The Good: Some good vocals and interesting interpretations of folk standards
The Bad: Some tracks are simply unimaginative
The Basics: In a razor decision, there was not enough novelty, originality or substance to allow me to recommend Bruce Springsteen's covers of old folk-rock standards.
Despite what some around here might think, I do have the ability to learn! For example, I've learned, following the reaction to not particularly enjoying the Bruce Springsteen albums The Ghost Of Tom Joad or Devils & Dust that any critique of the works of Bruce Springsteen that results in a "Not Recommend" yields a backlash from loyal fans of the singer. With his post-Devils & Dust We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions, I found myself in a position where I was once again evaluating a Springsteen disc that just didn't grab me.
First, my story: I was raised by a man who was a huge fan of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and other folk artists like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. My earliest repressed memories (I swear, I'm working to repress them!) involve being taken to folk rock concerts like Seeger and Guthrie. In all seriousness, I like folk-rock music - Dar Williams is probably my favorite current folk-rock artist - and I've heard quite a lot of it, whether I've liked it or not. I'm fine with Pete Seeger, despite the fact that as a kid I probably would rather have gone to concerts with other artists performing. I mention this because with "We Shall Overcome," Bruce Springsteen puts his own spin on traditional folk-rock songs that Pete Seeger and other folk artists have been performing for decades.
With thirteen tracks clocking in at just over an hour in music, this DualDisc remakes Bruce Springsteen as a folk artist, which is not exactly the biggest stretch in the world. Springsteen performs such classics as "Old Dan Tucker," "Erie Canal," and "Pay Me My Money Down," which are wonderful folk songs that I think most kids learn growing up in America. I guess they do if they have parents who were hitting their teens in the late 60's anyway. Outside "Jesse James," "Eyes On The Prize," and "My Oklahoma Home," the authors to the songs are unknown, which gives you an idea of how old they are.
These are distinctly American folk songs and they evoke the feel of the frontier. There is a rugged quality to the vocals that works, recreating an air of wide open country and a simpler life. Springsteen is decent with the vocal performances and the disc does have the clear sound of a man who has effortlessly made the transition from rock star to folk artist. This transition is not much of a leap for those of us who have listened to Springsteen's full albums; the man is a poet and many of his songs are stories. Folk music is known for putting songs to music and having a strong sense of poetics.
This is well-illustrated on We Shall Overcome with Springsteen singing "O Mary Don't You Weep," which comforts Mary by recounting God's wrath toward Pharaoh's armies. "Jesse James" tells the story of how Robert Ford killed folk hero Jesse James, "Mrs. McGrath" sings about a man who lost his limbs at sea, "John Henry" about a man who works from early childhood on and "My Oklahoma Home" is a lament about a farm getting blown away (and still having to deal with the mortgage!). The songs often have a strong sense of tongue-in-cheek humor or irony, like the lines "You can't grow any green / If you ain't got any rain / Everything 'cept my mortgage blown away" ("My Oklahoma Home").
The nature of folk music as a storytelling medium means that songs do quite a bit that most other forms of music do not do. A lot of pop love songs, for example, are sung in the first person, expressing emotions to another; a lot of (especially early) rap is sung second person as directives or observations directed at you. Folk music, though often is characterized by telling stories with a familiarity to them. They have characters like "John Henry" who ". . . worked so hard / he broke his heart ." The song "Jesse James" glorifies Jesse James and is sung as a lament over his assassination.
The thing is, folk music - and Springsteen captures this perfectly on We Shall Overcome - often has the sound like the singer knows the character personally. On "John Henry," Springsteen sounds like he truly misses the protagonist of the song.
This does not always work to his advantage, though. On "Jesse James," there is something in the way he sings the lines "But that dirty little coward / That shot Mr. Howard / He laid poor Jesse in his grave" where he tries to evoke a genuine sense of personal injustice over the killing of Jesse James and it just comes out sounding . . . well, silly. I'm not say that a guy from New Jersey can't have a personal stake in the killing of a Western hero who was killed over a hundred years ago, but in this particular case, Springsteen just doesn't pull it off. It sounds like Springsteen is singing with almost a parody of emoting. The best analogy I can give is in movies where the soundtrack telegraphs the emotions, essentially screaming "FEEL THIS NOW!" The way Springsteen sings sometime simply sounds like "I'M FEELING THIS!"
Sadly, this is not the only problem with We Shall Overcome. Some of the lyrics are just ridiculous and unfortunately, the album begins with the worst of them. "Old Dan Tucker," which opens the album is just about as sophisticated as a nursery rhyme set to music with lines like "Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man, / Washed his face in a fryin' pan, / Combed his head with a wagon wheel, / Died with a toothache in his heel." It's silly and upbeat and while Springsteen cannot be criticized for the quality of the lyrics he didn't write, he is responsible for which songs he chose to cover and going with songs like "Old Dan Tucker" are just beneath him.
As far as the vocals go, We Shall Overcome is pretty standard Springsteen. He brings his deep, gravely voice to the album and it works for the folk songs, evoking a strong sense of a rugged persona. The album plays to Springsteen's strengths in that regard, not particularly challenging him. As a listener, it's not necessary that our favorite artists be challenged, but what I tend to want whenever I pick up a new album is . . . well, something different.
Herein lies the main problem with Springsteen's We Shall Overcome; as someone who grew up on folk standards, nothing was particularly surprising or new on this album. Sure, it's Bruce Springsteen singing folk songs, but so many of his songs bordered on folk anyway so this it not a huge deal. Springsteen does not so much reinterpret or make any of the standards his own as much as he vocally replicates what others have done in the past.
Ultimately, what brought the fairly average album down to a coin toss for the recommendation was the instrumental back-up. Springsteen, his guitar and banjo, are backed with an eighteen piece orchestra that includes more strings, an occasional brass section and some pretty kicking percussion on a lot of tracks. The result is a much richer and full sounding folk-rock experience than most of the classic folk interpretations of these standards. So while vocally Springsteen plays many of the tracks safe and true and obvious, the back-up music is pretty decent and works out well.
This is a dual-disc, which I always find weird to review. The DVD side includes the full thirteen track album, two bonus tracks, filmed versions of six of the tracks and a thirty minute documentary about the making of the album and Springsteen's thoughts on the music. It was informative and worth the one viewing, but like many people and Dual-Discs, my equipment is not sophisticated enough to get the most out of the DVD audio on the b-side of the disc. Will Springsteen fans enjoy the album? Probably, though I suspect many will miss the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Will general fans of folk-rock music enjoy the disc, possibly. They will probably get a kick out of the little film and hearing Springsteen talk about his appreciation for the folk standards.
Ultimately, though, this was not enough for me to recommend the disc. It's familiar and the ultimate feeling I had after listening to the disc once was "I've heard this before." After seven listens, I appreciated Bruce Springsteen's efforts, but I felt it was pretty much a novelty album. Springsteen doesn't need novelty; his own folk-rock music works just fine.
The best track is "My Oklahoma Home," the weak link is the pretty unmemorable final track, "Froggie Went A Courtin.'"
For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
Born In The U.S.A.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Live In New York
Devils & Dust
For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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