May 2, 2006

The Boss becomes just a regular guy with down-to-earth Seeger Sessions

Just knowing the concept behind We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions would make it easy to say, “Well…he’s 56 years old, I guess the Boss is getting a little senile.” Something doesn’t seem quite right about a rock-and-roll icon taking 13 musicians with fiddles, a washboard, some banjos, and an upright bass onto a farm in New Jersey to do live recordings of tavern songs and parlor music. But anyone who says that Springsteen has lost his mind with We Shall Overcome, that he’s just trying to make a quick buck, or that he believes he’s so great that he can do whatever he wants hasn’t heard the album. One spin provides a pure energy not heard from Springsteen since Born in the U.S.A., music that might not sound like the Boss but just feels right.

Springsteen, known to be meticulous about every detail of an album, abandons his reputation for We Shall Overcome, emphasizing in his liner notes that the whole album was cut in three one-day sessions with no rehearsals. While the album is not typical Springsteen in the least, the unusual format manages to combine the rowdiness of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle with the simplicity of Nebraska into a raucous performance of songs from Americana.

The tracks were all at one point recorded by folk singer Pete Seeger. Seeger was a major player in the rise of folk and protest music in the 1950s, though his name sometimes gets lost as his biggest hits were popularized by other musicians—he wrote “If I Had A Hammer,” a hit for Peter, Paul, & Mary, and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” made famous by the Byrds. But while the album is a tribute to Seeger, the songs of We Shall Overcome were only recorded by Seeger, not written by him. The tracks are all traditional pieces, ranging from spiritual hymns like “Eyes on the Prize” to outlaw ballads like “Jesse James.”

Perhaps the most entertaining number is “Pay Me My Money Down.” Generally referenced as a sea shanty, it is actually a protest song from the black dockhands in Southern ports who would sometimes go unpaid if crooked ship captains left the harbor. The song starts with Springsteen alone with his guitar but builds into a boisterous hootenanny that, with the overuse of the accordion, borders on zydeco. The lyrics and chord progression are easy enough, but it’s the call and response of the chorus that gives life to the track, keeping it interesting. “Pay Me My Money Down” is the most fluid and alive song on the album, as you can hear Springsteen shout key changes and the names of band members and instruments that he wants highlighted, like the bursting brass section of Mark Pender and Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg—both of Conan O’Brien fame.

“Pay Me My Money Down” is followed by the title track, “We Shall Overcome.” In his informative liner notes, noted critic and music historian Dave Marsh calls the song “the most important political protest song of all time, sung around the world wherever people fight for justice and equality.” This recording was actually done by Springsteen in 1998 as part of a different Seeger tribute and eventually motivated the organization of The Seeger Sessions. It was an interesting choice for the title track, however, in that it is not nearly as inspired or moving as the rest of the album. One can tell “We Shall Overcome” comes from a younger, pre–9/11, pre-Rising, pre–Bush Administration Bruce and perhaps should have been re-recorded to capture the same emotional power as the other poignant songs on the album, like the 1815 Irish anti-war ballad “Mrs. McGrath” or Negro spiritual turned civil rights anthem “O Mary Don’t You Weep.”

Springsteen closes out the album with “Froggie Went A Courtin’,” a popular tune previously sung by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives and kindergarten classes worldwide. The song has been tracked back as early as 1549 in Scotland and provides a sharp contrast with “We Shall Overcome” to end the album on a lighter note. Most likely not coincidentally, Bruce’s last line on the album is, “If you want any more/ you can sing it yourself,” which serves to summarize The Seeger Sessions. On We Shall Overcome, Springsteen is not above us—he’s not giving his fans the impossible dream of replicating Born to Run or singing from a multi-million dollar studio. He’s as down to earth as he’s ever been, merely kicking off a rambunctious sing-along and trying to lift the spirits of anyone who needs it at a time when he believes America needs it most.