After the disappointing Devils and Dust, I thought Bruce Springsteen might be retreating into his earnest Okie farmer persona for good. Throughout a three-decade career, Springsteen’s wrestled with a lot of personas in his music—working man’s friend, lothario on the prowl, social activist, teenage rebel, gentle portrayer of America’s social ills, hard-drinking party animal, happily married man.
The plaintive folk singer with the beat-up acoustic guitar was always the least interesting. Springsteen’s one of America’s greatest lyricists and he can deliver the meanest, meatiest hooks around, but his strengths play best when loud, layered, and swooping. The spareness of 1982’s Nebraska—where his folk image first came out in full force—downplay what’s greatest about Springsteen. He’s great because of his tensions—the tension between his simple howl-and-clatter of his sound and the complex clarity of his lyrics; his merger of old-school black pop (gospel, Delta blues, soul, R&B) with complicated stories and musical structures that, especially in the 1970s, are this close to prog-rock. Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Devils and Dust remove the clutter, and so remove the tension. These albums aren’t necessarily bad—Nebraska is, in fact, the most divisive of Springsteen’s albums; some think it’s his greatest, and even I have to admit that “Atlantic City” and “Reason to Believe” are among the man’s best ever—but they’re not lively.
Anyone who’s seen Springsteen slide on his knees or shake his hips like someone possessed know that liveliness is crucial to his music.
So, last year’s Devils and Dust was a let-down. Nearly half of it consists of songs Springsteen wrote a decade ago. “Maria’s Bed” cannibalizes lyrics from previous Springsteen songs. It might have seemed better if it hadn’t come directly after 2002’s The Rising, his reunion with the E Streeters and his best album since Born in the U.S.A.. Worse, it seemed like a sign of things to come. As hard as it is to believe, the man’s 56 years old. Surely, I thought, he can’t have too many more changes left in him, too many more styles and personas to explore.
When I read that his new album—just a year after the last one, which is quick for the notoriously slow Springsteen—would be a collection of folk standards popularized by Pete Seeger, I sighed. I know I’d buy it anyway, but I figured I’d play it once and file it away.
I was wrong. The holy roller, the ass pincher, the angry young man, the tempered old man, the good Catholic schoolboy, the leather-clad man who makes all the girls’ panties wet, the quiet listener in the corner of the room—all of his contradictions, everything we love about the man, are all here.
In “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges writes that “I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar.” Springsteen took that sentiment, immersing himself in folk music of all kinds—Negro spirituals, Irish ballads, Appalachian barnstormers, chain-gang chants—and ended up finding his own soul. The only history lesson here is in Springsteen’s terse, informative liner notes. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions reinvigorates centuries-old chestnuts by filtering the music through Springsteen’s rocker spirit. It’s all acoustic, with few overdubs, written charts, and no rehearsals. On every song, we can hear Springsteen calling out chord changes, counting out the tempo, adjusting the arrangement on the fly, and shouting for musicians to solo or to bring it all back to the song structure.
He’s having the time of his life, and the mood is infectious. The first track, “Old Dan Tucker,” starts with several band members chuckling over a joke you don’t get to hear as Springsteen calls out, “One, two, three.” The song is an absurdist ramble about a man who “washed his face with a fryin’ pan/ Combed his hair with a wagon wheel.” It’s raucous and funny.
It’s the humor, I think, that I’ve been wishing from Springsteen’s recent albums. In interviews and onstage, he’s a sly, smart comedian. At his best, he injects wit into even his darkest songs. Devils and Dust, with the exception of three breakouts, is a dirge. Through We Shall Overcome, we hear a man making a joyous, witty noise. It’s there in the growled lyric “Well, Mr. Satan, he got mad/ Missed that soul that he thought he had” in the middle of “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” It’s there in that yell to the band—“Everybody solo!”—at the end of the rip-roaring “Pay Me My Money Down.” We can almost see the band laughing out loud during “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Humor isn’t all there is, of course. Several reviews—most of which, I’m pleased to say, are positive—mention that We Shall Overcome is a response to U.S. foreign policy. Springsteen’s never hid his leftist politics on his sleeve, thank goodness, but critics are barking up the wrong tree when they name-check the Iraq war. Sure, it’s impossible to think of the band’s version of “Mrs. McGrath”—a mother’s lament to her war-scarred son—without thinking of the current mess we’re in. But there’s something closer to home that the album addresses.
I haven’t heard much Pete Seeger beyond the Weavers, so my only impression of his interpretations are of gentle, insistent banjos and beautiful vocals. We Shall Overcome can be beautiful—check out “Shenandoah,” but unplug the phone and find your handkerchief first—but it prefers rowdiness and clutter. But it’s a very specific clutter, courtesy of the horn section, accordion, and washboard. The roots of these songs might be folk, but the sound here is all jazz funeral and Dixieland. The arrangement of the slurring trombone, the brash saxophone and trumpet, and the jaunty violins all evoke a city that’s been in our minds a lot these days. It’s telling that several songs here are associated with the civil rights movement—“We Shall Overcome,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “O Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “John Henry,” “Eyes on the Prize”—and several more (“Pay Me My Money Down,” “Erie Canal”) deal specifically with the power of water. “My Oklahoma Home” concerns a man who loses exactly that in a tornado, and homelessness and loss are the centers of “Shenandoah” and “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
Okay, here’s a hint. Bruce Springsteen’s first official concert with the Seeger Sessions band—he played a few unofficial ones in Jersey—took place last night at JazzFest. In New Orleans.
Using material that’s not his own, with a pick-up band assembled from New York and New Jersey musicians, Springsteen has made a New Orleans record. “Made” is an important word. On the album’s DVD side (it’s a DualDisc), Springsteen explains that he wanted musicians that hadn’t played together too much, that knew the music but not necessarily each other, so that he’d be forced to think the songs through as the band played. “I wanted the sound of music not just being played,” he says, “but being made.”
You can hear this sort of improvisational genius on “Jacob’s Ladder,” the simplest and yet the best song on We Shall Overcome, as the musicians figure it out as they go along. The tuba pounds out the beat. The gospel calls get louder and more sonorous and more uplifting, until you’re out of your seat. Bruce yells out “C’mon, horn section!” and “C’mon, drums!” but doesn’t tell them what, exactly, to play. It feels like a march. You can imagine dancing in Louis Armstrong’s jazz funeral, bringing the man back home, or the march to Selma, with pissed-off dissenters throwing stones at you. Those shouted lyrics—“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/ We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/ We are brothers and sisters all”—are full of hope, but also full of the weariness and fury of climbing that ladder all these years.
That old Jersey white boy sees himself in the lives of black folks, and the willingness to make such a connection, along with the humility such a decision takes, is inspiring. Springsteen has spent his whole career writing songs in the voices of other people. Even though the songs in We Shall Overcome aren’t technically his, they feel at home in his world. Springsteen’s world includes us all—the fuck-ups, the world-weary, the white, the black, and all points in-between, the poor, the disenfranchised, the desolate, the perennially hopeful. The album takes songs from practically all of America’s folk traditions, and mixes them into a musical blend (New Orleans’) that’s the most racially diverse and cacophonous this country has seen.
Bruce Springsteen is back. Thank God.