One year down, three to go.
Season one of the Trump unreality show was a fire that wouldn’t stop burning, set against the apocalyptic backdrop of real California wildfires that consumed over a million acres in the fall. Huge tracts of psychic energy, funds of hope and goodwill, were consumed by the effort to make sense of what was happening to the nation, to respond meaningfully, and to maintain sanity. Millions ranted about the “arsonist in chief,” yelled at their televisions, at their laptops, yelled on Facebook and Twitter or at protests in the street. Some, it is true, retreated into permanent Cat Video Land. But almost everyone was looking for evidence of hope.
Twelve years ago, New Orleans was still on its knees after Katrina. I remember January 2006 well. Four months after the disaster, vast sections of the city were still mud logged and disfigured; citizens were still being pulled—soaked, bloated, dead, stinking—out of shipwrecked houses. The failure of the federally funded and constructed levee system, the Bush administration’s bungled, ineffectual response, and, in the background, the ongoing disaster in Iraq made it feel as if the country were going off the rails.
That spring, Bruce Springsteen played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It remains probably the single greatest performance that I’ve ever seen, by anyone. It wasn’t just the music itself but the way Springsteen and the band grasped the moment, understood what the city needed, and delivered it to an audience made up largely of people who had lived through, and were still living through, disaster. For years, I’ve wished for some kind of document of that afternoon, and now there is one. A company called Nugs.net—do you know these guys?—has just issued a two-disc set of the entire concert, Bruce Springsteen, Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans, April 30, 2006.
Somehow, the Jazz Fest producers had pulled the program together, even though the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the festival takes place, is located in an area that had badly flooded. New Orleans musicians such as Dr. John, the Meters, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, and Trombone Shorty, along with contingents of Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, performed alongside—and sometimes along with—performers from outside the city, such as Elvis Costello (who did a scorching set with the great Allen Toussaint), Bob Dylan, the Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, and many others.
On April 30, Springsteen took the stage as the last act of the day. He was breaking in a new band, and this was going to be its first public appearance. He called it the Seeger Sessions Band: they were drawing their repertoire from the kinds of politically charged folk music identified with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
I stood in the field in front of the stage along with thousands of others, and as the time for the performance approached, the stage filled up with a full horn section, several guitarists, two fiddlers, a pedal-steel setup, an accordion player, a banjo player, background vocalists … This was no E Street Band. Finally, the announcer introduced Springsteen, who came out, hoisted on an acoustic Gibson flat-top, and said, “All right, this is our first gig; let’s hope it goes well.”
The first musical sound was a moody, walking-tempo, minor-key barroom piano introduction. It wasn’t really what you’d expect to open a show. It went on for eight bars, no more, and then it trailed off. A lone fiddle took its place, warbling in that same troubled minor key for eight bars, and then it, too, trailed off. Then the horn section, unaccompanied, playing the same uneasy minor-key stuff, New Orleans style, but gathering in intensity. And as they came to the end of their eight bars, suddenly the entire band entered, rolling in over them, pounding like a tidal wave. It was overwhelming. And over that wave, Springsteen rode in, roaring the opening lines of an old spiritual,
“If I could, I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
Oh, Mary don’t you weep …”
I remember standing there stunned, with the hair on my arms standing up. Everyone seemed to be having the same reaction. We knew who “pharaoh” was. We fucking well knew. Here was a voice saying not to weep, that help and retribution were on the way. When Springsteen sang, “Brothers and sisters don’t you cry / There’ll be better times by and by,” the force of the band, and the singer, lifted everything up: the stage, the audience, the fairgrounds, perhaps the entire universe, right then and there. Springsteen hadn’t come just to entertain; he’d come to raise the dead.
The show went on with an energy that was beyond belief. They did a few songs from Springsteen’s own songbook, radically reimagined—a slow, New Orleans rhumba version of “Johnny 99,” and a flat-out big-band swing arrangement of “Open All Night,” but the beating heart of the set consisted of folk songs, civil rights songs, outlaw ballads, anti-war songs: “John Henry,” “Old Dan Tucker,” “Jesse James,” “Buffalo Gals,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Eyes On The Prize.” It felt, after five and a half years of the Bush presidency, like an attempt to reclaim what was good in the American vocabulary. Against all the vile catering to corporate greed, the history of slavery and racism, the warmongering and lies, against all that gray-suited death wish, it was a reassertion of the courage of the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement, of the joy in music and dance. It was possibility itself: a great yes in the face of all that stinking no.
About midway through, Springsteen introduced with a few spoken remarks his reworking of a song recorded in the late twenties by Blind Alfred Reed, “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” “We had a chance to travel around New Orleans yesterday,” he said, “from Lakeview to the Ninth Ward, and I think I saw sights I never thought I’d see in an American city. The criminal ineptitude makes you furious.” (The crowd cheered.) “This is what happens when political cronyism guts the very agencies that are supposed to serve American citizens in times of trial and hardship, and it’s what happens when people play political games with other people’s lives.” He then dedicated the song to “President Bystander.” There is a video of this moment on YouTube, by the way.
Springsteen added a few verses of his own to the song, especially for New Orleans, with lines like,
“I got family scattered from Texas 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 rolling down this track …”
It was unforgettable.
It was twelve years ago. And now we are back to the national grease bath. Trump has returned to the White House from his gold-plated flophouse in Florida, where he spent the holidays. He’s sending out tweets about his big nuclear button. But just the other day, in the mail, came this CD package: the document of that afternoon at the Fair Grounds Race Course. Would it stand up in the relistening, or would it be just a piece of driftwood from a shipwreck? I put it on in the car, riding down Carrollton Avenue, and heard that minor-key piano, the warbling fiddle, and then the band, rolling in like the Red Sea—it was all there, all right—and I let that sound wash over me, that reminder of possible rebirth in the heart of a cold, cold season.
Tom Piazza is a novelist and nonfiction writer living in New Orleans. His books include Why New Orleans Matters and the novels City of Refuge and A Free State.
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