We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
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Columbia Records will release Bruce Springsteen's twenty-first album,'We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions,' on April 25. The album features Bruce's personal interpretations of thirteen traditional songs, all of them associated with the legendary guiding light of American folk music, Pete Seeger, for whom the album is named. Speaking of the origins of the new music, Springsteen said, "So much of my writing, particularly when I write acoustically, comes straight out of the folk tradition. Making this album was creatively liberating because I have a love of all those different roots sounds... they can conjure up a world with just a few notes and a few words."
The premise was simple. Bruce Springsteen invites a dozen or so New York City musicians--packing banjos, fiddles, accordions and the like--to his New Jersey farmhouse for a three-day hootenanny, and tape is rolling. The results are sublime, his 21st album featuring their versions of songs harvested from Springsteen's dog-eared LPs by Pete Seeger. Not all written by Seeger, the songs are how the American folk icon interpreted them, and these organic recordings, with no rehearsals or overdubs, pay tribute with the simplicity and spontaneity he intended. It's not hard to link Springsteen's dissatisfaction with American politics to the protest song "We Shall Overcome" or even the Irish ballad "Mrs. McGrath," where he alters the lyrics to read, "I'd rather have my son as he used to be/Than the King of America and his whole navy." But the beauty of these Seeger Sessions are pieces that underscore the mood of the bandleader, which borders on down-home amusement: the bluegrass outlaw ballad "Jesse James," the Dylanesque "Pay Me My Money Down" and the euphoric "Jacob's Ladder," a gumbo-and-whiskey-fueled romp that could pass for the closing hymn at the Church of Asbury Park. --Scott Holter
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Then again, this album is not what you would expect from a Bruce Springsteen album, given that the Boss has never done a cover album before. He has done a few notable covers, from Tom Wait's "Jersey Girl" and Patti Smith's "Because the Night" to "War" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," so it is interesting that Springsteen would suddenly decide to do it for an entire album. Seeger is certainly a legend, and if this album introduces a new generation of fans to his work so much the better. But having watched Springsteen fail (by his standard anyway) with his acoustic albums "Nebraska," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and "Devils & Dust," it is interesting to see what happens when he takes his acoustic guitar and backs it up a full folk music ensemble recording LIVE, without rehearsals, in three one-day sessions cut in 1997, 2005 and 2006. The irony is that those other acoustic efforts sound more like Seeger's work than this album, because most Seeger recordings are just him playing his banjo. But if you flip the CD over for the DVD side of the disc you can see the recording of some of these tracks and that what you think was going on in the studio from listening to these tracks is just what you see. Plus there are a couple of bonus tracks on the other side, "Buffalo Gals" and "How Can I Keep from Singing."
The background on this 2006 album is that Springsteen was working on putting together a second album of "Tracks," collecting his rarities, when he came across a set of recordings he had made in 1997 for the Seeger tribute album, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger." The only contribution from Springsteen ended up being "We Shall Overcome" on the album which had 39 tracks recorded by everyone from the Weavers and Peter, Paul & Mary to the Indigo Girls and Ani Difranco. This inspired Springsteen to record an entire album of folk tunes that Pete Seeger had popularized, and some of the musicians he brought together for this album had played on those sessions back in 1997. The liner notes by Dave Marsh provide a brief introduction on the background of each song. For example, "Old Dan Tucker," is: "An antique fiddle tune, often used for square dances, made famous around 1843 when Dan Emmett, one of the greatest early minstrel singers, wrote a version of these lyrics for his group, the Virginia Minstrels." You have to admire the mix of brevity and detail, which contrasts nicely with the rollickin' good time these musicians have in the studio. I find these songs addictive, and while they are not everybody's cup of tea, they have my toe tappin' through constant replay.
The Seeger Sessions (although without the E Street Band) is essentially a covering and reinterpretation of a selection of American music. It sounds fantastic. It is fun. It allows Bruce to inhale deeply from the roots of folk, jazz, country, that eventually led to Rock 'n' Roll. It is this freedom that allows Springsteen to immerse himself in the unadulterated joy this music can yield.
Don't pass this album up.
But Pete Seeger took such folk tunes seriously and worked to make them available to the larger public, including singing with the various groups that he was a major part of. And Bruce Springsteen takes these songs seriously. He does not parrot Seeger; rather, he sings the songs in his own way and treats them as songs that are worthy.
This is an enchanting CD, one that could easily have been embarrassing and precious--but which is, in its own way, engaging and warm.
In all honesty, this album owes more to works like "Folkways: A Vision Shared" a tribute to Woody Guthrie, than it owes to Seeger. The accordians and fiddles remind me more of John Mellencamp's "folkier" line ups than they do Seeger's sparsely accompanied works.
When he arrived on the scene with his E-Street Band decades ago, Bruce was hailed as "The Next Bob Dylan." It was hard to quite see the stylistic parallel then. It is not hard now. Vocal lines "spat out" with great emotion. Way to go, Bruce. Let's see who you honor next time!! Suggestion: The underappreciated New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe.