We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is the fourteenth studio album by Bruce Springsteen. It peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 and won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 49th Grammy Awards.
This is Springsteen’s first and so far only album of entirely non-Springsteen material and contains his interpretation of thirteen folk music songs made popular by activist folk musician Pete Seeger. As an activist and artist of folk music, Seeger did not write any of the songs on the album. His life’s work focused on popularizing and promoting the ethic of local, historical musical influences and recognizing the cultural significance that folk music embodies.
The record began in 1997, when Springsteen recorded “We Shall Overcome” for the Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger tribute album, released the following year. Springsteen had not known much about Seeger given his rock and roll upbringing and orientation, and proceeded to investigate and listen to his music. While playing them in his house, his 10-year-old daughter said, “Hey, that sounds like fun,” which caused Springsteen to get interested in further exploring the material and genre.
Via Soozie Tyrell, the violinist in the E Street Band, Springsteen hooked up with a group of lesser-known musicians from New Jersey and New York City, and they recorded in an informal, large band setting in Springsteen’s Colts Neck, New Jersey farm. In addition to Tyrell, previous Springsteen associates The Miami Horns as well as wife Patti Scialfa augmented the proceedings. This group would become The Sessions Band. The subsequent Bruce Springsteen with The Seeger Sessions Band Tour expanded on the album’s musical approach.
The album, like its predecessor Devils and Dust, has been released on DualDisc, in a CD/DVD double disc set, and as a set of two vinyl records.
For the DualDisc and CD/DVD sets, the full album is on the CD(-side), while the DVD(-side) side features a PCM Stereo version of the album and a short film about the making and recording of the album. Two bonus songs also appear on the DVD(-side).
On October 3, 2006, the album was reissued as We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – American Land Edition with five additional tracks (the two bonus tracks from before and three new numbers that had been introduced and heavily featured on the tour), new videos, an expanded documentary and liner notes. Rather than a DualDisc release, the American Land Edition was released with separate CD and DVDs. Added sales were minimal.
We Shall Overcome received widespread acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 82, based on 25 reviews. In his review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine praised Springsteen’s modern take on Seeger’s repertoire of folk songs and said that it is the liveliest album of his career: “It’s a rambunctious, freewheeling, positively joyous record unlike any other in Springsteen’s admittedly rich catalog.” David Browne of Entertainment Weekly felt that Springsteen successfully imbues the songs with a “rock & roll energy” rather than an adherence to folk’s blander musical aesthetic. Rolling Stone magazine’s Jonathan Ringen believed that he relied on folk and Americana styles on the album in order to “find a moral compass for a nation that’s gone off the rails”, particularly on the implicitly political “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep”, “Eyes on the Prize”, and “We Shall Overcome”. Gavin Martin of Uncut called it “a great teeming flood of Americana” and “a powerful example of how songs reverberate through the years to accrue contemporary meaning”.
In a less enthusiastic review, Neil Spencer of The Observer wrote that the songs chosen for the album lack intrigue and edge, and are “mostly too corny to have much drama restored to them”. Robert Christgau panned We Shall Overcome in his consumer guide for The Village Voice, wherein he gave it a “B”, which is assigned to bad albums he reviews as the “dud of the month” in his column. He felt that Springsteen relies too much on a rural drawl and overblown sound when folk music requires subtlety and viewed the album as the worst case of his histrionic singing.
Seeger himself was pleased by the result, saying “It was a great honor. [Springsteen]’s an extraordinary person, as well as an extraordinary singer.” We Shall Overcome was voted the 19th best album of the year in the Pazz & Jop, an annual critics poll run by The Village Voice. In 2007, it won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 49th Grammy Awards. By January 2009, the album had sold 700,000 copies in the United States. the RIAA certified it with gold record status. (by wikipedia)
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is an unusual Bruce Springsteen album in a number of ways. First, it’s the first covers album Springsteen has recorded in his three-decade career, which is a noteworthy event in itself, but that’s not the only thing different about We Shall Overcome. Springsteen, a notorious perfectionist who has been known to tweak and rework albums numerous times before releasing them (or scrapping them, as the case may be), pulled together the album quickly, putting aside a planned second volume of the rarities collection Tracks after discovering a set of recordings he made in 1997 for a Pete Seeger tribute album called Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. Enthralled by this handful of tracks — one of which, “We Shall Overcome,” appeared on the tribute — Springsteen decided to cut a whole album of folk tunes popularized by Pete Seeger. He rounded up 13 musicians, including some who played on those 1997 sessions, and did two one-day sessions in late 2005 and early 2006, swiftly releasing the resulting album that April. As Bruce stresses in his introductory liner notes, these were live recordings, done with no rehearsals, and We Shall Overcome does indeed have an unmistakably loose feel, and not just because you can hear the Boss call out chord changes in a handful of songs. This music is rowdy and rambling, as the group barrels head-first into songs that they’re playing together as a band for the first time, and it’s hard not to get swept up along in their excitement. Springsteen has made plenty of great records, but We Shall Overcome is unique in its sheer kinetic energy; he has never made a record that feels as alive as this.
Not only does We Shall Overcome feel different than Bruce’s work; it also feels different than Seeger’s music. Most of Seeger’s recordings were spare and simple, featuring just him and his banjo; his most elaborately produced records were with the Weavers, whose recordings of the ’50s did feature orchestration, yet that’s a far cry from the big folk band that Springsteen uses here. Bruce’s combo for the Seeger sessions has a careening, ramshackle feel that’s equal parts early-’60s hootenanny and Bob Dylan and the Band’s Americana; at times, its ragged human qualities also recall latter-day Tom Waits, although the music here is nowhere near as self-consciously arty as that. Springsteen has truly used Seeger’s music as inspiration, using it as the starting point to take him someplace that is uniquely his own in sheer musical terms.
Given that, it should be no great surprise that Bruce also picks through Seeger’s songbook in a similar fashion, leaving many (if not most) of Pete’s well-known songs behind in favor of a selection of folk standards Springsteen learned through Seeger’s recordings. (Author/critic Dave Marsh researched the origins of each song here; there are brief introductions within the album’s liner notes and thorough histories presented on the official Springsteen site.) While the songs featured here adhere to no one specific theme — there are work songs, spirituals, narratives, and protest songs — it is possible to see this collection of tunes as Springsteen’s subtle commentary on the political state of America, especially given Seeger’s reputation as an outspoken political activist, but this record should hardly be judged as merely an old-fashioned folk record. We Shall Overcome is many things, but a creaky relic is not one of them. Springsteen has drawn from Seeger’s songbook — which he assembled in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s from traditional folk songs — and turned it into something fresh and contemporary. And even if you have no patience for (or interest in) the history of the songs, or their possible meanings, it’s easy to enjoy We Shall Overcome on pure musical terms: it’s a rambunctious, freewheeling, positively joyous record unlike any other in Springsteen’s admittedly rich catalog. (by Stephen Thomas Erlewine)
Sam Bardfeld (violin)
Art Baron (tuba)
Frank Bruno (guitar)
Jeremy Chatzky (bass)
Mark Clifford (banjo)
Larry Eagle (drums, percussion)
Charles Giordano (keyboards, accordion)
Ed Manion (saxophone)
Mark Pender (trumpet, background vocals)
Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg (trombone, background vocals)
Patti Scialfa (background vocals)
Bruce Springsteen (vocals, guitar, harmonica, organ, percussion)
Soozie Tyrell (violin, background vocals)
01. Old Dan Tucker (Traditional) 2.31
02. Jesse James (Gashade) 3.48
03. Mrs. McGrath (Traditional) 4.20
04. O Mary Don’t You Weep (Traditional) 6.05
05. John Henry (Traditional) 5.07
06. Erie Canal (Allen) 4.03
07. Jacob’s Ladder (Traditional) 4.28
08. My Oklahoma Home (B.Cunningham/A.Cunningham) 6.04
09. Eyes On The Prize (Traditional/Wine) 5.17
10. Shenandoah (Traditional) 4.53
11. Pay Me My Money Down (Traditional) 4.32
12. We Shall Overcome (Tindley/Carawan/Hamilton/Horton/Seeger) 4.53
13. Froggie Went A-Courtin’ (Traditional) 4.33
14. Buffalo Gals (bonus track) (Traditional) 3.12
15. How Can I Keep From Singing (bonus track) (Traditional) 2.20
16. How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live (bonus track) (Traditional) 3.23
17. Bring ‘Em Home (bonus track) (Traditional) 3.36
18. American Land (bonus track) (Traditional) 4.44