CK Retro Review: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 15, 2014
A left-field project that’s gets a lot of mileage from the sheer enjoyment and passion of the players, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome featured Bruce Springsteen’s first ever studio foray into cover songs, in this case folk songs and spirituals that were performed by Pete Seeger. Springsteen gets to showcase his skills as an interpreter, but the success of the album rides largely on the big-band arrangements, many of which capture the nuance and power of these deceptively profound songs. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Jacob’s Ladder”- With the exception of a neat little intro that sounds like it was borrowed from The Band circa ’70, this one never quite takes off into the heavens like it’s meant to do.
12. “My Oklahoma Home”- Maybe this is just personal preference, but I consider Springsteen’s voice in full-throated, soulful mode to be much more aesthetically pleasing than when he lays on a thick accent. Maybe he nails an Oklahoma twang; I haven’t been to Norman lately. But the bottom line is it gets a tad comical by the end of this thing, which probably isn’t what he’s going for.
11. “Pay Me My Money Down”- The arrangement is maybe a tad too busy here, but you can certainly tell that Springsteen identified with the righteous anger of the wronged working man telling the story. In fact, it’s not too big a leap from a song like this to several Bruce himself would write on Wrecking Ball.
10. “Erie Canal”- I’m not sure the sober reading given quite matches the tone of the story of man and mule. But it’s hard deny the prettiness of the melody and the music surrounding it.
9. “John Henry”- Springsteen lays the accent on a bit thick here as well. Still, this tale of man’s unbeatable spirit works, especially with nice accordion and violin touches spicing up the instrumental breaks.
8. “Froggie Went A Courtin'”- Good choice to end things on a light-hearted note, just like Dylan did with this song on Good As I Been To You. Springsteen locates some tenderness in there somehow, which surprised me as someone who’s known this song since seeing it on an old Tom & Jerry cartoon as a tyke.
7. “Jesse James”- Bruce sings like this one like a grizzled old barfly telling the tale to some newcomer who might have other ideas about the legendary outlaw. The left-right rhythm gets a tad tiresome after a while, but the refrain carries the day.
6. “We Shall Overcome”- What a wonder of a song, how the melody’s sadder turns hints at just how hard a struggle must be endured before the refrain’s promise takes hold. Bruce doesn’t do anything new with it, but that’s probably the right tactic. You don’t want to mess with something like this.
5. “Old Dan Tucker”- The band has enough room to breathe here, each instrument filling out its space in vibrant fashion. Banjoist Mark Clifford brings the old-time religion, while Springsteen has a blast hollering out the square dance calls. Great fun from start to finish.
4. “Eyes On The Prize”- Wisely underplayed vocals by Springsteen allow the haunting melody to take its hold. It also throws the spotlight on the brooding, creeping quality of the music, which suggests just how hard it is to “Hold on” when circumstances and obstacles keep trying to shake you off into oblivion.
3. “Mrs. McGrath”- “All foreign wars do I proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.” Sounds like a couplet Bruce might have written himself, right? So you can see why he sinks his teeth into this Irish anti-war ballad, violins accompanying him for the melancholy ride that grows in heartbreaking potency as it progresses.
2. “Shenandoah”- Let’s face it: It’s darn near to impossible to screw this one up if you just stick to that achingly beautiful melody. Springsteen, behind a cinematic arrangement that conjures majesty and melancholy, does just that.
1. “O Mary Don’t You Weep”- On paper, you would think a Negro spiritual might be one to trip this assemblage up. Instead, an inspired arrangement, which recalls at times a bigger-band version of something you might have heard back on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and Springsteen and the backing vocalists’ impassioned chants make this one the ultimate keeper from the album. Listen to how the music fills up and then drops away at key portions. Springsteen, like on so many of his rock songs, uses this push and pull between intimate moments and cathartic crescendos to drain every last ounce of emotion from the song.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online bookselling sites.)