Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Bruce Springsteen
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

I’m not going to lie to you… I’ve never been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I can appreciate the man’s songwriting talents, but he and I have never struck a chord. That being said, I absolutely love folk music. So when I heard about a project in which Bruce Springsteen would pay tribute to the songs of Pete Seeger, my interest (and skepticism) was piqued.

I took a risk and bought the album, and I was blown away. These songs, so comfortable in the gentle embrace of Seeger’s soothing voice, erupt in towering plumes of vitality as Springsteen growls and shouts his way through raucous renditions of normally more placid tunes. Springsteen injects the songs with gruff character, recalling the miners and outdoorsmen who might have reveled in these songs’ simple elegance.

The album starts off with “Old Dan Tucker,” an excellent romp and a fine introduction to the record. “Mrs. McGrath” is the first track to approach epic proportions, as Springsteen spins a tale about a woman whose husband loses his legs on the fifth of May. “Eerie Canal” is executed with haunting brilliance, Springsteen’s voice as gravelly as the bottom of the canal itself. “Eyes on the Prize” is sung with almost evil candor, and I can almost see the sneer on the frontiersman’s face as he confronts what he knows to be impossible odds.

The record achieves a frenetic energy, propelled along by a powerful 10-man band – a compelling contrast to Pete Seeger’s often two- or three-man performances. This energy crackles around such momentous tracks as “John Henry” and “My Oklahoma Home,” but perhaps nowhere does it come across quite so beautifully as on “O Mary Don’t You Weep.” Massive horns and violently cascading violins rumble ominously across the landscape, as Springsteen shouts triumphantly, “O Mary don’t you weep no more! / Pharaoh’s army got drowned / o Mary don’t you weep!” The song carries earth-shattering power, summoning images of divine miracles of sea-parting magnitude.

And it’s just that fact that makes this album so compelling. Folk music carries with it an understated, simple power, conveyed not in lyrical obscurism or musical innovation but in the kind of archetypal melodies that are ingrained so completely in the American consciousness. And Springsteen does more than just an adequate job; it’s difficult not to get swept along by the infectious energy of his performance. Even those who don’t traditionally consider themselves fans of folk music should at least give We Shall Overcome a try. You’ll be trying to suppress an irrepressible urge to line-dance and churn butter before the end of “Old Dan Tucker.” If you aren’t, then you ain’t got no soul.