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The Roundtable Weighs In On The Seeger Sessions

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Last year’s release of the 30th anniversary edition of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run found me involved in a heavy Boss-related email correspondence with fellow Blogcritics and Springsteen fans Mark Saleski and DJRadiohead. Burning up the wires with emails one afternoon, it occurred to us that we had enough to say to warrant writing an article, and so we did. And because we had more to say when we were done, we wrote another one.

On April 25, accompanied by plenty of protests from the hardcore faithful, Springsteen released his latest album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Since the emails were already flying back and forth, our overflowing inboxes suggested that fate had clearly handed us another assignment, and so the roundtable has reconvened to offer you a triple take on The Seeger Sessions.


Lisa McKay:

The grumbling from the fans (and there’s always grumbling, isn’t there?) around this one has been interesting, to be sure. Most of the naysayers are disappointed that this year’s release isn’t an E Street outing, citing the advancing age of the band members as one reason why another such record shouldn’t be put off indefinitely (not to mention the fact that last year’s other release, Devils & Dust, was a solo effort). Another nitpick centers on the notion that Bruce is a songwriter first and foremost, and shouldn’t be releasing entire albums of other people’s songs, as if there is no artistry in interpretation, in making the text one’s own – tell that to Sinatra.

A quick perusal of the fan boards at Backstreets suggests that even post-release, a lot of people aren’t happy with this record, calling it a vanity project (among other things), and claiming that only the most fervent of the faithful will anoint this one with their approval. Many of them have decided to sit out the tour. Having listened to it quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, I have to say that I fail to understand the animosity. I don’t consider myself one of those fans who automatically approves everything a favorite artist does – I was pretty disappointed in The Rising, truth be told – but I am a fan who likes to see an artist defy expectations and convention. Artists owe us their best effort and their most honest work. They don’t owe us anything else.

This is a fine record, full of life – dare I say rollicking? – and full of the kinds of sentiments that Springsteen often expresses in his own songs. That’s not too surprising, considering that Seeger, via his influence on a new generation of folkie storytellers like Dylan, had a huge, if indirect, influence on Springsteen’s own development as a songwriter. This is essentially the work of a man who’s coming full circle back to the musical roots that have informed his life. If you think of Springsteen as a uniquely American artist (and I do), then who better to reinterpret this collection of uniquely American tunes?

Having said all that, I have to admit that the record I’m hearing isn’t the record I imagined when I first heard that he was doing a Seeger tribute. In my imagination, this record was a bare-bones affair – Springsteen and an acoustic guitar, perhaps a harmonica – Nebraska, but with older songs, I suppose. What we got, of course, was a 12-piece band full of traditional instruments and heavenly backup vocals. Recorded in three one-day sessions, this is raw, energetic music being sung and played from the heart. If Springsteen the recording artist is known for his perfectionism, Springsteen the performer is known for his looseness and sense of spontaneity, and here he wisely lets the performer in him take over. On the way, he manages to sample widely from his own influences, channeling both Dylan and Tom Waits through his vocals, and from the vast catalogue of Americana – you can hear spirituals born in the cotton fields, you can hear zydeco, you can hear Dixieland jazz. It’s all here, and the synthesis is nothing short of breathtaking. Two of my favorite tunes on this album, “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Pay Me My Money Down” are arena songs in the best tradition of “Rosalita” or “Hungry Heart” in spite of the contextual differences. I defy anyone to stay seated upon hearing these performed live.

I think of folk music as the music that people create to tell the stories of their lives, and to lift themselves up, whether it be to lighten their load while they’re working, or to remind themselves that better days lie ahead. Thematically, that ties in pretty well with what Springsteen has been doing all along. Is this a vanity project? I don’t think so. Bruce and the band are having far too good a time, and I think most listeners would, too, if they would let go of their preconceived notions and let the music do its job.

Let the hardcore skip the tour if that’s what they want. I think they’re going to miss a hell of a good party.

DJRadiohead:

There are different camps in the Springsteen fan base. The first is made up of the folks who are on a crusade to lead Bruce back to The Light. These are The Kvetchers who will tell you Bruce’s last good album was Darkness or that he sold out in 1985. These are the folks who will bitch and moan no matter what the man releases and will always find something to nitpick. They will tell you they like Vini better than Max or that Bruce should never have hired Stevie or Nils, etc. There is no pleasing these people, so fuck them.

Then there is that other camp: The Bruce-can-do-no-wrong people (The Tories). He invites the kind of loyalty where many of his fans will hear nothing short of glowing praise and they will defend every last record, tour, and song to the point of bloodying your face. Should you dare to criticize him in their presence they will either dismiss you as not being a fan, not being a real fan, or having cement in your ears. They drank The Kool-Aid and they are wearing The Jersey. Good luck finding any objectivity in this camp.

So where am I? I am either somewhere in the middle or sitting in my own camp all alone. I am a Bruce Springsteen fan. I love Springsteen. I love the bearded Bruce (think Asbury and Wild, Innocent…. Everybody loves Born to Run. Nebraska is a masterpiece. I like Tom Joad (love some of it). Same can be said of Devils & Dust and The Rising. E-Street Band? Great. Solo acoustic? Fabulous. I love Bruce’s work from all periods. I can also take The Jersey off long enough to admit “Factory” is embarrassing while still thinking Darkness on the Edge of Town is a brilliant record.

So what are these different camps having to say about The Seeger Sessions? The response has been predictable. The Kvetchers hate it with every fiber of their being and have pledged to skip the tour. This reaction confuses the Tories. They cannot understand A) why Bruce fans would want to miss a Springsteen show or B) how they could begrudge the man making whatever kind of record he wants to make. After all, it’s Bruce Springsteen. He has that right.

Camp DJRadiohead empathizes with The Kvetchers because Bruce stopped working on Tracks 2 to finish The Seeger Sessions but still thinks they should fuck off. The response of The Tories does go up Camp DJ’s ass sideways a little bit. Artistic freedom is wonderful and Bruce is entitled to it but that’s not what is at play here. He wants artistic freedom but he wants me to pick up the tab. My response to that? There are limits. I will go spend the night with The Kvetchers if he decides to make a Bolivian Polka concept album.

That’s not what we have here, of course. What we have here instead is a collection of Seeger-based covers — songs Seeger either wrote or himself covered. That is the root of my dissatisfaction with The Seeger Sessions. Springsteen, to me, is first and foremost a songwriter. That is what he does best to the point that many of his other musical gifts have gone underappreciated. There are a lot of artists who have great voices and nothing to say — those are the ones who need to undertake a project like this. No matter how well Springsteen interprets these songs, they aren’t his songs and that is what I wanted to hear: Bruce Springsteen singing Bruce Springsteen songs.

So let’s go to the scorecard and see how he did. The overall sound is very Americana, ragtime, Dixieland sort of stuff and there are moments when it really works well — mostly on the up-tempo cuts. “Old Dan Tucker” and “O Mary Don’t You Weep” are both a lot of fun and Springsteen sounds all kinds of natural singing them even if the music underneath him sounds like nothing from his past. “Jacob’s Ladder” and “John Henry” are also a blast. You can hear how much fun everyone in the room is having while making this record. There is something refreshing about the idea of a group of people standing in a room, making music for the hell of it.

All of that is enough to keep me from hating the album. It just isn’t enough to make me love it. There are a few clunkers here. I was embarrassed for him when I heard him bust out with the “fi-li-diddle-di-ays” and whatever else that was on “Mrs. McGrath.” As much as I do love hearing Bruce do quiet, slower songs (“Across the Border” should be in every hymnal in every church in America and around the world). I just don’t like the quiet, slower Seeger tracks (“Shenandoah,” “We Shall Overcome”).

Seeger is often fun and pleasant and I don’t feel like I wasted my ten dollars. It is also a diversion from Springsteen’s past and present — a diversion, I might add, I didn’t feel I needed and one I didn’t really want. It’s good for what it is but it’s not Springsteen at his best.

I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Camp DJRadiohead.

Mark Saleski:

Yeah, I know all about Bruce Springsteen not singing Bruce Springsteen songs. All of that wasted time at concerts. “Midnight Hour.” “Raise Your Hand.” “Jenny Take A Ride.” “Devil With The Blue Dress.” “Dirty Water.” “Trapped.”

I wanted my money back after enduring that crap!

Okay. Seriously, now. We’re talking about a newly released album…and there are always expectations with these things. The problem in this era of Internet saturation is that fans now have quite a long time to think, ruminate, piss, and moan about what’s coming up. Think about how things have changed since Nebraska was released. When that record came out, I was taken completely by surprise. Took a walk to the UMaine bookstore for something or other (a guessing person would say “records”) and, whoa, a new Springsteen record! Cool!! Very different from now, where we’ve known much about The Seeger Sessions for months.

Does any of this change how people should feel about a record. That’s hard to say. It’s not my thing to delve into an artist’s motivations. Think about some of the chatter surrounding things like the songs on Tunnel Of Love. Bruce had “gone Hollywood” on us. He’d abandoned his fan base. Then with Tom Joad he was faking it, because by this time he was obviously super-rich and could never really be connected to the average guy on the street.

It’s all hot air.

Unless you’re Patty Scialfa or Jon Landau, you cannot really know what motivates the man. All you can do is read the liner notes, check out the documentary material and let the music flow over you.

Does that mean you have to like the music? Not at all. But aversions to Bruce singing Seeger (or anything not Springsteen) are all internal. Springsteen isn’t trying to screw up your life, he’s doing what he HAS to do.

Now, the album itself. I was looking forward to this release for no other reason than I realized that there was a big hole in my collection surrounding Pete Seeger and others from that era. I’ve got no Seeger. I’ve got no Woody Guthrie. I’ve got no Weavers. I know of them…but that’s not good enough. Singing “Erie Canal” in grade school doesn’t really cut it.

As I related in a recent Friday Morning Listen, I was immediately drawn into this recording. The sound of a houseful of musicians having too much fun pushes all the right buttons. I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in sessions like that and it’s an experience that’s tough to describe. The Seeger Sessions takes the songs and wraps them in all manner of musical Americana: folks, blues, country, Cajun, jazz, gospel. It’s a history lesson, it’s a barn dance. It puts a permanent smile on my face. If you listen closely, there are some pretty neat tricks in there too: the horn section solo on “Eyes On The Prize” mirrors the old Klezmer tune “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg starts a few trombone lines exactly like he used to do with Southside Johnny. Oh, and don’t let me get started about the rest of the Southside horn section, Ed Manion on sax and Mark Pender on trumpet.

I can’t really say that there are any low points for me on this disc. I’ve read about (just scan up the page for an example) the supposed clunkers, the “embarrassing” moments like on “Mrs. McGrath”. Honestly, I’ve never heard Seeger’s take on this very sad tune, but I bet I wouldn’t be embarrassed for him either. At the other end of the opinion spectrum, there’s “O Mary Don’t You Weep”, which is turning out to be one of the best things Bruce has committed to tape. Ever.

This just does not feel like an “interim” recording to me. Bruce has in fact stated that he’s got a pile of songs lying in wait for the E Street Band, but that the time did not feel right. I’ll take him at his word. I am not disappointed.


So there you have it — three takes on Bruce’s latest from Blogcritics’ unofficial and self-appointed cabal of Springsteen experts. Is this album a disappointment, a vanity project, a filler, something to do while waiting for the next E Street pressing to come along? Or is it a natural outgrowth of Bruce’s musical progression, a masterpiece, a satisfying slice of Americana, the ultimate party record? I think the three of us would agree that the only thing left for you to do is give it a listen and make up your own mind.

About Lisa McKay

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m assuming you guys have already read my own review of The Seeger Sessions so you should already have a pretty good idea of what I think.

    As a hardcore fan, I feared the worst going in. And I definitely incurred the wrath of the “Bruce can do no wrong” camp when I voiced that opinion on the Backstreets board–they practically ran me out of town there with over 300 angry responses to one post of mine.

    My concerns we’re many of the same you three have expressed here. The “age issue” of the clock ticking rapidly away on the window for another E Street Band record. The idea of Bruce doing an album of songs written by anybody but Bruce. I think I even used the “vanity project” tag that Lisa mentions.

    That having been said, I was really pleasntly surprised by the Seeger Sessions. Like DJ Radiohead says, it’s not the record I asked for. Hell, neither was “Human Touch” or “Lucky Town”.

    But it’s much better than I would have hoped for. I expected an ultra serious, joyless folk record with Bruce doing his “Woody Guthrie” schtick as Al Barger calls it. Instead I got “O Mary Dont You Weep”, which I agree with Saleski may be one of Springsteen’s finest moments ever captured on tape.

    Seeger Sessions isn’t perfect by a long shot. Like DJ Radiohead, I could do without the “fi-da-diddleays”…to me they sound forced, unnatural, and embarrasing. But the bulk of what is here, swings with a grrove that rocks in it’s own way as much as a lot of what Springsteen does with the E Street Band does.

    I’m not really one of DJ Radiohead’s “kvetchers” or “tories”. I love Springsteen’s music, but I would not rush to praise an album of him making farting noises like it seems so many of his fans would. I am also willing to grant the man his right to follow his artistic muse. It has often been a joy as a fan to follow his artistic choices, as was the case with last year’s Devils & Dust album and tour. Other times it hasn’t been so easy, as was the case with the “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” period I mentioned above.

    Seeger Sessions surprised me. I expected the worst. What I got was a surprisingly decent record for what it is. Not his best by a long shot. But again, not bad for what it is.

    But next year, we’d better get an E Street Band record Mr. Boss Man. Got that?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    One more thing…

    Vini better than Max?

    No Freaking way.

    Okay I’m done now.

    -Glen

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Myself, I don’t care what he does next as long as it’s him. Tracks Vol 2 would be nice just because I have heard there is a ton of great stuff in the vaults (Tracks and Hammersmith bear this out nicely. If he gets the E-Street band back together, that would be great. If he wants to do another “solo” album with a stripped-down sound, I will be all over that.

    Which I guess brings me a bit to some of what I believe Sir Saleski was directing ever so slightly in my direction. I think covers can be interesting and fun and yes, Springsteen has done a few in concert and they were great. Doing a cover here and there is understandably fun. Doing an entire album of them… I’m just not as big of a fan of that particularly when the artist is such a great songwriter on his own.

    And I stick with my opinion that the slower songs (particularly “Mrs. McGrath) are not the best moments on Seeger. I liked the CD on the whole more than I expected I would.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Tracks 2 should be awesome. I have a lot of his unreleased stuff on various bootlegs I’ve collected over the years, and there is still a TON of great unreleased stuff. The full band version of “The Promise” from the Darkness sessions; songs like “The Way”; the solo accoustic (on guitar, not piano) Thunder Road…that’s just a few of the ones I’d love to see on a Tracks 2.

    There’s also lots of great live stuff out there. Anything from the 78 tour would be welcome, if only for the version of “Prove It All Night” with the extra long guitar intro they we’re doing back then.

    Yeah I can hardly wait for Tracks 2.

    But I’d also really like to see a new E Street Band record and tour. Once he gets that last band tour done with, Bruce can make all the folk records he wants as far as I am concerned.

    As long as he writes the songs he can anyway. With ya 100% on that DJ Radiohead.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    One more for Travks 2: Summer On Signal Hill.

    Incredible instrumental, credited to Clarence Clemons and The Red Bank Rockers and originally issued as a B side to a Clemons single in the 80s. Once you hear it there is absolutely NO DOUBT it is actually Bruce and the E Street Band. It’s just a gotgeous instrumental.

    Yeah. Definitely gotta see Summer On Signal Hill on Tracks 2.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    this reminds me that i’ve just GOT to get those live Clarence recordings. i have the Redbank Rockers lps are they are just a big loada fun.

    ok, that’s it. i’m on vacation now. honest.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    I think “Mrs. McGrath” is one of the best songs on the record, and probably one of the best antiwar songs I’ve ever heard. It gives me the chills. It doesn’t really take much of a political stand, but it describes the senselessness of war from the standpoint of a mother who is trying to come to terms with its aftermath, which I imagine is a pretty universal experience, regardless of which war you’re singing about.

    In any case, I’m hoping (along with lots of other fans, I’m sure) that Glen and the DJ get their wish fulfilled in the very near future, because frankly I’m not going to turn my nose up at another E Street record (and tour) either.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    If Springsteen wanted to make an anti-war statement on the record there are songs he could have chosen that might have felt a bit more natural coming from him (to say nothing of his own “Devils & Dust”). I think “Mrs. McGrath” and Bruce are a bad match.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    yea, well you also don’t like Patti’s voice when she does her intro to Rumble Doll live…so what the hell do you know!

    ok, i admit it. commenting from an internet cafe (we forgot to pay bills, oops!) is kinda pathetic.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Sir Saleski, I don’t see how that is an indictment of my ears. And if it is, I am not the only convict on that particular block.

    Now go back to your vacation.

    The only way to solve the problem is send Bruce on tour with just a guitar and harmonica.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    …or better yet, with a certain bamd hailing from E Street.

  • http://http://blog.myspace.com/joelbeers joboo

    Jesus what a bunch of empty grousing and grumbling. Why quibble over where this ranks among Springsteen’s canon or if the E Street band is going to live long enough to record another bombastic disc.The simple fact is this is springsteen’s most heavily politicized, brilliantly artistic record because it is a folk album and, by very essence of that medium, it is a protest album that hearkens back to the music that reverberates at the core of a country that is in danger of losing its very soul. At a time when everyone is busting their vocal chords screaming their various outrages at each other–Neil young, anyone?–Springsteen’s embracing of Americana through the use of these songs is a wonderfully stirring piece of dissent. Just as Ken Kesey literally turned his back on the Vietnam war, as immortalized in wolfe’s Kool-Aid Test, Springsteen’s apparent refusal to join in the blame-game debate is a masterful choice.
    Anyone fortunate enough to see this band perform live–as I was in New Orleans–knows what is really happening. springsteen is leading a people’s crusade of sorts, using the music of Seeger and those before him as a direct commentary for the injustices all around us.
    The album is good, but the live performance was the best that I’ve ever seen with Springsteen. No more tired in-jokes of “the big man,” and little steven and he performing mutual oral on the mike during “two hearts.” this is a hootenanny, a circus, a minstrel show and a barnstorming tour. But always reverent and urgently relevant. Springstee’s eyes are on a much bigger prize than those who savage this latest vanity project.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    That it’s a politicized disc means nothing in terms of the quality of its music. I don’t think it’s empty grousing or grumbling to analyze the music on the disc.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the show in New Orleans.

  • http://http://blog.myspace.com/joelbeers joboo!

    this is true but it seems the people are diehard springsteen fanatics who should understand better than anyone that isn’t a typical springsteen album. It’s not overly produced like most of his studio albums wih bands–whether e street or that “other” band. It’s not quiet and muted like the acoustic stuff. It’s more a live album than a studio album, recorded on three days over some ungodly long period of time. yes, the music can be analyzed and all that, but to subject it to the same critical lens as lucky town, tunnel of love or asbury park seems off the mark. An an artist, springsteen didn’t approach the record this way; he thought outside his own impressive box. Just a shame that the people who seem to champion him so much don’t share his same sense of adventure and passion to the moment.

  • Yvonne T, Reyes

    When I played and listened to the CD, I experienced never ending goosebumps. I was weepy (it got worse in We Shall Overcome). Bruce Springsteen’s interpretation of the songs moved me. My 12 year old son hasn’t stopped singing Mrs. McGrath (my 6 yeard can only manage the refrain) and O Mary Don’t you weep no more. In one listening – my 12 year old son understood and grasped what Mrs. McGrath was all about. I admire his work in general but I respect him more for doing this in particular music. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU Bruce Springsteen.