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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions


1) Old Dan Tucker; 2) Jesse James; 3) Mrs. McGrath; 4) O Mary Don't You Weep; 5) John Henry; 6) Erie Canal; 7) Jacob's Ladder; 8) My Oklahoma Home; 9) Eyes On The Prize; 10) Shenandoah; 11) Pay Me My Money Down; 12) We Shall Overcome; 13) Froggie Went A Courtin'.

Was this inevitable? Bob Dylan entered his «roots revival» stage in the early Nineties, having turned 50, and even though many more people probably praised Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong than people who actually keep on listening to these records a quarter cen­tury later, at least nobody will deny that they did help revitalize his artistically sagging career and, in a way, prepared the ground for Time Out Of Mind. Springsteen enters that same stage com­paratively a little bit later (about five years or so), but a bigger difference is that, unlike Dylan, Bruce never had an early folk-loving stage — his very first albums were already influenced much more by Dylan himself than any of Dylan's folk hero predecessors, and Bruce was never known all that much for covering other people's songs, anyway.

But I do not think that, once the initial news leaked out that Springsteen was recording a whole bunch of traditional folk songs from the Pete Seeger songbook, anybody doubted that he could make these tunes his own. I'd rather think that, perhaps, one could doubt whether he could have preserved something of the old spirit of these songs — instead of just Springsteen-izing them — and it is for this precise reason, arguably, that the sessions were held not with the regular E Street Band, once again temporarily put on hold, but with a bunch of new musicians from the New Jer­sey Area, not at all well known but apparently well versed in traditional music. Acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos, old-timey percussion, the works. On top of that, one major surprising addition are The Miami Horns, regularly sitting in on most of the tracks and giving them a decidedly New Or­leanian flavor — and on top of it all, there's The Boss and his well-worn raggedy voice, now per­fectly adaptable to conveying that grizzly folk spirit.

How does it work? Well, the biggest flaw of the album is that it's almost predictably good. Most likely, you already know many of these songs — and unless you just hate the folk tradition as such, these are all fine examples of the genre. Most likely, you already know how The Boss in­spires his backing bands to play at top energy level — and how well he can impersonate that pro­verbial Working Man, taking his time on the front porch after a hard day's work to provide some simple, unadorned musical joy for himself, his family, and his neighbors. Most likely, you also know how The Boss is stubbornly resistant to musical fashions (especially having learned his lesson with bad production in the Eighties), and you know he is not going to rearrange these songs as raves, raps, or metalcore. A project like this has a near-zero probability of failure, and this is precisely what makes it not very exciting.

I don't even want to comment on any of the songs individually, because most of them serve the same purpose: entertainment. This is not some sort of sanctifying project where one turns the songs upside down and shows you the interesting stuff in those little corners and pockets that you never saw there before. These are big band arrangements for party halls and country fairs, to which people simply dance the night away, regardless of whether the lyrics tell bloody stories of Jessy James, Biblical parables, sailor sagas, or silly kid tales of how Froggie went a-courtin'. This is why the tracks are long and repetitive, and all the choruses are catchy because they are looped almost to infinity — you're not really supposed to notice that, you're simply supposed to keep on dancing, caught up in a rhythmic whirlwind. And the Boss is right there, giving you a prime example of inexhaustible energy and passion. You stop only when he stops, no earlier.

That said, I am still content to have this. The brass arrangements of the material are somewhat of a novelty, yet they work — giving the songs an extra «cabaret» flavor, perhaps, but one that does not feel alien to the material. And if you want to hear those old-timey numbers played with gusto, with as much bravado, volume, and recklessness as possible, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better candidate than The Seeger Sessions — Bruce never relents, and on songs like ʽJacob's Ladderʼ or ʽO Mary Don't You Weepʼ, you can almost feel him pushing, pushing, pushing the band to further heights of passion with each new reprisal of the chorus. Subtlety is not a welcome guest on the record; subtlety is left over to the real Pete Seeger, or the likes of The Country Gen­tlemen. Here, it's all about going wild, and who's better at going wild than Springsteen? And at the tender age of 55, too, it's like the perfect balance between being old enough to lend some spirit of authenticity here, but young enough to still be able to kick up a good ruckus.

This does not conceal the fact that the record is lightweight, and in general more of a temporary amusement for Springsteen rather than a serious project — but clearly, the man has earned a right to some lightweight detours, and paying tribute to a musical genre without which your musical genre would not exist in the first place may be the best choice for such a lightweight detour. I will probably refrain from an explicit thumbs up here, because after the first few songs, the predicta­bility effect becomes so strong that tediousness begins to set in; however, I will never say that the album is completely expendable, either — at the very least, it is a meaningful chapter in the Springsteen book, if not necessarily a meaningful milestone in the art of folk music revival.


  1. "who's better at going wild than Springsteen?"
    Is that a serious question? To check what you mean I just listened to Jacob's Ladder - the first two minutes or so. Nice, catchy, cheerful, even energetic - but about as wild as my crippled grandparents. That says nothing about the quality of the song - but even now I'm almost 52 "wild" is about the last label I would attach to it.
    The second movement of Shostakovich' Viola Sonata (written when he was almost 70) is wilder than anything Springsteen ever wrote.

    Why this example?
    Folk theme of course.

    1. What no Purple? No Heep? Surely SQ has some old folk covers with all them blooze. And isn't Blackmores Night the English equivalent of this?

    2. This is a strange comment. Obviously, the reference is to the folk / folk-rock genre, not to heavy rock or to music in general. Obviously, we are not talking about "writing" but about arranging and performing, so comparing Springsteen and Shostakovich makes no sense whatsoever. Lastly, it makes no sense to listen to two minutes of 'Jacob's Ladder', because its tension increases as the song goes by.
      Blackmore's Night, by the way, is not comparable to this - these are rough-shod, hard-drinking folk stompers. Blackmore's Night go for gallant fantasy, not barroom aura, even when they drag you in their merry-go-round.

  2. For real "wildness" in similar vein (big-band, cabaret-like rearrangements of folk music), go no further than Bellowhead--who are one of the most exciting things in the English folk scene right now, and are just as revolutionary as Fairport Convention were back in the day.

  3. I do love Springsteen's version of "Old Man Tucker." He sounds like he's having such a great time singing it that it's infectious. And one band member is playing what sure sounds like either a kazoo or comb and tissue paper, which feels rather endearingly down-home.

    But yes, I don't have much desire to listen to a whole album in this vein.

  4. uriah heep... what an awesome, wild band

    1. I saw Uriah Heep open for Cheap Trick in 1982...when I saw the Spinal Tap movie two years later, I felt a sense of deja vu.

  5. When we brought our baby son home, a friend of my wife's gave us a copy of this for him. "There's no good reason why kids's music can't be good music", she said. Well, when my son got a little older he just love singing along to stuff like "Pay Me Money Down", "Old Dan Tucker" and "Buffalo Gals" (a bonus track on our copy). And when he decides to be serious, I'd rather hear him tackle stuff like "We Shall Overcome" and "Eyes of the Prize" than all of "..Tom Joad" or "D&D". Interestingly, my son enjoyed Bruce's renditions far more the Peter, Paul and Mary's versions of the same or similar material, which he found boring. Bruce puts much more passion and energetic fun in the material. But, yeah, serious folk scholar won't be wowed by this.