Ever since his iconic 1975 arrival on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines as the face of rock and roll’s future, Bruce Springsteen has been elevated to the status of living legend. Long established as perhaps the most prolific American rock idol, the man affectionately known by legions of fans as “The Boss” has achieved fame and commercial success for his rousing anthems of disaffected youth. However, unlike artists half as accomplished, Springsteen has never been one to idly rest on his musical laurels. Instead, he has brazenly attempted everything from blues and jazz to world music. His latest album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” is a reflection of and a testament to this adventurous spirit of experimentalism. A collection of the works of the acclaimed folk artist, Pete Seeger, the new album finds Springsteen delving into the classic Americana of traditional folk music.
“The Seeger Sessions” is live and acoustic, and a spur of the moment musical collaboration not originally intended as an album. Recording over three days at Springsteen’s farmhouse, the musicians gathered and played in Springsteen’s living room and hallway. With no previous rehearsals, arrangements or overdubs, the album maintains a slightly unpolished air that ultimately authenticates and enhances the sound of the motley band, which consists of a tuba, accordion, fiddle, banjo, upright bass, tambourine, mandolin, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and washboard. It is quite apparent that Springsteen and his irrepressible, irresistibly rowdy collaborators had a genuinely good time — the album projects an infectious excitement and passion.
Indeed, this is not the quiet, introspective sound stereotypical of folk but a rollicking, crowd pleasing, toe-tapper of an album that one has come to expect from New Jersey’s most famous native son. The 13-track disc sensibly ignores Seeger’s greatest hits, choosing instead to cover more obscure pieces that allow Springsteen to inject his unique rock sensibility into the material. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of the eclectic early work of young Springsteen. The Jersey swagger of yore is apparent on the jazzy, brassy swing of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” while “Jacob’s Ladder” has the laid-back feel of an impromptu afternoon jam session in someone’s backyard. Seeger’s music is not typically associated with dancing but from the lively opening notes of the first track, “Old Dan Tucker,” this album compels the listener to get up and move. Springsteen also takes advantage of the fact that folk, a uniquely American genre, draws on many musical traditions, as exemplified by the charmingly zydeco-tinged “Pay Me My Money Down.” By abandoning Seeger’s typical simplicity, choosing instead to rev up songs with a vibrant energy, Springsteen imbues the music with a vivacious animation that is as effervescent as a sunny summer day.
Yet, while Springsteen brings his own upbeat perspective to the majority of the album, he also understands the integral message and history of several tracks. The presentation of Seeger’s songs of protest, injustice and hard times necessitates a reverential and respectful approach, requiring Springsteen to deftly switch gears. His performance of these songs captures the stirring spirit of struggle that Seeger legendarily conveyed. He delivers a suitably melancholy and world-weary rendition of “Erie Canal,” his usually robust vocals subtly dampened to a quieter, plaintive lament. The somber and poignant “Eyes on the Prize,” a civil rights protest song, captivates with its haunting plea to “hold on.” A political subtext is also included, a fitting tribute to the social activism of Seeger, a champion of a variety of left wing causes. The inclusion of the Irish anti-war ballad “Mrs. McGrath” is a haunting critique of current times, rendered particularly salient with a pointed reference to a war mongering “King of America.”
Springsteen’s latest foray into folk music is more than just another chapter in the vast and varied history of his musical accomplishments. He has proven himself an innovator, capable of undertaking challenges while remaining accessible to listeners. The combination of freshness and vigor Springsteen brings to “The Seeger Sessions” results in a satisfying, enjoyable album that is destined to become another certified classic.