Sometimes the less you know about a subject matter, the better. Getting all tied up in back stories and history only complicates matters. Ignorance is bliss, or something like that. There are instances, such as this, that taking things at face value is the only way to go. Let the work speak for itself, and let everything else be damned.
Pete Seeger — I don’t know anything about him and it is likely going to stay that way. Bruce Springsteen’s interpretation of Seeger’s work on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is not only Bruce’s finest hour in years, but also possibly 2006’s finest record thus far.
When this project came to light, or when I caught wind of it, it sounded like a complete bore. The world didn’t need another Devils and Dust, which is a fine record, but a little underwhelming. This is a Bruce record that has been a long time coming. We Shall Overcome is classic Springsteen, which is to say it’s very reminiscent of Born to Run and Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.
When Bruce counts out over a muted guitar strum and the banjo kicks in on the opening track, “Old Dan Tucker,” its immediately clear that We Shall Overcome is going to be special. A drunken collective spits out the chorus, “get out the way old Dan Tucker/you’re too late to get your supper/get out the way old Dan Tucker/you’re too late to get your supper.” It is truly a glorious racket. The Tom Waits-infused and eerily beautiful “Erie Canal” and “Eyes on the Prize” would not sound out of place during a turn of the 20th century New Orleans death march. Both feature horn sections and a backdrop of singers sounding solemn enough to make even the most melancholy of persons mourn.
“Pay Me My Money Down” is a foot stompin’ barnburner and a much-needed shot in the arm after the slow burn and emotional movement of “Shenandoah.” “We Shall Overcome” could be, and probably is, straight out of the protest songbook of the 1960s. Not to say it’s stuck in a time warp, because the sentiments most certainly carry over into today.
This may come across as a strange comparison, but We Shall Overcome reminds me of a folk version of Pubic Enemy’s legendary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Resonating throughout We Shall Overcome are fiddles, horns of all shapes and sounds, banjos, organs, guitars, accordions, and more, that all seem to come out of nowhere. With so much going on at once, it makes for a Bomb Squad-type wall of sound. Even the more subdued tracks, like “Shenandoah,” have much going on then what one might hear on first listen. Oddly enough, We Shall Overcome makes for a great headphone record.
We Shall Overcome is the sound of an artist reborn and revitalized. A record with so much passion and fervor it puts musicians 30 years his junior to shame. We Shall Overcome proves that sometimes it’s all right to patronize the past, if only to move forward.