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2023/4 Albums Thing 342 - Bruce Springsteen “We Shall Overcome:The Seeger Sessions”

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On Side 6 of “Live/1975-85” Springsteen performs a wonderful version of “This Land Is Your Land”, Woody Guthrie’s critical answer song to Irving Berlin’s schmaltzy, patriotic “God Bless America”. While introducing “This Land…” Bruce says “There’s a book out right now. It’s called “Woody Guthrie: A Life”. It’s by this fella Joe Klein…and it’s really, it’s really a great book”. Finally ,after almost 40 years, I got around to  reading it and Pete Seeger features heavily in Woody Guthrie’s story. 

Pete Seeger was born in New York in 1919. His father was a Harvard educated composer and musicologist, his mother was a concert violinist trained at the Conservatoire de Paris and later a teacher at Juilliard so I guess music was always gonna be a thing with Pete. He originally started playing the Ukelele as a child and from there developed into one of America’s most important folk singers, songwriters and social/political activists. His songs (including “If I Had A Hammer”, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, “Turn!Turn! Turn!” and of course “We Shall Overcome”, an arrangement of a spiritual that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King) and performances with the likes of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers sparked the Folk Music revival that ultimately led to the rise of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell in the 1960’s. Pete Seeger is an American musical legend.

“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” is Bruce Springsteen’s tribute to Seeger, his first album not featuring any songs written by himself, it contains 13 songs popularised by Seeger. It also features an almost entirely new band, headed up by future E Street Band violinist Soozie Tyrell. The Sessions Band, as it came to be known, was made up of lesser known musicians from around New Jersey and New York led by Tyrell, Patti Scialfa and the Miami Horns. One musician of note in the Sessions band is keyboard and accordianist Charlie Giordano who, following the Sessions Band tour, has stepped in to the shoes of the late Danny Federici in the E Street Band (he also played on Jerry Joseph’s album “The Man Who Would Be King” that we covered a few months back).

This whole album was recorded in Bruce Springsteen’s living room, live with no rehearsals, over 3 one day sessions and it sounds like…well it sounds like everyone involved was having one helluva great time. This was confirmed by a BBC broadcast of a Seeger Sessions show from St Luke's Church, London where you could absolutely see that everybody was having a total blast playing in this band.

“We Shall Overcome…” is real Americana, songs gathered from and popularised by the folk singers of the 1940’s and onwards  that originated from 19th century black face troupe’s (“Old Dan Tucker”), from Gospel music (“We Shall Overcome”) to traditional folk tunes (“Shenandoah”) and even a song celebrating the building of the New York State Barge Canal which would see modernisation and the transition from mule power to engine power when it opened in 1918 (“Erie Canal”). The instrumentation is almost entirely acoustic (there is some electric organ) and the sound harks back to traditional American Folk Music (if you are at all familiar with Folkways Records legendary “Anthology Of American Folk Music” you’ll know the sound here). And yes, for one or two acquaintances that have taken the piss, it does include “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” and yes he has played it live !

My favourite is “John Henry”, the epic tale of a freed African slave who went on to work as a “steel man” on the railways, hammering in the steel “pins” that kept the rails attached to the sleepers. He was so proficient that he entered into a race against a steam powered hammer. He won the race only to die with his hammer in his hand as his heart gave out from the stress. In the song John Henry proudly tells us he’s “Swingin' thirty pounds from my hips on down, Yeah, listen to my cold steel ring, Lord, Lord, Listen to my cold steel ring”. It’s a song that has been performed in one arrangement or another by many artists. I have versions by Johnny Cash, Steve Earle and the Drive-By Truckers and there are others by Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lonnie Donegan, Pete Seeger of course and many, many others. Bruce Springsteen’s tilt at it has a real party swing about it (in as much as a song about a man working himself to death can be considered a party song), the sound of a gathering out on the porch fuelled by moonshine.

“We Shall Overcome…” is a homage to American Folk music, the conclusion of Springsteen’s fascination with the likes of Woody Guthrie that stretches back to his introduction of Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land” and the nod to Joe Klein’s book”Woody Guthrie: A Life” on “Live / 1975-85” (when Springsteen appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in December 2016 his book choice was Joe Klein’s tome). It’s also (in the main) a great happy singalong party as you’ll see if you check out that BBC St Luke’s Church gig.

John Henry - https://youtu.be/bqxjHzff-Qo?si=ayq-qaMKQgiWoGMm

The Sessions Band, St Luke’s Church, London 9 May 2006 - https://youtu.be/dFTDkS6xUE0?si=-McyBVejoeKsF5S_


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