Sing Out with the Boss: Springsteen Brings His Seeger Songs to the Midwest This Week Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 06 June 2006 23:36

Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome" First you hear an old-timey banjo, then a voice like early Dylan, but soon a rousing chorus, full Americana, kicks in: drums, twin fiddles, and horns that sound like Van Morrison wrote the charts. That's "Old Dan Tucker," the opening cut on Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a multi-layered tribute not just to Pete Seeger but to "roots" music in general.

 

Every song here is from the folk or gospel songbooks that Seeger plumbed; Bruce has put his indelible stamp on each one, producing an album that's impressive in the way he's infused old songs with new energy. Making the album "was a carnival ride," Bruce says in the liner notes, "the sound of surprise and the pure joy of playing."

The Springsteen arrangements are joyful indeed, most at minimum toe-tappers if not outright danceable sing-alongs. I especially like that the drums are mixed up front, and Larry Eagle's loose style reminds me of the best beats of Levon Helm; "Jacob's Ladder" begins like an outtake from The Band's Basement Tapes with Dylan and then, as happens in many of the selections, the horn section - sax, tuba, trumpet, and trombone - takes us to New Orleans. Charles Giordano's accordion streams throughout the album, creating a down-home, authentic folksy feel. Giordano also contributes piano, B3, and pump organ. There are 13 musicians total (17 on tour) providing guitars, mandolin, harmonica, stand-up bass, percussion instruments, those violins, that banjo, and lots of backing vocals.

As Springsteen explains in the DVD-side video that comes in the package, he wanted to bring together instruments "that didn't have to be plugged in - [ones] meant to travel" from front parlors to union halls. In 1997 he had recorded "We Shall Overcome" for Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, and that started him on a quest. Bruce did his Seeger homework, and "the wealth of the songs, their richness and power, changed what I thought I knew about ‘folk music,'" he says. All the songs were recorded live in Springsteen's farmhouse, and the DVD video shows part of that process.

The liner-note booklet includes the words to all the songs on the CD side (there are two bonus songs on the DVD, including "Buffalo Gals"), with a one-paragraph description of each song's history, gleaned from the incredibly extensive liner notes by Dave Marsh found on Springsteen's Web site (http://www.brucespringsteen.net). There are so many good songs here - "Jesse James," "John Henry" (love that bluegrass introduction!), "Erie Canal," "Eyes on the Prize," "Pay Me My Money Down" (two-step!) - but my favorite is "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," done here in a minor key with a raucous tone that brings to mind a second line in the Crescent City, a joyful surprise from the versions I'm accustomed to.

That's the second time I've used the word "joyful" to try to describe the appeal of this album. It's an eclectic American experience, and not to be missed.

 

Bruce Springsteen & the Seeger Session Band will perform in Des Moines on June 10, St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 11, Chicago on June 13, and Milwaukee on June 14.