If Madonna is the mother of musical reinvention, then Bruce
Springsteen is the father - a man willing to charge into any realm
of folk or rock and do it with aplomb. His latest CD, We Shall
Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, marks yet another musical milestone
for Springsteen, a journey into folk traditions that encompasses the
genre's history from 16th century Scotland to Dust Bowl America, from
Negro spirituals to civil rights anthems. Springsteen unifies these
seemingly disparate sounds by incorporating more modern influences
- including early 20th century jazz, blues, bluegrass, and folk instrumentation
over rock rhythms reminiscent of Levon Helm's early work with
The Band - to produce an album that sounds like a musical journey
into the Mississippi delta.
The opening "Old Dan Tucker" is a rollicking, country
romp featuring bluegrass banjo and a New Orleans jazz horn section,
while the Western folklore of "Jesse James" has a more
traditional country-folk feel with accordion and fiddle reels that
bring the song back to the bayou. Even the 19th century Irish folk
ballad "Mrs. McGrath" gets the Cajun treatment, with a
haunting countrified Celtic fiddle reel at its heart. "O Mary
Don't You Weep" finds Springsteen and company embracing Southern
gospel elements, as well as blending ragtime fiddle and horns with
a swinging rhythm section. "John Henry," meanwhile, is
a folk-rock classic with vocals reminiscent of 1960s soul shouters,
while "Erie Canal" is a more traditional banjo-driven
take on the 1905 folk classic with jazz and bop elements added in
the refrains. Springsteen's take on the spiritual "Jacob's
Ladder" would not be out of place at Mardi Gras next year,
with its lively horns and R&B rhythm, but "My Oklahoma
Home" changes the pace a bit, veering into more traditional
country-folk fare with discernable upright bass and whining fiddles.
"Eyes on the Prize" is another marked contrast, another
segue into gospel with mournful fiddles and accordion at the fore
that showcases jazz horns in the bridge. The early 19th century pioneer
lament "Shenandoah" also features gospel backing vocals,
this time against a sweeping, anthemic musical backing that bears
a striking resemblance to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic,"
while the black stevedore protest song "Pay Me My Money Down"
is a fun little country-rock jaunt. Ironically, the title track -
which was originally recorded for a tribute to Pete Seeger in 1997
- seems the most out of place on this collection. To be certain, "We
Shall Overcome" is a thing of beauty - a soaring folk-rock-pop
hybrid rife with dissent. However, only the delta blues accordion
part and the song's origins tie it to the rest of We Shall Overcome.
Somehow, it is enough. The collection concludes with a jovial, fun
little version of "Froggy Went A Courtin'" - an appropriate
ending for an album that is overall an enjoyable, foot-tapping listen.
Rife with both lamentation and celebration, steeped in the spiritual
and the temporal, We Shall Overcome is a sublime collection
that encompasses musical traditions from the 16th century to the present.
Springsteen manages the rare feat of making traditional songs seem
at once contemporary and historical, familiar and fresh. If We
Shall Overcome does not make every top 10 list of 2006, it will
truly be a travesty.
-Tracy M. Rogers
1. Old Dan Tucker
2. Jesse James
3. Mrs. McGrath
4. O Mary Don't You Weep
5. John Henry
6. Erie Canal
7. Jacob's Ladder
8. My Oklahoma Home
9. Eyes on the Prize
11. Pay Me My Money Down
12. We Shall Overcome
13. Froggie Went A Courtin'
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