We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions Label: Columbia Records
“Any darn fool can make something complex. It takes a genius to make something simple.” -Pete Seeger
At nearly 90, the living legacy of Pete Seeger is terribly complex and yet mind-bogglingly simple at the same time. And he would have it no other way. The New York City-born folk singer/political activist was a pioneer of protest music in the 1950s and ‘60s by tackling universal topics like Communism, civil rights and, of course, war. He’s collaborated with everyone from Johnny and June Carter Cash to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and authored some of the most recognizable traditional folk songs in American history, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Leave it to Bruce Springsteen, then, to devise a covers project that flies right in the face of anything a record label or listening public would expect. Instead of reworking a predictable batch of Beatles or Bob Dylan songs, Springsteen digs his heels in and becomes a student of 13 traditional tracks associated with the legend of Pete Seeger on We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions). Though the songs are good and the musicianship is exceptional, what really makes this thing work is Springsteen’s underlying devotion as a raving Seeger fan. It comes through in each and every composition.
Enlisting the services of a slew of neighborhood (New York/New Jersey) musicians, Springsteen and company deliver these songs, with a bevy of brass, accordion, fiddle, banjo and upright bass, in a manner that recalls a bunch of folks sitting around a farmhouse front porch and just playing on a Sunday afternoon. From the banjo pickin’ that ushers in “Old Dan Tucker” to the weeping fiddles within “Erie Canal” and the scores of gospel-like group harmonies, this record is a multi-instrumental exercise in old school musicianship. But Springsteen doesn’t leave his classic rock n’ roll soul at the door. “Pay Me My Money Down” is a wide-open, rollicking good time that could hang in concert with “Badlands” or “Born to Run” any day.
It’s really become a thing of beauty watching Bruce Springsteen age. Just when you think he’s made his last great record, he produces the landmark body of work that is The Rising. Then before the moss has started to grow on it, he re-ups with the solo masterpiece Devils & Dust. I was led to believe he was on hiatus this past year, not touring and basically laying low as a family man. But now we learn that whether he’s penning his own verses or reestablishing those of someone as great as Pete Seeger, the incomparable Springsteen goes about everything full-throttle. I truly believe he knows no other way.