Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
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As with all things Springsteen, there’s an avalanche of press surrounding Seeger Sessions, and it would be presumptious of me to assume I’ve got anything special to add to the noise in terms of analysis. Springsteen’s work has created a veritable cottage industry of worshipful prose, some of it extremely interesting and profound; this is why you will never, ever see a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bruce Springsteen here, and why I didn’t bother covering Devils & Dust last year.
This record is something kind of special, though; I hesitate to get too excited about it, because it’s a covers album, after all, and they tend to make me ill, but Seeger Sessions is unexpectedly, exhiliratingly good. Maybe even great.
On the surface, Springsteen doing Pete Seeger may not sound like much to get worked up about, particularly for fans hoping for another album with the E Street Band. Albums of dusty old leftist folk songs tend to be of major interest only to musicologists and dusty old leftists, and though re-casting Seeger’s classic screeds in a modern light makes a certain amount of sense, it’s tough to put together an entertaining polemic. Trad folk and the modern ear don’t get along too well, for the most part; there are many reasons for this, enough to fill a book with, and I won’t get into them here. The point is, The Seeger Sessions was an iffy proposition.
And yet it works — not only as an homage to the titular songwriter and American hero, but as a Springsteen album. It’s a bit of a revelation, in fact. The great irony at the heart of Springsteen’s work has always been that, even as he rejoiced in the redemptive power of pure rock & roll, he was continually at war with the joyous spontenaeity that is rock’s lifeblood. In a way, he’s succeeded in spite of himself; it’s difficult to think of another performer who has been able to assemble his records so meticulously without bleaching all the fun out of them.
It’s for this reason that perhaps the best thing about listening to Seeger Sessions is hearing Springsteen finally loosen up. He assembled a huge hootenanny combo for this album, and recorded most of it in just a couple of days; since Seeger’s songs were always meant to be felt as much as listened to, the approach is a particularly perfect fit. Listeners who dismiss this record out of hand as boring, didactic folk music are missing the point, and doing themselves a disservice besides — these songs have more real, raw rock energy than anything Springsteen has recorded in years. Maybe ever. To hear him directing the band on the fly is to hear the sound of a man who has learned to stop analyzing the music’s power and simply give himself over to it.
Along those same lines, listeners who aren’t interested in a left-wing sermon have little to fear. There’s no denying or getting around which end of the political spectrum Seeger’s from, but the bulk of his songs make their points more subtly than a nation raised on jokes about “If I Had a Hammer” might remember or expect, and Springsteen has chosen to focus on the less overtly political material here.
It’s a smart choice. Not only does Springsteen avoid alienating his six remaining Republican fans, he also sidesteps the annoying preachiness that bogs down most political music. He realizes, as did Seeger, that left-wing sentiments in particular are best expressed from among the congregation, not the pulpit.
All this aside, The Seeger Sessions is simply a fun listen. Though songs like “Old Dan Tucker” (download) and “Pay Me My Money Down” (download) may not have a chance in hell of making it into heavy rotation on many station playlists, but they sound as fresh and relevant today as they ever have — as much a product of Seeger’s genius as it is Springsteen’s.