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10 Years Ago: Bruce Springsteen Pays Tribute to a Folk Music Hero on ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’

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Even at a time when artists were pretty much required to turn out a new album every year, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t particularly prolific. It took three years to follow-up his breakthrough Born to Run LP in 1975 with Darkness on the Edge of Town and then another two before The River arrived. (Some of this was due to legal tie-ups, but Springsteen himself was also partly to blame for the delay.)

So, when We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions arrived on April 25, 2006, almost a year to the day since the release of the solo acoustic Devils & Dust, his previous album, it was a surprise to fans who were used to waiting years for Springsteen to release a new record. (It was even more surprising that another album, Magic, arrived in September 2007, on the way to a grand total of five new Springsteen records between 2002 and 2009.)

The seeds of the project were planted almost a decade earlier, when Springsteen contributed the song “We Shall Overcome” to the 1998 tribute album Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. As Springsteen began digging into Seeger’s long, storied life as a political activist, folksinger and iconic hero of the early-’60s folk movement, he started to uncover the unbridled joy found in many of Seeger’s classic recordings.

In 2005, Springsteen gathered some New Jersey- and New York-based musicians (only wife Patti Scialfa and violinist Soozie Tyrell are carried over from the E Street Band) to his farmhouse in New Jersey, and over the next few months they recorded – with accordion, banjo, tuba and other roots-identified instruments – two dozen songs popularized by Seeger throughout his career. Thirteen of them made it onto We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen’s only all-covers LP.

Freed from his own songs (which had taken a somewhat dark turn on Devils & Dust and parts of 2002’s The Rising, a rumination on post-9/11 America), Springsteen let loose with the most joyous album he ever made. From the opening “Old Dan Tucker” – one of the many traditional songs arranged by Springsteen on the record – through the closing “Froggie Went A-Courtin’,” ages-old folk songs were given new life by Springsteen and the Sessions Band, a group that sounded looser and more playful than the E Street Band had in years.

They got even better on the tour that kept Springsteen and the group on the road for most of the year. Even familiar concert favorites like “The Promised Land” and “Cadillac Ranch” got a boost onstage within the new settings.

Casual fans perceived We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions as a slight detour. With no original songs or core E Street Band members playing on it, the album managed to debut at No. 3 before sinking – the only Springsteen album since The Rising to not reach the top spot.

But the record remains one of his loosest and lightest – and by turn, sorta inessential – recordings, a nostalgic romp through America’s yesteryear (it won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album the following year). For an artist whose immovable seriousness, at least on record, is one of his main selling points, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions represented a brief change in course. But it’s not often history sounds this alive.

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