Amid the 108 Grammy Awards bestowed Sunday night in Los Angeles, Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra surely must be proud that Polka in Paradise scored Polka Album of the Year. I missed that gem, but am delighted to see Bruce Springsteen among the evening’s victors. He won Best Traditional Folk Album for We Shall Overcome — the Seeger Sessions, a fine recording that deserves a spot in every discerning listener’s collection.
I received a copy of We Shall Overcome as a birthday gift last December and have enjoyed it over and over again, perhaps a couple of dozen times by now. That, by itself, surprises me. I never was a Springsteen fan, save for one song: “Katie’s Back in Town.” In fact, it took a little while to…ahem…overcome my life-long allergy to the Garden State rocker and listen to his raspy voice without wincing.
With that initial bias behind me, I have grown very fond of this fantastic piece of work.
We Shall Overcome is not a rock album, like Springsteen’s Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. This folk album borders on bluegrass. This is honest music played by real musicians who actually play instruments. (What a concept!) This is as far as one can get from the canned, over-produced, stillborn rubbish that acts like Britney Spears plop out when they are not busy humiliating themselves before the paparazzi’s unblinking gaze.
Springsteen, a liberal by all indications, unfortunately lapses unsubtly into politics here and there. (This is hardly shocking on an album named for Pete Seeger, a sort of Ralph Nader with an acoustic guitar.) I could have done without the Iraq-themed protest tune “Bring ’em Home.” It’s a downer, and it doesn’t help that Springsteen blames America’s current travails there on politicians who “want to test their grand theories with the blood of you and me.” That may be the least charitable interpretation of President Bush’s casus belli yet uttered.
Katrina, of course, swirls into the song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” “And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain’t fair,” sings Springsteen. Yes, Bruce, “bodies floatin’ on Canal” is not fair. Do you care to add anything else to the debate?
Such sour notes are heavy-handed, but mercifully rare. That aside, the rest of this album is extremely positive. The music is solid, heartfelt, and performed with exceptional skill and spirit.
The lyrics of these mainly traditional songs are vivid and evocative. Springsteen introduces us to Old Dan Tucker who “combed his hair with a wagon wheel.” I ache for the guy whose “Oklahoma home is blown away” and can almost see the tornado ripping across his property.
“Pay Me My Money Down” offers wisps of zydeco, mainly thanks to an energetic accordion. This tune reminds me of New Orleans, where such songs pour out of almost every open door and lifted window. Other numbers on this album put me in a New Orleans state of mind, which is a very good thing. (Fittingly, as I played “Jesse James” on my parents’ stereo over Christmas, my mom asked, “Is this from Cajun country?” “Jesse James” also has an air of cowboys about it, right down to a light sound of a horse clip-clopping in the background.)
Springsteen recorded this album at his New Jersey farm with the help of musicians who played and, in most cases, sang along. The result is frequent hints of gospel, especially in “O Mary Don’t You Weep.” Springsteen and the able performers he gathered played these songs without overdubs or repeat takes. This album retains all the freshness and spontaneity he intended while also appearing as professional and well crafted as if those before the microphones had spent weeks honing their parts.
My favorite tune is “American Land.” It’s bright, lively, and highly patriotic toward the USA. Its rhythm and melody remind me of the Scottish folk tunes I heard at a wedding last fall in Inverness, not far from Loch Ness. Just a few notes into this song, and I am transported back to a dance floor full of guests in gowns and kilts swirling to songs much like this one.
To my ear, “Mrs. McGrath” has much of this same Scottishness about it, although the highly informative CD booklet identifies this as an Irish ballad from 1815.
We Shall Overcome’s “American Land” edition also contains a DVD with warm and appealing visuals. The true musicianship of this artist and his sidemen shines through, as do their camaraderie and sheer love of playing with each other.
What a great idea for Bruce Springsteen to record an album in his living room. You should play it in yours.
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.