Springsteen does Seeger? Pete Seeger? It’s not only plausible, but a look back at the past 25 years of Bruce’s career suggests perhaps it was inevitable.
Grammy nominations aside, categorizing Bruce Springsteen as a folk musician is somewhat dubious, but he has made three albums that merit consideration as folk music. Most notable is 1982′s Nebraska, the influential and oft-covered collection widely and rightly regarded as his high-water mark as a songwriter. The tone and themes of the album were presaged by performances on the 1980-81 tour in support of The River that preceded its recording.
From the stage, Springsteen spoke of tarnished American ideals, citing books such as Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s A Short History Of The United States and covering songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”. There were also hints of a growing sense of isolation in the man himself, manifest again in his performance of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through The Jungle”, Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped”, and other such covers. Hearing those songs in context, one can appreciate how Springsteen identified so strongly with the plight of Vietnam veterans.
A year later, he went acoustic on Nebraska, with tales inspired by his own lower-middle-class upbringing (“Used Cars”, “Mansion On The Hill”) and lives haunted by disconnection and moral ambiguity (“Nebraska”, “State Trooper”, “Atlantic City”, “Highway Patrolman”). Springsteen didn’t originally intend for the home recordings to be released (they were demos for the E Street Band), and yet it is the very lack of artifice, coupled with the resonance the songs had with his own state of mind, that makes Nebraska feel so alive to this day.
Springsteen did not stand so close on his next folk foray, 1995′s The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Though it’s an accomplished work from a craft perspective, Joad feels studied and less personal than Nebraska and offers few light moments. Interestingly, on tour in support of the album, Springsteen loosened up, a mood best summed up by the title to an unreleased documentary film shot at the time: One Man Hootenanny.
Last year’s Devils & Dust was effectively the sequel to Joad, and includes songs that date back to the Joad era. But it notably repositions Springsteen in closer proximity, restoring a more immediate and personal connection to his subject matter and tapping his own life for inspiration.
Which brings us to We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, or what could rightly be titled Fourteen Man (And Woman) Hootenanny. The album takes Springsteen’s folk sojourn full circle and direct to the source all at the same time. According to the album notes, he wasn’t savvy about Seeger or the songs associated with him until he covered one for a 1997 tribute record. Yet as reflected above, the canon and spirit Seeger embodies have long been a presence and inspiration.
This time, rather than cut another cycle of his own folk tales tapping into that essence, Springsteen and a loose, not-the-E-Street band of musicians tackle folk standards and traditional songs connected to Seeger with gusto. Recorded live on his New Jersey farm, We Shall Overcome derives a downright shocking amount of fun from time-worn chestnuts such as “Old Dan Tucker”, “John Henry”, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Pay Me My Money Down”.
Proudly unrehearsed, the ramshackle but highly capable outfit assembled here rollicks through thirteen songs with Bruce shouting out chord changes and cues in real time. The result is immediate and infectious, with a loose, likable spirit Springsteen hasn’t captured in the studio since his very first album. The man is clearly having a ball, as we see for ourselves on the DVD side of the DualDisc release featuring footage from the sessions.
We Shall Overcome also recontextualizes some of Springsteen’s past. You can hear strains of “Youngstown”, “Seeds” and “This Hard Land” in this material, exposing those songs’ folk roots. Conversely, an organ flourish here or a piano run there echo the classic E Street soundscape, reminding us that it is still Springsteen, albeit by way of Town and Preservation Halls.
Spirits of the latter are thrillingly captured (with a touch of Tom Waits juju) in “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep” and the album’s solemn highlight “Eyes On The Prize”. Springsteen gives the African-American spiritual and civil-rights anthem a hushed and heartfelt reading; post-Katrina, the verse “The only thing we did was wrong/Was staying in the wilderness too long/The one thing we did was right/Was the day we started to fight” holds renewed meaning. The elegiac “Shenandoh” is equally moving, with the singer again putting himself heart-first into the song.
For the most part, the album deftly balances such deeply spiritual forays with a lot of upbeat material, though not every song clicks. The sheer quantity of verses in “John Henry” and “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” bog down the performances, and there’s just no way to sing the dirgey “Erie Canal” with conviction, especially with the first line “I gotta mule and her name is Sal.” One could say that at thirteen songs, there’s too much of a good thing.
We Shall Overcome won’t likely stand out as a classic in the Springsteen catalogue. But credit him for vivifying traditional music without resorting to nostalgia, and for bringing a deep personal connection to some of the most quintessentially American songs ever written.