Published July 14, 2006
Doing an album of Pete Seeger classics isn’t all that imposing a task. Pete Seeger influenced a lot of people, befriended a lot of people, but as much as Seeger is essential to the life stories of everyone from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, his performances of folk material have all the spirit and character of a piece of white toast left in the sun four days. With the vaguest of musical interests, and a pulse, you can outdo the man – he’s the musical equivalent of the ugly, friendly guy you go to bars with to look better by comparison.
Bruce Springsteen is no stranger to finding ugly people that allow him to look better by comparison. Having released a brilliant first effort with a jazz rock hybrid band for his first release, Greetings from Asbury Park, he became a superstar by surrounding himself with less talented, less threatening musicians, and by easing up on the intelligence of his lyrics, switching their focus from artists in New York to Americana burnouts.
For people who’ve followed his work, this seemed a safe, guaranteed hit. But it isn’t. For starters, Springsteen is either unfamiliar with the material, or he has such an ego that he insists on doing songs his way, even when lyrics and tradition get in the way. He screams out the relaxed ditty “Old Man Tucker”: a Born to Run sincerity in his delivery of “get out the way old Dan Tucker, you’re too late to get your supper,” coming off as post-modern as Tom Waits, and he whispers “We Shall Overcome,” failing miserably with the composition… sounding more like fellow New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi doing a Christmas carol than anything else.
There are three very good takes on the album, though, including a New Orleansinfused Mary Don’t You Weep, a single so strong that it stands head and shoulders above anything he has put out for decades. And the idea of the songs Pete Seeger sang is that they live, breathe and change. More often than not, especially when sung by the man who compiled them, the songs fail, and Springsteen likely knew this. But he also probably knew that when you take these classics and sharpen them enough to connect to an audience, you’re in the canon. BC