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A Boss Nod to Seeger: 'We Shall Overcome'

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A Boss Nod to Seeger: 'We Shall Overcome'

A Boss Nod to Seeger: 'We Shall Overcome'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Bruce Springsteen has a new CD out, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, features covers of songs that Springsteen associates with folk music legend Pete Seeger. Music critic Christian Bordal has this review.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL reporting:

On his latest album, Bruce Springsteen is joined by a big band: guitar, banjo, fiddles, upright bass, accordion, organ, washboard, a horn section, and a loose, fun, freewheeling energy dominates from the very first strings of songs like Old Dan Tucker, Jesse James, Erie Canal, Froggie Went A-Courtin', and a number of other tunes that all you parents out there will recognize from your kid's CDs.

(Soundbite of song, "Old Dan Tucker")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Musician): (Singing) Now, old Dan Tucker was fine old man, washed his face in a frying pan. Combed his hair with a wagon wheel, and died with a toothache in his heel. Get out the way, old Dan Tucker, you're too late to get your supper...

BORDAL: As the press release tells the story, this gaggle of great traditional musicians all jammed into the Boss' farmhouse living room, and the tape rolled without any rehearsals or arrangements or overdubs or any of that. The live, unfiltered approach fits the old-time music well. And you can see some of these sessions captured in a 30-minute documentary on a DVD that comes with the dual-disc version of the album.

(Soundbite of song, "Erie Canal")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) End of the round, good job old gal, 15 miles on the Eerie Canal. 'Cause you bet your life I'll never part with Sal, 15 miles on the Eerie Canal. Get up mule, here comes a lock. We'll make Rome by six o'clock. One more trip and back we'll go, right back home to Buffalo.

BORDAL: With his lyrics about young love on the backstreets, the bleak prospects of the underclass, the harsh truths facing young soldiers returning from Vietnam, much of Springsteen's rock-and-roll has been animated by many of the same impulses that drive traditional folk music, like social protest songs, union organizing songs, and freedom spirituals.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Well, if I could I surely would stand on the rock where Moses stood. Pharaoh's army got drowned, babe. Oh, Mary don't you weep. Oh, Mary, don't you weep no more. Oh, Mary, don't you weep no more. Pharaoh's army got drowned. Oh, Mary don't you weep.

BORDAL: In the documentary on the DVD, Bruce says old songs are lost sometimes because they aren't re-contextualized. And that, of course, is exactly what Pete Seeger, who the CD is named after, has done so well throughout his long career. He never had a voice or a band like Springsteen's, but somehow, he conveyed all the fresh, political, and emotional overtones that lay hidden in every old song he played. There was always a reason for Seeger's song choices.

And that's the one quibble that I have with the Boss' reworking of these old chestnuts. His own advice notwithstanding, he doesn't seem to have any real sense of placing the songs in context, or trying to make them feel relevant to a present-day audience. He's mostly content just to have a good time playing them. And for this time around, anyway, maybe that's good enough.

(Soundbite of song, "John Henry")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: John Henry told his captain, Lord, man ain't nothing but a man...

BRAND: Bruce Springsteen's latest CD is called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Christian Bordal is a producer at member station KCRW in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song, "John Henry")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) ...die with a hammer in my hand. (unintelligible)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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