We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – Bruce Springsteen
Columbia Records 82876 82867 2
In 1997, Bruce Springsteen was asked to record “We Shall Overcome” for Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger. Being unfamiliar with Seeger’s music, Springsteen bought a bunch of the folkie’s old records and instantly fell in love with his work. A few years later, his E-Street Band violinist, Soozie Tyrell, brought a group of New York City roots musicians to a party at Springsteen’s New Jersey farm. He loved the informal but lively feel of the assembled band, and he realized that this aggregation would be ideal for a recording of the music that Seeger championed. A few others joined the fray and the terrific We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions was born.
Springsteen has described these sessions as a "hootenanny," a term which is right on the mark. Recorded live in the living room of his farm house (with the horns down the hall), there is a palpable immediacy to every track. The arrangements and lines are not quite precise, but the rounded edges accentuate the down-home feel of the album. When everyone sings (and there are a lot of singers) on the choruses, a tremendously uplifting spirit permeates the music. It's clear that these musicians were having one helluva blast, emotions that are evident on the joyous rendition of “John Henry” and the raucous hi-jinks of “Dan Tucker.” The addition of horns to the mix was a masterstroke, pairing with Charles Giordano’s bouncy accordion to add a fresh New Orleans second-line flair to the music, most notably on the happy shuffle of “Jacob’s Ladder” and the zydeco swing of “Pay Me My Money Down.”
Over the past few years, Springsteen has become more politically active, and his liberal leanings have become more evident in his musical choices. Onstage, he’s been a frequent critic of the Bush Administration, particularly regarding the war in Iraq. His anti-war beliefs are on full display in the somber Irish Republican anthem “Mrs. McGrath,” a mournful tale of a proud mother’s son returning from war with no legs. Not satisfied with the obvious allusion to our current military situation, he changed the final stanza to sing, “All foreign wars I do proclaim live on blood and a mother’s pain / I’d rather have my son as he used to be than the King of America and his whole Navy!”
Despite reveling in the occasional tragic ballad, an optimistic vibe pervades the album. Just like the folk music of Pete Seeger’s heyday, the most effective tracks are those that uplift the spirits of the downtrodden. The Negro spirituals “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and the aforementioned “Jacob’s Ladder” are powerful numbers that provide hope for the weary, especially with their veiled references to Hurricane Katrina. And when sung by Springsteen’s gravelly voice, gospel hymns-turned protest songs, such as “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome,” are still as powerful as the day they were first sung by Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Bruce Springsteen burst on the scene in the early 1970s, he was immediately recognized for giving a voice to the common man. His tales of suburban ennui and escapism connected with an American public looking for hope. Springsteen gave a voice to their struggles, much in the same way that Seeger gave a voice to the struggles of the labor and civil rights movements. Now Springsteen has taken an album’s worth of old, traditional material, some of which dates back to 1549, and just like Seeger did in the fifties and sixties, he has used folk songs to relate to our current state in the world. Bruce Springsteen has a huge fanbase, and if those fans take a sudden interest in the music of We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions, he’ll have followed right in Pete Seeger’s footsteps, bringing folk music to the masses. Such a result would be a nice little addition to Springsteen’s towering musical legacy.