If there is one thing Bruce Springsteen has done during his career — besides producing brilliant albums — it has been providing a number of unexpected twists and turns of his musical vision. He has created memorable anthems, top-forty hits, and stark albums of painful songs and flawed characters. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions found him interpreting traditional folk songs based on the enduring legacy of Pete Seeger.
Seeger, now 89, began his career in the late '30s — at one point performing for President Franklin Roosevelt — eventually garnering fame as a member of the Weavers, who helped popularize traditional folk music in the early '50s. They indeed formed an important link in the folk music chain by modernizing the genre's songs and, in so doing, bringing them mass appeal. Seeger became a voice of social protest in the '60s and '70s with such works as “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome” serving as messages to millions. Even today, he continues to perform and support chosen causes.
And so on We Shall Overcome, Springsteen set out to record songs that Seeger had popularized over the years, which, considering they number in the hundreds, posed a wide variety from which too choose. Ultimately, Springsteen wisely decided to cover very traditional songs — some of which I remember singing in grammar school — remaining true to the original intent of the compositions while still giving them a modern feel.
“Old Dan Tucker” is a square dance tune that predates the Civil War. “Jesse James” builds from a simple acoustic start to something that would have fit the old Hootenanny concept. “John Henry” has been recorded by hundreds of artists in the folk, country and bluegrass traditions. It may be a depressing song at heart, but Springsteen brings a rock temperament to it with a band in support.
“Erie Canal” and “Jacob’s Ladder” are both songs I remember singing as a child in the '50s, “Erie Canal” telling about labor and a trusty mule while “Jacob’s Ladder” is a spiritual straight from the cotton fields of the South. “My Oklahoma Home” is from the dust bowl days and, while the song is one of loss and desperation, Springsteen evokes the music in a different tone.
“Eyes On The Prize” (which is perfect for a funeral procession) and “Pay Me My Money Down” both have a New Orleans spirit to them.
The album concludes with a simple childhood tune, “Froggie Went A Courtin’,” followed by the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
Bruce Springsteen has taken another road less traveled and produced an album of surprising quality, proving that with the right amount of passion and talent, good songs can always live up to their potential. Perhaps the best analysis of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is that it offers superior music interpreted by one great artist.