Bruce, just plain folk
PETE SEEGER and Bruce Springsteen. These two monumental, quintessentially American artists have much in common, but with their vastly different musical roles and styles they aren’t the most obvious bedfellows.
Now they’re permanently entwined thanks to Springsteen’s new album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” Due in stores Tuesday, this joyful, moving and somewhat frustrating collection is made up of 13 songs associated with Seeger, the folk-music patriarch.
It’s joyful and moving because they’re unassailable cornerstones of American music, songs that sprouted from the soil of the nation’s experience and tell us how people worked, danced, loved, dealt with disaster, found a voice, inspired themselves and ultimately survived.
And it’s frustrating because in choosing these 13 songs from the vast Seeger canon, Springsteen neglects what is perhaps the strongest bond between the two: a vision of music as an engine of social and political change.
Seeger, now 86 and relatively inactive, paid the price for that stance, finding himself blacklisted and marginalized in the 1950s and ‘60s for his leftist politics. That didn’t stop him from becoming an immeasurably influential musical and cultural force.
Starting in the 1940s, Seeger began to gather and promulgate a treasure trove of traditional and topical songs that had no home in the mass media. He recorded and performed them with modest musical gifts and an abundance of earnestness and enthusiasm, lighting the fuse for the folk music boom of the 1960s.
While Seeger wrote few songs and relied on a simple banjo strum and the joined voices of his audience, Springsteen came along in the 1970s as the rock ‘n’ roll poet, addressing the promise and the pitfalls of American life in his torrents of words, carried at first on the liberating rock power of his E Street Band, later in more tempered and varied frameworks.
But they find common ground in this album, which illuminates the Seeger legacy for a wider audience while further distancing Springsteen from his rock-icon identity of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Clearly, he’s not feeling compelled to keep straight-ahead rock with the E Street Band in the regular rotation. His last album, 2005’s “Devils & Dust,” was a muted, literary work, a variation on the tradition of his stark solo projects “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” His last album with the E Street Band was the reflective post-9/11 work, “The Rising,” in 2002. He’s pretty much consigned the rock ‘n’ roll to periodic live albums.
“The Seeger Sessions” is Springsteen’s first album without his own songs, and for the occasion he’s concocted an irresistible hybrid of American music forms. Guitars, banjo, fiddles, horns, organ, accordion, piano, drums, washboard and more pack these arrangements, but the music always breathes easily, with wood, wind and skin gathering into rich, organic shapes.
A Southern feel asserts itself in the Dixieland brass, and intentional or not, a subliminal New Orleans presence pervades the album in the textures and syncopations (Springsteen will give the music its live debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 30, with a Greek Theatre date in Los Angeles on June 5).
The playing is casually virtuosic, a sort of acoustic counterpart to the loose-limbed precision the E Street Band brings to his rock. You could call it back-porch music, though you’d need a big porch to hold all these players. (The DVD portion of this Dual Disc release offers documentation of the sessions, with the musicians jostling for space in the living room of Springsteen’s farmhouse.)
The spontaneity is infectious. This is one-take recording, and you can hear Springsteen cueing the horn section here, calling out a key change there, fumbling the lyric in “John Henry” and plowing right ahead.
These might be folk songs, but there’s no holding back on the upbeat tunes, and he matches the raucous playing with vocals full of all-out raspy intensity. And the musicians easily switch to a tone of evocative elegance on the slower songs.
If the music has the feel of something that came together completely naturally, the selection of material is more problematic.
There’s a universe of Seeger-linked songs, and an infinity of statements to be made from them, and Springsteen has played it pretty basic with his repertoire here, choosing some bedrock material, from grade-school songbook staples such as “Shenandoah” and “Erie Canal” to the civil rights anthems “We Shall Overcome” and “Eyes on the Prize.” There are minstrel songs (“Old Dan Tucker”), spirituals (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and mythic tales (“Jesse James,” “John Henry”).
There’s no way that such a collection can be regarded as slight, but Springsteen doesn’t put out albums with no thought to what they say about the times, and by creating a broadly inspirational panorama he’s declined the opportunity to add his voice to the rising chorus of pop music that’s commenting directly on current events. There are plenty of confrontational songs in the Seeger songbook that would do the job, from the union-organizing challenge “Which Side Are You On?” to the Vietnam allegory “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
Maybe he’s biding his time after the demanding commentary of his last two albums, taking a breather to enjoy the bandstand. Here’s hoping the bandwagon doesn’t leave without him.
“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” (Columbia)
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