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.
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.
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.
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.