'We Shall Overcome'

New Orleans -- “This is our first gig," said Bruce Springsteen. ''I hope it goes OK."

With that, The Boss and his 18-piece Seeger Sessions Band opened their set with a rocking rendition of ''Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep." As an act of solidarity with this doubly ravaged city, Springsteen began his homage to Pete Seeger tour here, at ground zero of everything ruinous about the people who now run our country.

The 37th annual Jazz and Heritage Festival was playing to a smaller, whiter crowd than usual in half-abandoned New Orleans. It would be hard to imagine a more poignant or uplifting marriage of musician, impulse, venue, and moment.

Lately, musicians as diverse as Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Paul Simon, and Ani di Franco have followed the same impulse. This is surely the time and the place.

Commentators solemnly billed Hurricane Katrina as the flood that laid bare awkward truths of class and race in America. It did -- for a vivid week, and then we turned away.

By a fine accident of timing, I came here for a conference on what Katrina revealed -- and found plenty of surprises. Downtown and the tourist French Quarter, which got priority federal attention, look as if Katrina had never happened. But the outlying scale of devastation is far more extensive, and the federal default of government more staggering, than one could imagine.

Of 485,000 people who lived here before Katrina, only about 165,000 remain. New Orleans had high rates of black home ownership. But tens of thousands of homeowners are trapped in a horrific Catch-22 because of cascading federal failures.

In huge swaths of the city, basic public services are unrestored, so people can't return to viable houses. Mountains of stinking rubbish -- once the stuff of homes and lives -- lie uncollected on front yards. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, decided to clear inhabited areas first. It just never returned to pick up the rest.

Tens of thousands of homes could be renovated and reoccupied. But instead of making emergency rehab grants or loans, FEMA spends $90,000 per trailer, often parked in front yards, while black mold relentlessly ruins structurally sound houses.

FEMA was slow to revise federal flood insurance guidelines. Without federal flood coverage, no private insurance flows and people can't get bank loans. So extensive salvageable areas remain unoccupied. Meanwhile, the 2006 hurricane season arrives June 1, but the levees are restored only to withstand a mild category 2 storm.

Filling some of the vacuum left by the Bush default, heroic work is being done by volunteers, from Habitat for Humanity, ACORN, and several churches and trade unions. Many live in a tent city -- which FEMA now plans to tear down June 1.

Springsteen toured all this, appalled. He composed two new stanzas to the 1929 song, ''How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" including, ''[Bush] gave a little pep talk, said I'm with you, then he took a walk." Springsteen elicited loud cheers when he deplored the government's ''criminal irresponsibility." A small plane circled, towing an ''Impeach Bush" banner.

New Orleans heroically pulled itself together to bring off this Fest. Held on a racetrack grounds, the fair has nine simultaneous performance spaces going all day, a crafts section, kids' tent, and a food midway where New Orleans's finest chefs serve such specialties as artichoke and oyster soup and gourmet jambalaya ladled from murky oil drums at $5 a bowl.

As the field dried out from a drenching rain, I gloriously wandered from Willis Prudhomme and the Zydeco Express to the gospel tent to a medley of everything from brass bands, Dixieland funeral music, back to more zydeco, to blues.

By 5:30, when Springsteen strode onto the main stage, following New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, the sun was shining. Like Seeger's, the Springsteen repertoire included not just political songs such as ''Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," but the whimsical bits of Americana that Seeger loved, like ''(Get Out of the Way,) Old Dan Tucker." And when Springsteen began ''We Shall Overcome," the crowd, both the '60s generation and youngsters who had seen it only on TV joined uplifted hands, swayed, and sang along, without irony.

If anyone can reintroduce songs of protest to a new mass audience, making that much-reworked tradition fresh, it is the sunny, exuberant Springsteen. Folk music was, of course, the original popular culture. Sometimes, the borrowings of commercial pop from folk music are cheesy and opportunistic (say, the Byrds' version of Seeger). Other times, the result is a powerful, authentic synthesis, as in the work of Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon at their best, New Orleans's own Randy Newman, who wrote the original flood anthem three decades ago, ''Louisiana: They're trying to wash us away," and now Springsteen.

Like protest music, you never know when protest itself will recur. As Springsteen packed up and our conference began, millions not ''Born In The USA" were assembling across America to declare their dignity as working people and human beings. They also sang.

America today is depressing, but music adds energy and spirit to the protest imperative. Song is an inherently collective ritual that reminds us that we are not alone. You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

You may also like