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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEN (Singer/Songwriter): Let's hear a little Oh Mary, just check our openings.

BLOCK: Bruce Springsteen is back where it all started, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He's rehearsing a new band and a new sound.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Trombone solo. One, two three.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: The Negro spiritual, Oh Mary Don't You Weep goes back centuries and was an anthem of the civil rights movement. Bruce Springsteen adds big horns, bluesy piano and sets it in a minor key.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Oh Mary don't you, and everybody will sing when he's doing it. Oh Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn. The Pharaoh's army got drownded. O, Mary, don't you weep.

BLOCK: For his new album, Bruce Springsteen reinterprets traditional folk songs. All songs that were sung over many years by the folk legend Pete Seeger. Springsteen has an 18-piece band. Fiddles, banjo, pedal steel, accordion, tuba.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Yes, yes, well we had a great time the other night. Looking forward to some more.

BLOCK: They've been doing rehearsal concerts at a crumbling 1930's palace in Asbury Park, the Convention Hall right on the Boardwalk. Then the band goes out on tour. At Monday's show, even though the CD wasn't released yet, many were singing along shouting out requests. Springsteen laughed on stage. Requests are pouring in for the 100 year old tunes already.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) O, Mary, don't you weep.

BLOCK: Before the concert I sat down to talk with Bruce Springsteen about the songs, about Pete Seeger and these shows.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: You can feel the freshness in the sound of surprise in the applause. In other words, you know, over a long period of years the element of ritual creeps into different parts of your show and, you know, people are applauding for their favorite song or for something, or something they liked 20 years ago, or something they like that's brand new. But to have everything just come straight, fresh out of the box, and every song is a step into some slightly uncharted territory.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you some about Pete Seeger. You said that you came to these songs pretty late, over the last 10 years or so. These were not part of your collective growing up?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Well I heard Pete over the years from when I was young, but I was basically, you know, I was reared on top 40 radio. And, of course I was aware of Pete for a long time, and heard his music hear and there. But I wasn't, I didn't really understand, I don't think, what he'd done until I really got into it. But I once, anyway,I got all the records and I really immersed myself in what he'd done.

You know, how, the songs he collected and gathered and transformed and rewrote and it was a big experience. And, and so I kept going back to it going, man I like listening to this. I think maybe some other folks, maybe my fans would like listening to it too.

(Soundbite of Music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Well I wish I was Mr. Gates. Hand me my money down. All my money in a crate. Hand me my money down. Hand me, hand me, hand me my money down. Send me your golden chair, hand me my money down.

BLOCK: When Pete Seeger did these songs he was steeped in this music, and it was bound up with all of the causes that he was so deeply involved with. So if he was singing We Shall Overcome he'd be at a civil rights rally, or I bet if he was at a union rally he be singing Pay Me My Money Down. I wondered if you wrestled with authenticity here, and did this feel like putting on somebody else's clothing in a way?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Well you're always doing that. Your job is putting on somebody else's clothes. You know, that's sort of, the act of making music and making art is, a very large part of it is an act of imagination. And not only imagination, but how well you, it's also a tremendous act of empathy, of course. And part of doing you job well is being able to slip into somebody else's shoes and finding out what you have in common with them, and therefore bringing your audience closer to those characters and to those people.

(Soundite of Music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Paul and Silas bound in jail. Had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: I would take something like the Eyes on the Prize and I would say, okay, well who's, you know, who's telling the story? And I would find that guy and, you know, and so like the first verse would be, you know, you're walking down the street and somebody kind of collars you from an, you know, from an alley or something, and says that Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. So somebody is telling you a secret, is warning you that something is up. I think that's all in that first verse, you know. So that was, that was my in to that music. You know, it was, I felt like, I know whose voice this is.

(Soundbite of Music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN (Singing): I'm going to board that big Greyhound.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: I use that verse, I'm going to board that big Greyhound. Carry me from town to town. The way I've seen it on the record is, it's sung like a threat almost, you know? And, which of course it was.

BLOCK: Look out here we come.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, that's right. Look out here, here I come, here we come.

(Soundbite of Music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Keep your eye on the prize.

BLOCK: You've got this 18-piece band, washboard, accordion, banjo, fiddle.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah there's everything, just about everything is up there. Literally the kitchen sink. We may, we may, we may actually have a song where the kitchen sink is actually played. I'm working on that right now.

BLOCK: That sounds like a good thing. I was just wondering if you could, have you tried doing Rosalita, Born to Run with this band.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah.

BLOCK: No.

MR. SPRINGSTEEN: And I can say we will not be trying again. So let me, let me put all my fans at ease. Part of the enjoyment of this band is that it's something outside of all that, you know. And so the main thing I had is, is if something couldn't move in a different way, you know, I wasn't that interested in it. I wasn't interested in sort of replicating an arrangement I'd done previously.

(Soundbite of Music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) If as we're walking a hand should slip free, I'll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: That feeling of freedom, and your insistence upon it, is an important part of your job, I think. You have to, you have to insist upon it and then bring your audience along. So you need a reasonably adventurous audience, and that's what's exciting about continuing on. I've been doing it for a long time, but I feel, you know, the other night I got out there and it felt like the first time. You know, it was like, whoa, where we going now? I don't know, I'm not sure, but we're going.

BLOCK: Bruce Springsteen talking with me in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The new CD is titled We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can hear Pete Seeger's and Bruce Springsteen's version of some of the songs at NPR.org. You can also hear more from our conversation including what Springsteen has heard from Pete Seeger about the album.

(Soundbite of music)

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