It’s as if Bruce Springsteen rounded up the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, gospel legend Clara Ward, and Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, took them to an undisclosed hideaway (perhaps a juke joint in the backwoods), tossed them old vinyl of Pete Seeger’s songs, and said, “This is what we’ll be playing.” Then he recorded the results for his new album, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome.
When Springsteen’s operation first disclosed in March that his next project would be a collection of songs identified with the folk-singing legend, it was easy to assume that Springsteen was about to release an overly earnest set of ballads, perhaps stripped down in the style of his just-me-and-my-guitar-alone-at-night Nebraska disc. Was he an aging rocker returning to the noble and elegant simplicity of folkie roots? And if so, why was he reaching back to Seeger? Why not Woody?
But in celebrating Seeger, Springsteen concocted not a post-Mighty Wind effort to birth yet another folk revival. Instead, he cooked up an amalgamation of American musical styles that places Seeger and the folk tradition he has tirelessly served for decades in the center of a much larger (and more rollicking) universe. It was an intriguing calculation. This ain’t your father’s Pete Seeger.
Springsteen took the old-timey songs that Seeger popularized–some that are known to us from nursery school sing-alongs, some from protest marches–and cast them in wide-sweeping arrangements that mixed bluegrass, gospel, New Orleans jazz, R&B, and rock. Explaining why he focused on Seeger, Springsteen told The New Yorker, “Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there….Everything I wanted, I found there.” But Springsteen has taken that songbook and thrown it into a blender with an assortment of American musical elements.
Folk purists–and you know who you are–might cringe. This is not Springsteen strumming along the path that Seeger and others strummed. This is not Springsteen abiding by one of the old rules of folk music: performers should make music the way their listeners could do at home with their own friends and kin. He has pumped up and orchestrated these saved-by-Seeger classics. That might cause some offense. Seeger always said the song was the deal, not the singer. The musician was merely the medium through which a living song–embodying the spirit of those who had sung it before–was passed along to the next generation. A critic could perhaps charge Springsteen with overpowering these songs–juicing them up too darn much with all those guitars, fiddles, banjoes, crashing cymbals, drums, organs, a horn section, and big-voiced background singers. But that would be a question of taste. I’d happily sign up for any choir that believes that keeping a song alive by making it swing is indeed a public interest endeavor. And these real-time, one-take, jam-session recordings–especially the gospel-infused “Jacob’s Ladder” and “O Mary Don’t You Weep”–do swing. A preservationist ought to get points for that.
Springsteen’s song selection (of Seeger’s song selection) emphasizes the range of folk songs: ballads, reels, spirituals. There are silly songs (“Old Dan Tucker” and “Froggie Went A Courtin'”) storytelling tunes (“Jesse James,” “John Henry”) and serious numbers (“We Shall Overcome”). Springsteen, who has written topical songs of his own (“American Skin,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Youngstown”), recorded and performed protest songs (“War,” “This Land Is Your Land”), and campaigned for one presidential candidate (John Kerry), doesn’t overdo the political-preaching side of folk music. He focuses, as Seeger often did, on its communal nature–the transmission of stories and voices, not necessarily overt messages. It’s true that Seeger cannot be separated from his politics; he sang to make people feel empowered. And he was persecuted for being a communist and prosecuted for refusing in 1955 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political views and affiliations. Refusing to invoke the Fifth Amendment, he said to the committee, “I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business…But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.” Seeger was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress. In 1962 the verdict was overturned; he remained blacklisted for years. But years before that, he and the Weavers had a number-one pop hit with the toe-tapping and unradical “Goodnight Irene,” and his children’s songs have helped out many a parent for decades.
With the Seeger Sessions, the Boss gets in a few send-a-message licks. On “Mrs. McGrath,” a 19th century Irish song about a war amputee–that is, about a mother’s sorrow for the missing legs of her son–Springsteen, singing as that mother, declares, “Oh, foreign wars, I do proclaim/leave only 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.” That’s certainly not how the Irish Republicans sang this tune (which originally focused on the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic Wars.) His version of “We Shall Overcome” avoids “Kumbaya”-like sentimentality and comes across as a prayerful lullaby–not a tune of idealistic optimism, but one of cautious hope, a rendition for these days not the 1960s. His “Eyes On the Prize” is a quiet, gritty and growling declaration of defiance–again, an arrangement appropriate for the present moment. Springsteen purposefully eschewed “If I Had a Hammer,” believing any version of this well-known classic would overwhelm the other cuts.
In the end, the album is not so much a tribute to Seeger the performer and musician as it is to the history of American song and its assorted stylings. (It could have been called The American Song Sessions.) One could argue that by focusing so much on Seeger, Springsteen distracted from his larger goal. Still, choosing the 86-year-old Seeger as the common thread in this crazy quilt is a brilliant homage.
Rock music, in its essence, is about yearning, and Springsteen the rocker frequently captured that fundamental. Folk music, in a way, is about becoming. To be corny about it, America becoming America–whether it’s a song chronicling a specific slice of the nation’s history (say, the era of the barge workers of “Erie Canal”) or a song capturing the stories and sentiments that gripped the imagination and hearts of Americans who lived in earlier times (say, the longing for home of “Shenandoah”). Seeger has devoted much of his life to preserving and promoting this social history. Springsteen, with this album, has, yes, earnestly pursued a similar mission. But he’s not taking dictation. He allowed Seeger’s songs to inspire him, as he brewed a bastard’s mix of American music.