Bruce Springsteen was one of those musicians that provided the soundtrack of my teenager years, with Born in the USA rubbing shoulders with REM’s Losing my Religion, Peter Gabriel’s Big and Madonna’s Like a Virgin. I guess it’s no accident that these songs come to mind, given that these musicians are among the few from the 1980s whose music doesn’t date.
While the latter three musicians have continued on, reinventing themselves for the nineties and the naughties with various degrees of success, Bruce Springsteen faded out for me. Other than Tunnel of Love, there was no other album I thought (however erroneously) worth having. While Madonna was making a fool of herself with a remake of American Pie and Peter Gabriel went industrial with Up, I never paused to wonder where had Bruce Springsteen gone.
Recently, Bruce sprang back to the media’s attention with the release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Programs on NPR gave Bruce a lot of exposure for this new album which was so different from Bruce’s rock persona. Upon listening to the album, however, I wonder why it took this long for Bruce to find a part of himself he never knew he’d had.
Work on the album that became The Seeger Sessions began in 1997 when Bruce Springsteen released a cover of the classic Pete Seeger song We Shall Overcome. Pete Seeger is a noted folk singer and political activist from the 1950s, possibly best known as the co-author of such songs as Where have all the flowers gone, and If I Had a Hammer.
Having previously known little of Pete Seeger’s work and intrigued by what he had heard, Bruce did a thorough investigation, heading down to his local record store and returning with a pile of Pete Seeger’s albums the length of his arm. Listening to the folk ballads, he was inspired to go on a quest, which culminated in a bunch of musicians (friends and friends of friends of Soozie Tyrell, a violinist with Bruce’s E Street Band) holed up in the living room of an old farm house, playing folk tunes, some over a hundred years old.
The thirteen songs of We Shall Overcome: the Pete Seeger Sessions were recorded over three one-day sessions with this group, totally unrehearsed. It’s raw and unscripted, and full of an energy that sets your toes tapping and your hands clapping. Bruce’s husky voice is amazingly appropriate to the material, lending it a rough edge to the sad songs that plays perfectly. And you can tell that all of the musicians, the violinists, the guitar and banjo players, the drummers and the horns in the hallway, are having a wonderful time. The music is old, vibrant, lyrical and sad, as rich as a Kentucky mansion. Right from the first song, Old Dan Tucker, it’s as though a bunch of travelling musicians have barged into your front room, and they brought beer!
We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions is an album for Bruce Springsteen fans who like to hear him rock it old school, and for people eager to hear a maestro explore well beyond his musical boundaries. It will appeal to connoisseurs of folk and rock. It is a wonderful album to bounce around to, ably conveying the richness of America’s roots music tradition.