Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
There are a lot of Bruce Springsteens.
There’s the scruffy young man in a beanie and a singlet with an acoustic guitar draped over his knee. He strums half-folk, half-rock songs about walking the boardwalk down at Asbury Park, New Jersey, drinking with mates and driving cars up to Greasy Lake. He can’t find time to breathe with all the words he wants to use: ‘Madman drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat / In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat.’ He couldn’t contain the world in a song, but he tried.
There’s the down-on-his-luck ruffian looking for luck through geography, wishing for a different set of rules in a different town, thinking of the money and love to be found across the border. For this Bruce, hometowns were death traps, designed and operated by unknown and unseen oppressors. The highway was the only way out, the white lines on the road acting as a bread crumb trail directing you to freedom. Every song was close to bursting, Springsteen’s romance and aspirations only barely contained. Born To Run, Thunder Road, Drive All Night; mini-operas, packed with the hopes of every kid who has felt like an outsider.
Then came the story teller Bruce, a man who came in two forms: the bombastic man with a huge snare drum sound heard on 1984’s Born In The USA and the four-track novelist with a guitar and a harmonica instead of a typewriter who recorded 1982’s Nebraska. This Bruce was obsessed with the ugliness of the world, and the ways people deal with it, whether it’s Charles Starkweather murdering innocent people in Nebraska or a nameless Vietnam veteran who finds himself back home without a job, a brother or a helping hand in Born In The USA. These were men who couldn’t control themselves or their circumstances, and had to deal with the results: ‘Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.’
Finally came the older Bruce, who had almost come to terms with the demons outside of him, and was now facing those inside. This is the man we hear on Human Touch, Tunnel Of Love and Lucky Town, a man trying to ignore the ugly and concentrate on the beautiful: ‘Fat man sitting on a little stool takes the money from my hand as his eyes take a walk all over you,’ he sings on Tunnel Of Love, briefly frustrated with the predictable lecherousness of his fellow man, but then he looks to his lover and croons ‘cuddle up angel, cuddle up my little dove / We’ll ride down baby into this tunnel of love.’ Bruce’s young hopes were for redemption, his older for love.
From there, no more Bruces have emerged, only variations thereof. Which, it should be said, isn’t a bad thing: just one of the available Bruces is more than most artists will deliver in a lifetime. 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils & Dust, for example, saw a combination of his early folk aesthetic and his later world-weariness and story-telling.
With all these Bruces, it’s difficult to work out what to make of the one we hear on We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions, his 14th proper studio album. Here we have Springsteen paying respect to one that came before him, just as Bob Dylan did on his first album with Song For Woody, a homage to his hero, Woody Guthrie. This is Springsteen largely removing himself from the equation, letting traditional folk and Seeger-penned songs do the talking for him, with the impressive efforts of a backing band who fiddle and pluck with the best of them. This is a covers album by a man who couldn’t love the songs he’s covering more.
If a testament is needed to the power of a well-penned folk song (or Bruce Springsteen’s voice), this album is it. Every chorus in every song ignores the head and goes straight for the heart, and then travels up into the vocal cords. This is an album made to be sung along to. It exists not only to be listened to, but to be felt and participated in.
Violins, banjos, double basses and acoustic guitars set the mood, and for most of the record, it’s a barn-stormin’, good ol’ time one. Mostly, these aren’t the subdued, softly-spoken stories and songs you think of when you think of folk music. Think more of an Irish pub after midnight when the band starts hitting its stride and the patrons are reading to bang out some ‘tra la las.’
Of course, the sad old stories with their quiet power are certainly here. Witness Mrs. McGrath, a tragic tale backed by heart-wrenching music. (When you say ‘heart-wrenching,’ it’s difficult not to be stung by how clichíƒÂ©d the expression is, but when your heart actually feels a little wrenched, you know why it’s a clichíƒÂ©). Springsteen sings the story of a young boy who heads off to sea to fight, and comes back to his mother seven years later without his legs. She kisses him, and he tells her ‘I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t blind when I left my two fine legs behind / But a cannon ball on the fifth of May cut my two fine legs from the knees away.’ The parallels between that poor legless boy and the nameless no-hoper in Born In The USA are certainly there; the times are changed, and the music couldn’t be more different, but the story is much the same. Mrs. McGrath is as powerful a song as anything Springsteen has done since The Ghost Of Tom Joad.
And the album may well be as fine as anything he’s done since Nebraska, which is a massive call, and one backed up by hearing the sounds of an unbeatable backing band and a singer who sings every word like it’s his last. Listen to O Mary, Don’t You Weep, which opens with some cracking violin and quickly turns into the kind of Springsteen sing-a-long we haven’t heard since The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle almost three decades ago. Listen to Jacob’s Ladder, another hearty sing-a-long of few words and a lot of loveliness. Listen to My Oklahoma Home, the story of everything a good man has disappearing, backed by beautiful banjo and accordion: ‘all the crops that I planted blown away!’
We Shall Overcome is genuinely perfect, filled with the sounds of a man who has found a new voice through other people’s words and an even hotter passion sparked by a band who gives him what he wants. Springsteen new-comers will fall in love, big Boss fans will adore it, old people will go nuts for it, and youngsters like me will feel like, somehow, they know what life might have been like before computers and televisions and stereos, when the only place the poor could hear music was at the pub. This is a timeless record put together by a Bruce Springsteen that sounds less like one of his many variants and more like the definitive voice of historic struggles and victories over adversity and singing in the face of sadness. This is a transporting record – a record that takes you back to when you’d go hungry if that year’s crop wasn’t any good, and solace was found in song. More than a celebration of Pete Seeger’s legacy (and it’s certainly a significant one), this is a celebration of the redemptive, inspiring power of music.