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Springsteen Vocalizes Anger in New Orleans, Dedicates Song to ‘President Bystander’

by Pamela Leavey

Bruce Springsteen, aka “The Boss” was in New Orleans today for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. AP News reports that “New Jersey’s favorite son was adopted by New Orleans,” as Springsteen — “through speeches and song — vocalized the anger, frustration, pain and resilience of this hurricane-battered city at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.”

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Decrying what he called “criminal ineptitude” in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, Springsteen jabbed at the political powers he deemed responsible for New Orleans’ slow recovery.

Perhaps the most pointed moment came as he prepared to sing an old song that he had rewritten lyrics to for New Orleans. Noting that he visited the city’s ninth ward, perhaps the most devastated area in the city, Springsteen said: “I saw sights I never thought I’d see in an American city,” and added: “The criminal ineptitude makes you furious.”

With that, he launched into a song titled “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” and dedicated the song to “President Bystander.” Its lyrics included the lines: “There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to hell … them who’s got out of town, and them who ain’t got left to drown, tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?”


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

This was Springsteen’s first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Instead of performing the big hits he’s famous for, today, Springsteen “performed classic folk and gospel songs epitomized by Pete Seeger that are featured on Springsteen’s new album, ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.’”

Though they were decades old, many of the songs seemed particularly relevant to New Orleans struggles — “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” and particularly “My Oklahoma Home,” which depicts a man’s loss of his home and family after the devastating dust storms there in the 1930s.

But perhaps no song was as bittersweet as “We Shall Overcome.” As Springsteen somberly performed the tune, some people embraced each other, others dabbed their eyes. Another emotional moment came as he dedicated one of his old tunes to New Orleans: “My City in Ruins.” Though he wrote it for his favorite town of Asbury Park, N.J., its lyrics resonated with the crowd: “Young men on the corner, like scattered leaves, the boarded up windows, the hustlers and thieves, while my brother’s down on his knees. My city of ruins.”

By the time he sang the chorus, “Come on rise up!” the audience spontaneously rose their hands in their air, symbolizing the pain and the hope of the city.

Not all of Springsteen’s two-hour long set was downbeat; his huge band at times sounded like a boisterous New Orleans brass band, with its booming horn system, while he later injected some boogie and swing with another jazzy tune. But he ended his performance on a tender note, sweetly singing, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

I had been planning to write a review of Springsteen’s new album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” since Tuesday when it was released, but the news kept getting in the way. Years ago I was a fan of the Boss, he went his way and I went mine after a few years, until he released “The Rising” and I found myself hooked by the heartfelt message in his lyrics and music, that capture the pain of 9/11. Then came the brilliant “Devils and Dust” and still he had me hooked again.

“The Seeger Sessions” is a rare and wonderful meld of folk, blues, country and zydeco. It takes me back to better days in the late ’70′s when every Tuesday night I’d head down to my local haunt for Hoot Night. “The Seeger Sessions” is fun, rough and edgy, it’s soft and soulful with a rendition of ” Shenandoah” that took my breath away. You don’t have to a fan of the Boss, to love “The Seeger Sessions” in my opinion, you just have to love music.

From BruceSpringsteen.net — Bruce Springsteen’s personal thoughts on “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?” performed today in New Orleans:

This song was written by Blind Alfred Reed and recorded a month after the crash of ’29 that heralded the Great Depression. I first heard it on Ry Cooder’s self – titled debut album (1970). To his arrangement we owe a debt. I kept the “doctor” first verse by Reed then wrote three others with a mind to the great trials the people of New Orleans have faced this year.

Here are the full lyrics:
Well, the doctor comes ’round here with his face all bright
And he says “in a little while you’ll be alright”
All he gives is a humbug pill, a dose of dope and a great big bill
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
He says “me and my old school pals had some might high times down here
And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain’t fair”
He took a look around gave a little pep talk, said “I’m with you” then he took a little walk
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to Hell
Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells
Them who’s got got out of town
And them who ain’t got left to drown
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
I got family scattered from Texas all the way to Baltimore
And I ain’t got no home in this world no more
Gonna be a judgment that’s a fact, a righteous train rollin’ down this track
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

UPDATE: InTheFlow on DU was at the show and has photos here and here.

8 Responses to “Springsteen Vocalizes Anger in New Orleans, Dedicates Song to ‘President Bystander’”

  1. Hi all! Just wanted to post this rant before I start my work week. I don’t know if any of you caught it but on Sunday Tweetybird Matthews admitted that the GOP was his party. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution was crushing his wet dream of why southern repubs, and therefore the GOP as a whole, won’t go for Ghouliani,and he points at her and slobbers “You’re ruining my party!” It was a sight for sure. My first reaction to this was “I thought Tweety claimed to be Independent?” Apparently Independent in the tradition of Scarborough and MSNBC’s other Gop shrill — the bowtie boy — who have yet to encounter a Repub program or issue they won’t whore and lie for. Why are these guys still on the air? MSNBC’s ratings are in the tank for a reason. In fact, I’m glad very few folks are watching that crap. But Matthews with his two shows is definitely overkill. To put his ramblings on the main network after a distinguished news tradition like MTP and hype it up as serious political analysis is as much of a farce as Faux News!

    By the way, two guesses on what Tweety’s main topic was on Sunday. It should be no surprise that it’s the same topic it has been for a year — the 2008 presidential race of course. Will Hill get the nom? Will McCain win big? will Ghouliani run? And don’t get him going on a McCain/Ghouliani ticket, it’s a Tweety wet dream. Yesterday Tweety also confessed that he’s tired of southern Repubs running everything and why not a northeastern Repub, blah, blah, blah. And of course he had to throw in the requisite Reagan was the best president ever spiel. Honestly, I’m no Timmy Russert fan either but having Tweety on after him surely does make him look good in comparison.

    Also, after watching Tweety yesterday I am fully convinced that the conservative game is to make Hill the winner of the Dem nom because they know she will not win the general election. America is not ready for a woman president and they certainly don’t won’t the little woman handling “the war on terror.” Come on. The other conservative on the panel Sat. was going thru great pains to rationalize why Hill will get the nom and why she may win. He could barely get it out with a straight face. And of course Tweety does his part weekly to promote her candidacy and pretend there are no others in the Dem field. The Repubs want her bad. They aren’t even being subtle about it but I think they think they are. Good ol’ GOP tactlessness hard at work. I was glad the editor of the Atlanta daily was there to drop some reality into the conversation. She told him that southern conservatives will ultimately have a hard time embracing Ghouliani and most Dems don’t think Hill can win.

  2. fd
    Great rant. Saves me from having to watch that stuff.

    “America is not ready for a woman president and they certainly don’t won’t the little woman handling “the war on terror.”

    LOL Great point on Hil. How True. She’s angry but she can’t handle the WOT. Oh, well, women with hormones you know… might push the button just because she’s having a hot flash.
    (As opposed to W..who seems like he wants to push it because he needs more light in his brain)

    No wonder they keep talking her up. Giving false hope to the followers. Confusing the people who don’t pay attention to any of the subtle stuff. I wish the DEM leadership would figure this out and play into it somehow. Let’s face it, they know they are in big doo doo for ’08. It just puts them in higher gear & more steam.They have plans, several. We can only guess what some of the rest of them are. Dean and the other leaders need to see how they can play this so it falls apart at the last minute.

    Tweety thinks the southern GOP need to be replaced with northeastern? Maybe more GOP will go with a NE DEM :)

  3. Love the energy guys & gals!

    Little off topic but there is a nice write up on rawstory.com (in the headline area) about Kerry and his successful fundraising for the 2006 Dems. Saying it will help build his loyalty in 2008. I think the article is from Roll Call.

    See you guys later. There is much boycotting & marching in my city. A feeling of empowerment in the air!

  4. Thank God for Bruce Springsteen! Really!
    His voice and music (and reach) are so necessary for us right now. It isn’t like the late 60′s and early 60′s when it seemed everyone was singing in protest. We may be coming closer to that now. I hope so. Music is the one thing that can transend and connect us viscerally and emotionally. We all can raise our voices with music. So come on –we need our rock stars and known musicians to take it to the streets.
    And by the way, for GOOD music fans–there is a new independent music website i just discovered: publikmusic.com–check it out.
    So onward Bruce! Sing with anger! And to Pete Seeger–thank you for leading the way.

  5. Sidney

    Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out. The Seeger Sessions is a masterpiece in my opinion.

  6. Echoing Ginny, thanks for the rant FD, you do me a service by watching Tweety and then reporting… so I don’t have to.

    Springsteen is a poet for his time and has been since he began.

    Used to battle the traffic on the East Coast on a daily basis, and never failed to think of his line: “the highways jammed with broken down heroes on a last chance power drive…”

    Way off-topic. Will go read the rawstory on Kerry, thanks, Das!

  7. ohhhh, just saw the publikmusic.com link, thanks Sidney!

    Yeah, don’t love it, “musicans taking to the streets.”

  8. I think Blind Alfred Reed may approve of Bruce’s new rendition of his song, but did he get approval from the family to use it?

    I knew Arville Reed, Alfred’s son, while growing up in Pipestem, West Virginia. Arville played guitar and sang with his father. I remember Arville playing the records he and his father recorded at the same time the Carter family recorded their first songs, when my family and I went to visit Arville and his wife, Etta on Sunday afternoons. I can still remember there was a picture of President John F. Kennedy on one wall and Jesus on another wall – very common in many Appalachian homes of the time. They were the nicest people you could meet. It brings back a lot of wonderful memories of simpler times.

    But coming back to the present, we seriously need to take our country back. I was already fed up when cousin Al conceded in December 2000 – I knew we were headed for disaster!!!