We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Bruce Springsteen

Well, Before I get started, let me offer all of you rockers out there the opportunity to bow out of any commitment you might feel for reading this Springsteen review. If you believe that a mandolin belongs in the kitchen; if you need another collection of protest songs like you need another hole in your head; if you find established artists who decide an acoustic album is just the thing they need to kick-start a sagging career offensive, then by all means go read some other article. You won't hurt my feelings a bit....

Are they gone?

Good. Because Bruce Springsteen's latest release —We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions — has all that going on. All that and songs you learned in Sunday school, to boot. And in spite of the negative connotations those things might conjure, it's his best record in years.

Recorded in three separate sessions over a span of almost ten years, The Seeger Sessions features material originally recorded by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger back in the 50s and 60s. Most of the songs are public domain classics that have been around for generations, and Springsteen's "recontextualizing" of these songs brings them squarely into twenty-first century.

And despite what "those other" rockers might believe, this record rocks in its own right. All tracks were recorded in a few takes with Springsteen calling out chord changes and directing solos throughout the numbers, lending the record an immediacy that rivals even the Boss' vaunted live recordings. You get the impression that Springsteen invited a bunch of friends over to play some old favorites in his living room and, for the most part, that is exactly what happened. Highlights include the radio-worthy "Mary Don’t You Weep," the rave-up rendition of "Old Dan Tucker," "Jacob’s Ladder," and the haunting "Eyes on the Prize."

Columbia Records has released this collection in the new DualDisc format, with the standard audio CD on one side and a special DVD on the other. It’s a pretty snazzy way to package material, with bonus video footage adding to the sense of camaraderie that the music conveys.

The numbers mix traditional acoustic folk and bluegrass sounds with churchy backing vocals and sassy New Orleans-style horns, giving each song a twist that spices up what would otherwise be a well-worn, if not tired, interpretation. Bruce’s vocals are typically raw and authentic.

Despite the fact that the CD has been marketed and, in some cases, reviewed as a protest record (the title alone recalls the efforts of those who took part in the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and many of the songs feature the themes of struggle and oppression), references to protest and politics are subtle, if not always evident. You could argue that "Eyes on the Prize," "Mary Don't You Weep," "Pay Me My Money Down," and the title track are evidence of a political statement, but this record is far less direct in its message than, say, Springsteen’s 2002 release The Rising or Neil Young’s more recent Living With War. The most enduring message this collection of classic folk tunes conveys is that good music is timeless, and in the hands of skilled musicians can evoke joy, sadness, inspiration, and a respect for the musical tradition.

~ Drew Todd

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