A review of Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

(Columbia Records, 2006), compact disc, $19.98.

I listened with much anticipation to this CD. Surely this would be the coming of age of a new re-generation of the activist songs that helped launch the 60s. Then I heard the album. Not all of it, and it was on a public radio station, so I'm sure I missed subtleties. But it's awful.

I'm not a fan of Phil Spector, but at least his "wall of sound" was deliberately layered across the spectrum. The "Overcome" sessions sound devastatingly like an obliviously arrogant superstar thinking his magic touch obviates preparation, arrangements, and a critical presence in the recording booth. It is a gummy porridge of sound, heavy with banjo and fiddle (two instruments that can cut through a murky texture), and wheezing like an overladen mill train straining uphill, accordion, tuba, trumpet, here and there a sax or trombone...all to what end? The "group" vocals are forced and uncomfortable. No one but Pete Seeger could command, "Sing!" and make it work, and Springsteen is no Seeger, however loyal his friends are.

There was in the 50s and early 60s a forgettable phenomenon called a "Hootenanny" -- some producer's idea of what happens when folk musicians get together. Of course, when musicians get together they often listen, because one way you get better is to hear and learn from other people. But jam sessions did happen, and hootenannies were supposed to be a jam session writ large. There was also a TV show and doubtless a dozen traveling troupes that purported to be spontaneous outbreaks of folk music. "Overcome" is embarrassing in the same way, fraudulent, but with sincere intentions.

I needn't say that the reviews have been ecstatic. "Rambunctious, freewheeling, positively joyous" is a common thread. (Sigh.)

A good arranger or even an experienced producer could have done a lot with these raw materials, but there is no one to tell Springsteen that everybody playing at once is not the most respectful way to treat the songs.

On the other hand, I imagine Seeger himself approves of this. He was never one for music too well planned or organized; it went against his philosophy, one which was in diametric opposition to his father, who as it happened, was my mentor: Charles Seeger. In a way, I can't blame Pete: if you want to hear just how bad an arranger can mess up a piece of music, listen to the live version of "Goodnight Irene", then the way Gordon Jenkins utterly destroyed its soul (in the process, however, making it a #1 hit). Pete once told me, "I don't believe in arrangements; if you give it a chance, the music will arrange itself."

During Freedom Summer, a mixed quartet of young black singers, calling themselves The Freedom Singers, sent a tape to Moses Asch, owner of Folkways Records and Sing Out!. Asch called me in to transcribe two of their songs for the magazine, one of which was "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom". But the tape, which was from a radio broadcast, had narration over the song, and I ended up essentially making it up, based on the spiritual ("...stayed on Jesus"). A year later, attending The Weavers Reunion Concert at Carnegie Hall, I was surprised to hear my arrangement, note for note! So Pete may not have "believed" in arrangements, but he had no hesitation performing them when they were good.

That antipathy to organized music is not exclusive to folk musicians and blues guitarists: I have a friend who contends that if the music is arranged beforehand, it's not jazz. I think there is in many people a Tinkerbell complex, wishfully thinking that musical magic is like pixie dust. Just sprinkle and serve.

Having so thoroughly trashed Springsteen, I might as well include this: Before I listened to the CD, I wondered...why would someone choose to record none of the songs Seeger actually wrote, songs like "If I Had A Hammer" and "Where Have All The Flowers Gone"? They, in their incarnations by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Byrds, were at least as influential as the Weavers's Public Domain folk songs...umm..."Public Domain"? Oh. They'd have to pay Seeger royalties on his songs, of course; the ones they recorded were free (and you know they've been re-copyrighted in Springfield's name for this release). A very cynical interpretation. But what other reason could there be?

I do hate to be the kid yelling, "The emperor's naked!" Springsteen is the heavyweight of his time, someone I admire for his many virtues; he is deservedly an icon. The problem with icons is, well, not so much that they change, as Billy Joe Shavers ("Fame") recently told Terri Gross on "Fresh Air", but that everyone around them changes. Walking on tiptoes, I guess. If Jon Landau were truly a producer instead of a fan/manager/sycophant, maybe he'd have been able to redirect Springsteen's energy in a more creative, less pedestrian way.

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