CD: Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions


Pete Seeger turns 87 in a week, and it's the revivalist and populariser of America's folk heritage rather than the folkie songwriter that Bruce Springsteen celebrates in his 21st and most family-friendly album. Here are 13 time-hallowed songs sung by Americans from the original frontier pioneers to the civil rights marchers of Kennedy's New Frontier, but no versions of If I Had a Hammer, Turn Turn Turn or Where Have All the Flowers Gone; Springsteen didn't get where he is today without spotting potential banana-skins.

In addition, on the flipside of this Sony DualDisc, there are the bonus tracks Buffalo Gals and How Can I Keep From Singing, plus a half-hour DVD of recording sessions shot live and unrehearsed in the Boss's farmhouse.

The band numbers 13 - none of them among his regulars, bar his wife, backing vocalist Patti Scialfa - and it is as arranger and bandleader that the Boss shines. Unlike many of his recent recordings, this is an addictively exuberant album. What lifts it above the common run of folk revival albums is a coup of inspired arrangement in using the Miami Horns brass section, reminding us that round the corner from the Greenwich Village coffee house of Seeger's heyday you would find Charlie Mingus's parallel world of sanctified protest jazz.

Drawing as much from the spiritual tradition as Appalachian mountain music, We Shall Overcome (the title track of which Springsteen first cut for a 1997 Seeger tribute album) sounds like a classic of roots Americana to rank with anything by Dylan and the Band, Dr John or Leon Russell, while the match of Springsteen's huskiness and the hootenanny plangency of fiddle, banjo and accordion recalls the ancestral Irish folk-rock of such as Van Morrison and the Pogues.

Rebel-rousing though never pugnacious, the Boss is at his best on such fabled knees-ups as Jesse James, John Henry and Jacob's Ladder. And though he's over-lugubrious on such down-tempo numbers as the Irish anti-war ballad Mrs McGrath and the hymn-derived civil rights anthem Eyes On the Prize, the song Shenandoah is the album's jewel, a misty long-shot of the Promised Land that drew the wagon-trains west, and an unashamed heartstring-tugger to rival Danny Boy.

Mat Snow

The GuardianTramp

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