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Music

Reborn in the U.S.A.

On his new album, Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to anthems of American life made popular by folk singer Pete Seeger and others.

By SEAN DALY
Published April 25, 2006


  photo
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Hear samples of the new disc

Imagine a Fourth of July party at Bruce Springsteen's house. The kids are scampering, the refreshments are flowing, the grownups are loose. Flipping franks on the grill, the Boss straightens his chef's hat and hums a few bars of an old folk ditty, a story-song slice of Americana.

At the sound of their host's heartfelt noise, a dozen-plus guests drop their picnic plates and start grabbing instruments: violins and trombones, trumpets and accordions, banjos and tubas. Letting the music grow and the hot dogs burn, Bruce turns to his pals and starts wailing.

The resultant jam is an exhilarating melting pot of New Orleans stomp and front porch pickin' party. Listen closely and you just might hear some zydeco and gypsy jazz, as well.

That imagined shindig at the Boss' pad is exactly what his new covers collection, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, sounds like. A celebration of traditional American balladry popularized by iconic folk singer Pete Seeger and others, Springsteen's new disc, released today, was recorded during three one-day studio sessions, one back in 1997. How loose were the recordings? Each song was recorded in one take.

These are working class pick-me-ups built on equal parts hope and hard times, and Springsteen's goal in reworking them is unity and uplift. It's a fine way to address a distraught nation that could use something to sing about.

The 86-year-old Seeger who does not appear on this disc was a folk hero; blacklisted in the McCarthy era, celebrated in the civil rights era, he was both booed and applauded at the scores of union rallies he soundtracked. Springsteen, 56, is a rock hero, known also for turning in contemplative work. He obviously sees Seeger as a guiding light.

But this new album is no Ghost of Tom Joad or Devils & Dust. The E Street Band sat this one out, but in many respects, The Seeger Sessions is just as rousing as Born to Run. (Credit a lot of the album's energy to Springsteen's preferred violinist, Soozie Tyrell, whose constant presence acts as the album's complex heartbeat.)

He has fun on The Seeger Sessions; listen to him stifle laughter as he counts off the start of "antique fiddle" square dance song Old Dan Tucker, which opens the album. Even elegiac cuts such as Erie Canal and Shenandoah are rousing; it sounds as if thousands of downtrodden ghosts are joining him in a defiant stand.

In the liner notes, Springsteen says he learned many of these songs not too long ago. But the 13 tracks are a perfect fit for Bruce, a guy who's always tried to represent the working man, whether his characters were breaking down on the Jersey Turnpike or trying to pay the heating bill.

That said, Springsteen issues a liner note directive to his faithful: "So, turn it up, put on your dancin' and singin' shoes, and have fun."

"Come on horn section!" Springsteen commands trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg and tuba player Art Baron on Jacob's Ladder - "We are climbing higher and higher! We are brothers and sisters all!" - a Negro spiritual whose chorus Seeger later rewrote. That song will no doubt be quite popular when Springsteen brings his umpteen-strong Seeger Sessions Band to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday. Parts of the album were recorded relatively recently, and you have to wonder if Springsteen deliberately reinforced the album's Basin Street sound as a way of extending his musical prayers to the Crescent City.

The album's best song also sounds like it was born in the sweat and steam of Preservation Hall. O Mary Don't You Weep, another Negro spiritual that later become an important rallying cry during the civil rights movement, is joyously exhausting, a song you'll listen to over and over just because it makes you feel so good.

A colleague noted that part of this album's appeal is that many of us remember singing these songs in grade school and church. I just about sobbed with joy shouting along to John Henry, as the hammer-wielding hero goes head-to-head with that steam drill. I like Froggie Went a Courtin', too, although I prefer Bob Dylan's 1992 version, which is more gruesome than Springsteen's but also surprisingly moving. (Interesting footnote: Springsteen calls Froggie "the most ancient tune here," adding that the song dates to 1549 Scotland.)

After all that gushing, it feels wrong to give an A to a Springsteen album that the Boss didn't pen himself. After all, look what it's up against. So let's just say it's a mighty strong B+. Ultimately, The Seeger Sessions is a warm, wonderful footnote to the Boss' catalog, a rousing thank- you note from a man wise enough to acknowledge the blue collar bards who came before him.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/ blogs/popmusic.

[Last modified April 25, 2006, 11:26:50]


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