- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

Bruce Springsteen

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Columbia Records

It’s too bad American folk and spiritual music was hijacked by labor unions and Pete Seeger’s Communist Party and used as crude organizational slogans. Politicization is detrimental to any art form but especially so when the politicizers are dupes for an international peasant-killing machine.

I remember thinking that “We Shall Overcome,” the title track on Bruce Springsteen’s new collection of songs associated with Mr. Seeger, had become as morally exhausted as the civil rights movement itself when it was hauled into service yet again at a rally on the Capitol steps to defend the soon-to-be-impeached President Clinton.

Anyway, now that I’m through harrumphing — actually, I’m not quite finished. Mr. Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” all but invites the listener to politicize this timeless music yet again. At a recent public rehearsal for his upcoming tour (which kicks off Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), Mr. Springsteen dedicated “Mrs. McGrath,” a mother’s lament for an amputee son, to antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.

OK, now I’m finished. “The Seeger Sessions,” despite being the latest throb of a political bruise that Mr. Springsteen can’t seem to repair, is a joyful listen. It was recorded by Mr. Springsteen at his New Jersey estate with a 17-member gang of fiddlers, strummers and horn-blowers. It’s high-on-moonshine lively, sometimes haunting and overall quite inspiriting.

The cover, aflame in rustic orange, evokes the shot of Bob Dylan and the Band on their glorious 1975 collaboration “The Basement Tapes.” The contents — a loosely connected batch of folk traditionals, Negro spirituals, chanteys and minstrel ballads — coalesce into a Springsteenian howl of struggle met and overcome.

The arrangements and interpretations are Mr. Springsteen’s. Himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, he conducts his new band mates on the fly; at times, you hear him call for solos from the brass section or from E Street Band violinist Soozie Tyrell or banjoist Greg Liszt or accordionist Charles Giordano. (You can watch the freewheeling, decidedly boozy project in action on Thom Zimny’s 30-minute documentary, which can be found on the DVD flip side of the dual-formatted disc.)

Think of these tunes as having rolled down from Appalachia and landed in the French Quarter. Songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “John Henry” jostle and swing with the verve of a flatbed big band; “Jacob’s Ladder” is a dusty hallelujah from a storefront church; “Eyes on the Prize,” another quasi-sacred civil rights anthem, and “Shenandoah,” the latter one of the greatest American melodies ever laid down, are sadder, but no less piquant.

The Irish-Italian Mr. Springsteen has enough Guinness in his musical DNA to pull off the tavern wail of “Mrs. McGrath” as well as the sneaky ascending melody of “Erie Canal,” a bittersweet adaptation of Thomas S. Allen’s 1905 tribute to the prosperous days before his trusty mule had been replaced by steam-powered barges.

Some may find in “The Seeger Sessions” yet another earnest, moralizing pose from Mr. Springsteen, the New Jersey-millionaire-turned-heartland-poet who wears Americana mythology as if it’s his personal flannel. I choose to see it as another example of Mr. Springsteen’s ability (unique among big-time rock stars) to ration his popular public persona and challenge himself as well as his most ardent fans.

To the eternal consternation of Springsteen fans, there are long stretches between E Street Band releases. Yet, to his credit, Mr. Springsteen, a legendary stockpiler of songs, holds back unless he feels he has something important to say about himself or — as has been the case lately — his country. Thus, there’s hardly a superfluous album in his 30-year catalog; even the coolly regarded “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” releases of 1992 have aged fairly well. He and manager Jon Landau take the same scrupulous approach to Mr. Springsteen’s ongoing archival releases.

“The Seeger Sessions” follows last year’s mostly acoustic “Devils & Dust,” a sibling of 1995’s dark narrative album “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Taken together with the “Devils & Dust” solo tour, on which Mr. Springsteen showcased underplayed albums such as “Nebraska” and “Tunnel of Love,” one can see the “The Seeger Sessions” as a happy creative detour on the way to the next E Street extravaganza.

The album is a treat in itself. Even better is that I can enjoy it from an apolitical distance: Mr. Seeger wrote not a word or note of these wonderful songs.

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