Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions
Bruce Springsteen’s first ever album of covers is out. A collection of songs all recorded by Pete Seeger, though not written by him, Bruce’s 21st release is a VERY different but logical move.
First let me lay to rest any fears you may have. Bruce hasn’t gone all Hugo D on us. (And let it be writ large for ever more that this is the first and only time that the wee-fat-man-from-Strabane inhabits the same paragraph space as the genius from the Jersey shore.) No, this is an all out raucous fusion of folk, country, New Orleans Bourbon Street Dixieland jazz , negro spirituals and pioneer hymns into Bruce’s loosest album since, maybe, the E-Street Shuffle. It’s great party music, fuelled by gumbo, jugs of rot gut whiskey and maybe a touch of Cajun voodoo, though only Bruce out of the entire rock firmament could release ‘Froggie goes a courtin’” as the final track on an album and not attract howls of mocking laughter.
The pace does flag a little towards the end, especially after a mellow, haunting version of ‘Shanandoah’, though overall it never fails to move. Some have said this is just a throw-away album inspired by a phone call from Jon Landau who built the whole thing out of a few scraps? I’m not sure though. Given Bruce’s recent very vocal political statements on the war in Iraq and his despair after the last election in the US, people will focus on the words of Mrs McGrath and the recollections of a long gone imagined America of neighbourliness and staunch-in-the-face-of-trouble folk heroes. In this case Jesse James, the Okie and John Henry, just as in the past it was Tom Joad.
Old Dan Tucker: This is brilliant and the horns are a touch of genius. Great rollicking opening with Bruce hitting the vocals like a field holler. In the US apparently this is a traditional song for young school children, bet they never heard it like this.
Jesse James: Song about an outlaw folk hero. Worth it for the melodrama in theshouted line “it’s those outlaws Frank and Jesse James” and the venom in ‘that dirty little coward that shot Mr Howard’. Reminded me of my childhood and Gene Pitney’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’. The evocation of an epic Wild West stirred a kid’s imagination and it hasn’t left me.
Has Bruce had a more fun opening one-two than these songs.
Mrs McGrath: A military tone builds to a powerfully menacing end. The song is worth its place if only for “All foreign wars I do declare live on blood and a mother’s pain”. The feel reminds me of Youngstown from Tom Joad, another graphic anti-war song. Note also the change of the traditional ‘King of France’ to ‘King of America’…get the point?
O Mary Don’t You Weep: A Stephane Grapelli-like opening gives way to the New Orleans jazz horns, and I swear, in the lines “Well Old Mr Satan, he got mad…” the Cajun magic has resurrected Louis Armstrong! And God bless him, but if there’s a Mary to be found, even in the vast oeuvre of Americana, Bruce’ll find her. Maybe a tad tasteless tho to record a song about Pharoah’s army getting ‘drownded’ in a New Orleans rag style. However, the song does have a line ‘brothers and sisters don’t you cry, they’ll be good times by and by’.
John Henry: Everyone enjoys themselves on this. Great track. Great story from the early days of the industrial revolution when human labour was being replaced by machines on the railroads. Touch of equal opportunities too. Bruce’s throat-wrenching vocals make this a full-bodied rollick.
Erie Canal: Bruce does Tom Waits. Again a song that builds. It’s a love song. To Sal. Who’s a mule. ‘nuf said. (Now if she’d been called Mary….) It also has in view those early industrial revolution times when ordinary working men and their animals were being phased out. A simpler time too when life was tough and a working man knew his neighbours and his pals. Can just imagine arenas raising the roof with “Low bridge, everybody down..”
Jacob’s Ladder: ‘mmm. It’s OK, but I don’t think the album would suffer it wasn’t here. It has one of those fatal key changes in the middle, always a dead give-away.
My Oklahoma Home: Hey where did Bruce get that Okie twang? This is deceptive. Like an Old Testament prophet we are lured in by a jaunty melody and a young man full of zip, to find a lyric disturbingly at odds with the tune. A man who loses everything, including his wife, to a twister. Except for his mortgage that is. It’s an ill wind..Great call and response in the chorus which will be lapped up at the gigs.
Eyes on the Prize: pace slows again here and this is a little too long. But it’s a slow burner. And I wonder is Bruce reproving himself on this: “Only thing I did was wrong, was stayin’ in the wilderness too long”. During the Rising tour he was careful to stay politically neutral, waiting till just prior to the last US election to come out all guns blazing, but too late.
Shenandoah: beautifully haunting. Moves slow and delicious like treacle, or a deep and wide muddy river.
Pay Me My Money Down: He has a bit of fun with this, introducing his own verse (I think) about Mr (Bill) Gates who takes his money home in crates. Bit rich coming from Mr Superstar Rock musician, but we can forgive the champion of blue collar workers everywhere. Can’t we?
We Shall Overcome: I think you need to be an American veteran of civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests to appreciate this. The sleeve notes (do we still call them that?) calls this ‘the most important political protest song of all time’ and its kinda like apple pie, but I just don’t have the connections. It is though a fresh version of a tired classic and the accordion and organ are gorgeous. Bruce restores its hymnic origins with the appropriate longing.
Froggie Went A Courtin: Uh-huh. It’s here because he can, I guess, though it was good enough (sorta) for a very early Dylan. Wonder what his kids think of it? More to the point, since Bruce’s fans are now mostly of a certain age, how funny will it be to see us singing along to this in the arenas. Reminds of our local folk genius Christy Moore’s “Reel in the Flickering light”—almost the same cast of characters.
Finally a word on the packaging. Looks cool, but is a damned nuisance. Never thought I’d find myself wishing for those awful crystal cases.
Overall I think he pulls this off to great effect. It’s impossible to sit still through this glorious racket of an album. The great thing is it all seems so natural and easy, there’s nothing forced or stilted and its great after the deep intensity of Devils and Dust to hear him loosen up and enjoy himself. This music is an exuberant celebration of a rich heritage, but also a transformation; folk with a rocked up sensibility and thus entirely appropriate that it all begins with Bruce laughing. Reckon the live show will be a boot stompin’, whoopin’ and a’ hollerin’ hootenanny. Watch this space.