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.