“Now Teddy me boy,” the old widow cried
“Your two fine legs was your mama’s pride
Them stumps of a tree won’t do at all
Why didn’t you run from the big cannon ball?”
“Now against all war, I do profrain
Between Don Juan and the King of Spain
And, by herrons, I’ll make ’em rue the time
When they swept the legs from a child of mine.”
It’s worth pointing out that, from this point on, we’re really into the quality stuff. 8/10 and upwards so there’s no real “this album is a bit cack because” elements, more of a general exploration / personal ranking attempt.
With eighteen studio albums (he counts High Hopes), half a dozen compilation albums, a few box-sets and a couple of live records, it’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions that’s the real outlier in Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue. Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust may not have been sonically in line with, say, The River, but their subjects and song writing style certainly sit within the overall Springsteen narrative style. We Shall Overcome.. is an album made up entirely of covers* and contains his interpretations of thirteen tracks made popular by Pete Seeger.
This one goes back, initially, to that fallow period in Bruce Springsteen’s recorded output, between Ghost of Tom Joad and the resurgence of the E Street Band at the end of the decade. In 1997 Bruce got together with a group of musicians introduced to him by Soozie Tyrell and recorded ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger tribute album.
A few years later, his career revitalised and during a brief break between ‘rock’ albums, Bruce decided to revisit the idea and the band got together in his home, counted off and let her rip.
In a recent interview Bruce was asked about the possibility of a second Seeger Sessions album and he said that, while there’s nothing on the horizon yet, he doesn’t see why not, he’s “collected a small group of material” and that what he enjoyed about this one was he that didn’t have to write and “that it was such an enjoyable band I can’t imagine not doing it again”.**
So here we have thirteen songs that Bruce chose to cover and had an absolute blast playing with musicians introduced to him just days before and just letting rip. If you hang your Springsteen luggage at the door it’s a hugely enjoyable album from which the most apparent feature is just what a joyful experience recording it must have been.
The tracks are pretty diverse and date back many hundreds of years and Bruce brings his own arrangements to each.
Let’s face it; for all his detours into hushed acoustics, Bruce is primarily a rock singer and carries with his voice and phrasing a certain clout. Even with his first two albums of acoustic-based music (we’ll get to those a bit later in this series) you only need go back a few years in his musical journey and he was on stage with Steel Mill belting out southern-tinged harder-rocking numbers and honing the his abilities to rock any joint that would let him plug in. When it’s just him with a guitar you can expect a hush but if you put a band behind him it is (to pull a Steve Van Zandt line in where he has no place) “Boss time” – what he brings to these arrangements of folk standards is an extra thump, a beefing up ready for those stadium-ears almost. I find ‘Mrs McGrath’ particularly benefits from this. It not only makes these songs sound more contemporary but is likely the best way to make them accessible for his own fanbase who – were they recorded in a style much closer to their standards – may not give them as much time.
Personally – I love a lot of this record and it did mean I not only went out looking for more similar music but spent a lot of time with this in the car. Mission accomplished then, I guess.
I recall at the time of release that We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was met with a lot of acclaim. It picked up a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album and the tour that followed won similar applause (and was captured on the Live In Dublin album which featured a few of Bruce’s originals re-worked) though, reportedly, a little under-attended. There was some negativity – the very ‘Springsteeninsation’ of these songs robbed them of some of their more traditional elements but then, if you want a traditional folk rendering would you really buy a Springsteen version? For my money, a lot of those traditional ones can come across a whole lot more bland and a whole lot less fun.
When it comes to why this one doesn’t go higher up in terms of rotation it’s probably down to the fact that, for all the fun and appeal of it, it’s not necessarily one to listen to all the way through each time – after a while the lack of diversity becomes a little much and I find myself wanting to listen to something else. An element which will also depend on which version of this album you got your hands on. I got this one on day of release so mine concludes with ‘Froggie Went A-Courtin”. Frustratingly, six months later the album was reissued as We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – American Land Edition. This version slapped an extra five tracks on including Springsteen’s own ‘American Land’ (later re-recorded for Wrecking Ball) and ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ featuring some additional lyrics from Bruce. A little vexing as both are strong tunes but I wasn’t about to go out and buy the same album twice in one year and it felt a little cash-grab.
However, overall, nothing but like for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
I have one small curiosity of a hang-up with it though and it’s a trifle of a thing but it’s the cover. Bruce has been backed by the E Street band on ten albums. Yet the cover is always Bruce alone. So you’d guess the rule is that the musicians that play on the songs don’t get to the cover. Except, it would seem, the group of musicians of the Sessions Band (who he’d only played with a couple of times) – they get the cover. Garry Tallent has played bass on 14 Springsteen records since 1972 – he’s not on any cover. A chap called Jeremy Chatzky plays upright bass on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. He’s on the cover. Played bass on one album, on the cover. Garry Tallent bass on 14 albums, no cover. Even on the live albums credited to the E Street only Bruce was on the cover. I think only one album, a ‘quick we’ve got some big festival shows coming’ Greatest Hits comp saw the whole band on the front cover and even that was only for the European disc. My tongue is, of course, firmly in my cheek with most of this but I do wonder if this caused a slight eye twitch on the E Streeters….
Highlights: Mrs McGrath, John Henry, Pay Me My Money Down, Eerie Canal, Eyes On The Prize
Not so highlights: most of these will be empty from here on in.
*Again; unless you have the reissued version in which case you get one original Springsteen song and some original lyrics.
**He also revealed that he wrote and submitted a song for the Harry Potter films which went unused.