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SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.

The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.

"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.

"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued -- and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."

"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.

Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.

"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it -- there's just doing it."

Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him -- from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.

He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."

He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."

Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.

"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.

In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.

"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."

* * * * *

The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.

Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."

A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.

Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives -- thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more -- from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.

Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.

"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody -- we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."

For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see

... and there's more SXSW 2012 coverage here!

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM.

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