By Mark Guarino
Peel back the layers of American pop music and somewhere hidden far, far below are the themes, characters and, in some cases, the lyrics and melodies lifted from this nation’s earliest songbook. They create the blueprint of everything we hear today.
Interest in Civil War songs, Dust Bowl songs, sea chanteys, death ballads, field hollers, minstrel songs and the like have come and gone in modern times. For contemporary artists, rediscovering this music usually comes at a point when the well is dry and inspiration is a stark commodity. Nick Cave, Nirvana, Wilco, Beck, Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and hundreds of others have refashioned these songs to find their relevance.
This is Bruce Springsteen’s turn. Although his new album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” (Columbia) namechecks Pete Seeger, the singer who was the leading folk music revivalist of the 1950s and 1960s, he is only here in spirit. Seeger did not write any of these songs, he popularized them, which subsequently made him a leftist target of the McCarthy era.
In his early work with Woody Guthrie, his later stint in The Weavers and then as a folk music guardian in the Civil Rights era, Seeger knew that songs that once complained both of the dangers of the early industrial age and the horrors of the Civil War battleground could, if presented the right way, comment on Vietnam, segregation and the general disillusionment in the Nixon era.
Not Springsteen. Recorded with a 13-piece band of pickers, strummers, fiddlers and a couple of horns, this album, in stores today, is pure hootenanny. Gone is the darkness and hurt of these old songs, replaced with big group choruses and a lively upbeat swing. You can almost see the smiling interchange between the musicians, the fall colors in the background, the creaky back porch between their feet (the DVD portion makes all this reality). While none of these songs are offensively resuscitated, they are whitewashed into what is essentially an old Mitch Miller session. Talk about a missed opportunity.
The songs are not performed for subtlety. Springsteen barks more than sings, his brusque rock vocals sounding sorely out of place in the old-time setting. There’s also a feigned Southern drawl that comes and goes. The music likewise has an academic bent, draining gospel spirituals like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “O Mary Don’t You Weep” of any fire.
For his song choice, Springsteen chooses to negate Seeger’s more radical fare, instead opting for kids stuff like “Froggie Went A Courtin’” and “Erie Canal.” His versions are pleasant and don’t fuss with interpretation which is too bad because, even in a song like “Froggie,” there lurks murkier matters.
To promote this album, Springsteen is choosing to play large amphitheaters (he’s at the First MidWest Bank Amphitheater — formerly Tweeter Center — June 13), a puzzling choice since this music was meant to be played in front parlors, front porches and dance halls. For a cheaper alternative and a more natural setting, check out the ensembles at the Old Town School of Folk Music instead.