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Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
ImageSpringsteen has always tapped into the wellspring of the American songline – and for all his rock and roll roots and tendencies, as a practitioner of the people’s music, Bruce is really a folkie at heart. As powerful and inspiring as his rock persona is, the populist side of Bruce lends an abiding gravity and conviction to his acoustic side. Looking at his work as a whole, it seems his Woody Guthrie influences now stand side by side with his Elvis ones.

We Shall Overcome, Bruce’s fourteenth album, works on a couple of levels: while clearly a tribute to Pete Seeger as one of the true godfathers of American folk and protest music, it is also in a sense part of a trilogy in the aftermath of 9/11. It is almost a natural progression from the very human reaction on The Rising through the painful reflection of Devils & Dust to the cleansing and rejuvenation represented in this collection of the American spirit, resulting in a resolution to move forward. And what better way to do it than through traditional music?

In their quest for meaning in the midst of conflict, both of Bruce’s last two albums were modern folk music in their truest form, and so We Shall Overcome, full of topical, insightful tales of similar struggles and strife from times past in American and immigrant history, frames a powerful musical symmetry. Springsteen was astute enough to realize that the folk and gospel songs that Seeger has done so much to help popularize for more than half a century were the perfect vehicle for this collection; cover songs (they weren’t called that then) have always been an integral part of the folk and blues tradition, and certainly protest songs, too. Seeger played a fundamental role in bringing civil rights and folk music together in the modern era.
The sessions themselves are an interesting exercise in spontaneity for Springsteen, mostly recorded in just two days with a group of New York strummers and fiddlers introduced to him by E Street Band violinist Soozie Tyrell. With just Tyrell and wife Patti Scialfa on hand from the E Street Band, the album was recorded with no rehearsals and Bruce literally calling out the arrangements and solos as they come.

Opening with the raucous “Old Dan Tucker,” he immediately notifies that this is by no means your parents’ folk music. While a lively blend of fiddles, mandolin and banjo keep things rooted throughout the album, the brassy horns and Bruce’s cragged vocals add a sense of heft and power to the sound and the message, especially on the gospel-influenced tunes like the classic spiritual “Eyes on the Prize,” the lively vocal sing-along “Jacob’s Ladder” and the title song, the storied and oft-revived Baptist hymn.

Bruce’s take on these songs is certainly reverential, but his approach is fresh and fearless, infusing Cajun, blues and soul strains into the old tunes and renewing the spirit of the rousing “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” Sis Cunningham’s Dust Bowl saga “My Oklahoma Home,” the Irish antiwar ballad “Mrs. McGrath” and the dockworker’s lament “Pay Me My Money Down.”

Although many of these songs might be considered old and tired by a younger set, Bruce and the band have added life, immediacy and conviction to these performances, although it must be said that it would have been nice to perhaps hear “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” instead of less convincing takes on the stalwart ballad “Shenandoah” and the ultra-slight kiddie song “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” (also covered, amazingly, by both Van Morrison and Bob Dylan!). Seeger’s catalogue and influence is so broad that much of his role as political hero and risk-taker, so relevant in these times, tends to sometimes get obscured here, but his message and spirit, entwined in the title song, still ring clear and are more vital today than ever before.

Recorded at Springsteen’s home studio in three lightning sessions, the overall spontaneity and energy of the performances is what comes across most. With informal intros and instructions left in the mixes, the spirit of the occasion veers from hoedown to gospel choir, but there is always a clear sense of the passion and intimacy present in the room – the horns are crisp, the vocal choruses rousing, even raucous on occasion, and the instrumentation distinct, even amid the spontaneity of much of the recording.

Along with the PCM stereo version of the entire album, the DVD side of the DualDisc also includes a half-hour documentary on the making of the album, including some occasionally interesting commentary and a set of lively performances, the best of which are foot-stomping renditions of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Pay Me My Money Down,” a soulful “Shenandoah” and two songs not on the album, including the old-time “Buffalo Gals.”

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