd seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/ Is this land made for you and me?"

These verses are rousingly sung by Young with a choir that includes his wife Pegi (a fine singer who was interviewed in these pages last year) and former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills.

Perhaps most surprisingly, though, Americana ends with a stately version of 'God Save The Queen'. When I first saw it listed I thought maybe he had covered the Sex Pistols's venomous classic from 1977, as a way of protesting the Diamond Jubilee. After all, Neil had eulogised punk and the Pistols on his Rust Never Sleeps album back in 1979.

But no, it's not a diatribe against the royal "fascist regime" -- it's a respectful arrangement, which Neil explains in the liner notes was probably widely used as the anthem of North America before the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

But Neil acknowledges the break with the British crown by adding a final verse from the anthem of post-independence America, 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee': "Land where my fathers died/ Land of the pilgrim's pride/ From every mountainside / Let Freedom ring!"

So Neil is marking the move from colony to free-standing state.

However, this is no historical whitewash: the plight of the native Americans is documented all over the sleeve artwork, with an image of Crazy Horse (the original warrior, not the band) placed above an old photo of the white pilgrim pioneers of the plains. And the cover photo is of Geronimo, with Neil's face superimposed over it. The message is unmistakable: this land was their land. . .

Americana is out now on Reprise/Warners

nkelly@independent.ie

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