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Bruce Springsteen
We Shall Overcome :The Seeger Sessions
Columbia Records

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

Track List:
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
10. Shenandoah
11. Pay Me My Money Down
12. We Shall Overcome
13. Froggie Went A Courtin'

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