CD Review by John Pietaro
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, ‘WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE SEEGER SESSIONS’
Columbia Records, released 4/20/06
Bruce Springsteen’s latest release, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is not actually an homage to Pete Seeger, but to the power of song itself. This most prototypical musician/activist’s aura hangs over these sessions like an oracle, yet none of the selections are actually Seeger compositions, not are they all pieces specifically associated with him. Here’s a collection of roots sounds that fuses traditional styles toward the production of a daring, edgy fusion, at once familiar and new. Stylistically it ranges from gutbucket blues to Cajun funk, old-time string band serenades to to New Orleans marches and Celtic laments, with a smattering of honky-tonk thrown in for good measure. Not one note was wasted and, as Springsteen clarifies in the liner notes, these sessions were recorded live with a seventeen-piece ensemble that he’d never formally rehearsed. This album breathes, as it needs to in order to make the statement it naturally expresses. Outright protest music? No, but it’s a protest more by inference and example. He encourages the listener to experience the sessions and what begat them.
The album opens with a burst by 5-string banjo player Mark Clifford, offering the first nod to Seeger, who almost singlehandedly resurrected this majestic instrument, born of the pain of African slaves and poor whites in the rural South. That the first song is “Old Dan Tucker”, a traditional fiddle tune, was no accident. Here Springsteen arranges his string and horn band to drive it home in rare form. Statements from banjo, fiddles and horns are threaded throughout. The excitement continues with the next number, “Jesse James”, the ballad that offers the poverty-stricken viewpoint of this legendary bandit who “stole from the rich to give to the poor”. Each song’s lyric is thankfully printed in the CD booklet, accompanied by a short, historical paragraph, a very important aspect for such a project. Within, Springsteen reminds listeners that Woody Guthrie revised “Jessie James” as a protest song in the 1940s; it is regrettable he did not include Guthrie’s version, “Jesus Christ”, in light of theonslaught of the Christian Right in our own time.
Though this album is not specifically radical in its selections, several songs make clear statements and remind us that Bruce Springsteen is the guy who forbade Reagan’s use of his song “Born in the USA” in the 1984 election. One example of Springsteen’s unabashed progressivism is “Mrs. McGrath”, an Irish anti=war ballad that dates back to the nineteenth century but was strongly associated with the 1916 Easter Uprising against the imperial British. The lyric warns us, “All foreign wars I do proclaim/live on blood and a mother’s pain…” One cannot help but draw conclusions to evening news reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Other notable protest-oriented selections include “John Henry” – the man vs machine myth, particularly strong in the imagery of Henry as an African American worker; “(Keep Your) Eyes on the Prize” – a powerful spiritual that became a Civil Rights anthem; and of course “We Shall Overcome” which Seeger helped adapt for and perform with Civil Rightsd activist who fought in the heart of that struggle.
Appropriately, Springsteen included one song by a Seeger associate, Agnes Sis Cunningham. Sis was an Almanac Singer in the 1940s and founded ‘Broadside’ magazine a generation later. But she was also a strong writer of outspoken, ironic songs. Springsteen could easily have chosen one of her more pronounced topical pieces (she was composing these clear into the 1990s), but instead tied the protest to the land itself with her song “My Oklahoma Home”, a tale of the 1930s Dustbowl. This traumatic period for the southwest turned more farmers into communists than any war or political part could have, so it is befitting that Springsteen chose this piece citing the injustice.
Other selections herein are moving renditions of numbers we’ve all heard Seeger perform over the years such as “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep”, “The Erie Canal” and “Jacob’s Ladder”, among others. The musicians help Springsteen to create a well thought out, beautifully recorded work. Fiddlers Suzie Tyrell and Sam Barfield, as well as all of the others, are outstanding throughout. The use of collective improvisation in the three-member horns section spoke volumes of a contemporary New Orleans still fighting the effects of disasters both natural and Executive. The one sad note is that such an offering would have been better served with a multi-cultural ensemble. Apparently the all white group was not by design, as Springsteen clarifies in the notes that this is largely a pre-existing band he adopted for the disc. Though this CD remains highly recommended for listeners young and old, one can imagine the weight of the statement if the Seeger Sessions Band included displaced New Orleans musicians of color. At last count, there were still a few of them out there seeking meaningful work.
--THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ‘Z’ MAGAZINE, MAY 2006, IN AN EDITED FORM--