Throughout his recording career Bruce Springsteen has been an artist of quiet, unexpected surprises. Whether veering off the road just a little as on the dark folk record Nebraska, making an unabashedly mainstream pop song in Dancing In The Dark, throwing his band away at the height of his fame and fortune, or pulling off the seemingly impossible in releasing an album of songs about and inspired by the events of 9/11 so soon after those events, and having it neither be exploitative nor cheesy, but rather compassionate and knowing, Bruce Springsteen's little surprises make perfect sense when you look back on them. And they have produced or resulted in some of his best work. With We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Bruce Springsteen gives us another little surprise to ponder in his ever growing line of them. And as those times before, we are the all richer for it.
Ditching The E Street band once again and taking up with the 17 member Seeger Sessions Band, this collection of traditional folk music is given the big band treatment by Springsteen. The instruments range from guitar to banjo to washboard to accordion, tuba, trumpet and piano. Violin and pedal steel guitar are also on hand. And if you are careful you might even hear the sound of someone blowing over the top of an empty whiskey jug. Professionally recorded in Springsteen's New Jersey home over the course of just three days(in his living room, to be exact) the album has a spontanious, upbeat, celebratory, down home feel to it. This is not quiet folk music. Nor is it stuck in a folkie rut. Healthy doses of gospel, blues, Dixieland, and other influences also abound. And it's all delivered via a large band and a robust bandleader with a big voice who is more then up to the task of offering these songs anew to a new generation of listeners.
Taking songs from the Pete Seeger records Bruce would listen to in his youth (hence the title of the album) the record kicks off with the swinging minstrel song "Old Dan Tucker" and from here moves quickly to the traditional outlaw folk of "Jesse James", which starts on familiar ground with just Bruce and an acoustic guitar, but soon after the entire band kick in and give the song the full hootenanny treatment. Next up is the turn of the century Irish folk war tale "Mrs. McGrath", and although it is strange at first hearing the Boss sing "Toorye oorye oorye-ay with me, toorye-ay foddle diddle day" he doesn't camp it up or go overboard with an Irish accent. Rather, he lets the song go it's own way and sticks to the basics until changing the last verse of the song when in place of the original line he sings "All foreign wars I do proclaim/Live on the blood and a mothers pain/Well I'd rather have my son as he used to be / In the kingdom of America...", giving the song a new twist for the times we live in.
The band digs in deep for the old negro spiritual "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep No More" and the sound is a joyous and worried one indeed. Bruce gives the song a slight ragtime feel in this rendition and turns it into a jubilant sing along by songs conclusion. The second longest tune on the album by a fair minute, the band serves this song well and never lets up to the very end. The good vibes and energy continue on the oft recorded folk/bluegrass tune "John Henry". With 375 documented recordings of this song since it was first discovered, Bruce and band breathe new life into this version almost to the point where it feels like a contemporary rock song. Springsteen's gruff spirited vocals and the bands tight swinging playing lend this song of hard work and misfortune just the right amount of toughness and flair it needs to rise above it's somewhat sad, matter of fact tale. And the song sounds dated not one bit in these capable hands. This is not quiet folk music, as said before. It is not the stark and bleak Nebraska or the thoughtful and dark Ghost Of Tom Joad. Nor is it the understated Devils & Dust. This is not a Bruce "solo" album by any stretch of the imagination. By this time on record it is clear this is an album made with a big band and it carries a big sound. It almost compels you to jump, twist, and shout. Call it Born To Run, circa the 19th century. Because it does in fact, for lack of a better word, rock.
After quieting things for the next track "Erie Canal", a folkie about traveling for work with your trusty mule, comes the second negro spiritual of the album in the inspiring "Jacob's Ladder" where Bruce and his gospel singers remind us that we are "brothers and sisters, all". And you can almost hear the amen's sounding from the cotton fields by songs end. Keeping the uplift going for the next song, "My Oklahoma Home" is a tale of the dust bowl days of the great depression, and while the tale is of losing everything including the shirt on your back to a great drought, the music swings like a breezy wind and the vocals suggest matter of fact survival come hell, high water, or dried out fields. And it's this touch that Springsteen and company give each and every song on this album, never letting things get bogged down or too heavy. Indeed, this is music that intends to inspire strength, joy, and perseverance in the listener who needs and cares about such things. And it succeeds at conveying that feeling on every level.
Bringing things down once more for the next two tracks, Bruce takes a stab at the 1956 song "Eye's On The Prize" a song of quiet and determined protest and faith in the face of injustice, and the beautiful and oft recorded ballad "Shenandoah". A song recorded by everyone from Van Morrison to Judy Garland to Michael Landon, The Boston Pops, Daniel Lanois, and The Gay Men's Chorus Of Los Angeles, Bruce give's Shenandoah the silent treatment and makes sure not to trample all over it with his loud band of folkies. Rather he plays it straight and true and let's the aura of the music do the talking. Perhaps the most commonly heard (and certainly the most commonly recorded) cut on the album, it serves it's purpose of quieting things well and conveys the sort of peaceful easiness it's intended to.
After the upbeat and hopeful "Pay Me My Money Down", a work/protest song with a strong zydeco style and flair to it, Bruce and company finally reach this albums namesake song with a tender, almost romantic recording of the classic "We Shall Overcome". A song that has been passed on through generations for anyone who has ever had a righteous cause, this rendition of the signature tune of the American civil rights movement is as stirring and heartfelt as any that has ever been committed to record. Recorded here as a soft gospel song, it strikes just the right note of tenderness, perseverance, and faith to help close this album full of songs about the hard life, and sometimes hard dying, with a reminder for all who might need it that one day they may overcome, too.
Recorded with passion, purpose, and a good amount of jubilation, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, takes traditional American folk songs originally interpreted by Pete Seeger on record and throws them on the coals once again. This time around, interpreted by Bruce Springsteen and a top notch band with just enough regard for tradition, but adding a bit more life to the mix, these songs are born anew in a time of trouble once more and serve as a reminder that in the course of history (some of these songs have origins in the 18th and even 16th century, although most are from the 19th and turn of the 20th) sometimes what goes around, come around. And when it comes around their will always be those with justice on their minds and faith in their hearts that will run out to face that trouble head on. Some run out with a gun, some with a plowshare, and others with the sword. But on this record and in this music Bruce Springsteen and his band of players make a strong argument for meeting that same trouble not with might or fight, but with song. And We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is the sound of a compelling and convincing argument in favor of song indeed.
Thanks a lot for reviewing this. I'm a huge Springsteen fan, and have all his albums, but I wasn't sure if this was worth getting just because I dunno Bruce gone bluegrass just seems wrong. But I'll definitely get it now.
Yeah Jom, this is most definitley better then Devils And Dust, which was a quiet and introspective work of sorts. This album plays like a celebration of life of sorts. It's a big sounding record, and it sounds like the players really enjoy doing what they do. It is an album of traditional music, of course. And the album goes a long way in modernizing the sound of these songs without dismantling them and trying to make them modern. IMO it's a substantially more accessible record then D&D and should be a treat for anyone who can appreciate this type of music.This Message Edited On 04.26.06
Yeah, I like D&D, too. It's a bit uneven, and some tracks feel kind of lite or incomplete, but all in all it is a good record, IMO. Living in Los Angeles, I also like Tom Joad. More so then D&D. It's just a matter of geography, I suppose. That's Bruce's Southern Cali border album. And Straight Time from that album is a Springteen fave of mine.
Great review. Not really being familiar with these songs before, I was surprised how easy it was to enjoy this album. Bruce handles the songs with care and passion, and gives such a convincing performance, I can't think of any other current artist who could have pulled this off.
Like you said, the songs sound updated but don't lose their character, and it's a tribute to the timelessness of the words that they can still be relevant. I really enjoy the album, and I'm going to see him live next Monday too!
Just one niggle: Bruce said in the liner notes that he only really delved into folk and Pete Seeger's music around 1997, so they're not 'records Bruce would listen to in his youth'.This Message Edited On 05.03.06This Message Edited On 05.05.06
^That was info I obtained from another source, having reviewed the album the day after it's release. I find it hard to imagine Bruce was unaware of Seeger before '97 having released folk music here and there along his career, and I'm sure he was well aware of these songs before '97, although perhaps not delving into it, as you say. But whatever the case may be, Bruce has said of his own work "So much of my writing, particularly when I write acoustically, comes straight out of the folk tradition." So that can only lead me to believe Bruce, of course, was no stranger to folk music and the work of Pete Seeger well before '97.
I'm glad you enjoyed the review. This really is an outstanding record on all counts.This Message Edited On 05.03.06
Damn, I'm really addicted to this album, what makes it arguably even better is that the Boss sprung a surprise on us yet again and it's proved to be brilliant. I just love this album's vibe. Awesome stuff.
'Oh Mary, Don't You Weep' is easily my favourite. Absolutely fantastic song.This Message Edited On 05.07.08