May 082006

Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, widely billed as his homage to folk music, is a tribute to Pete Seeger.

“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” Bruce Springsteen.

By James Marcus

It’s hard to pin down exactly when my Bruce Springsteen problem began. As a teenager I worshipped the guy, and still recall a blistering 1977 show at Manhattan’s Palladium as one of the high points of my musical education. I stuck with him for a long time after that, savoring the prairie minimalism of “Nebraska” and his first real tussle with married life, “Tunnel of Love.” Yet sometime in the late ’90s, he began to bug me. There wasn’t any specific moment of disenchantment. In 1997, however, Nicholas Davidoff profiled Springsteen for “The New York Times Magazine,” and there’s a telling passage in there that has lingered in my mind ever since I first read it.

Davidoff is discussing his subject’s manner of speech, and describes his accent this way: “There is a Jersey-Pennsylvania lilt to some of his inflections–he says ‘hill-larrvus’ for ‘hilarious’–and, at times, a hint of an Alabama drawl may slip in. (His childhood neighbor was a transplanted Southern truck driver.)” Now, Davidoff is a smart man, about life in general and music in particular (his profile of Johnny Cash in “In the Country of Country” is one of the best I’ve ever read). But in this case he was either too polite or too gullible. When a son of Freehold, New Jersey, starts talking like a drunken Jethro Bodine, it’s not because the guy next door was from Alabama. It’s called affectation, and much of the time, it’s been a toxic additive for Springsteen’s art.

Springsteen’s defenders might easily point to the example of Bob Dylan, a middle-class Jewish frat boy who spent the early part of his career imitating Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who also turned out to be a middle-class Jewish kid — from Brooklyn, no less.) But in both these cases, we’re talking about young performers assimilating their earliest influences. Springsteen, who began his career with such extravaganzas of urban life as “Jungleland,” came late to the bucolic party.

The rural twang really crept into his voice with “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995), and has made at least intermittent appearances ever since. It’s not a crime, I should add, to affect a Southern accent. If it were, Mick Jagger would have been serving hard time since 1966. But somehow it sounds hokey and patronizing when the Boss starts making like an Appalachian, and it flies directly in the face of his vaunted authenticity.

To some degree Springsteen muted this mush-mouthed persona on last year’s “Devils and Dust” album. Yes, there were eviscerated longhorn skulls on the back cover, and he counted in “Maria’s Bed” as if he were channeling Steve Earle, but the hard edge of the music seemed to neutralize his Dixie-fried delivery. Now, however, comes “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” Widely billed as Springsteen’s folkie album, it’s a tribute to Pete Seeger in his capacity as a one-man museum of American popular song. This was a great idea. Yet it turns out to be another project that I can admire in theory and abhor in practice, just like “The Rising.” It also brings back the rural troubadour with a vengeance.

Not that I wasn’t hopeful. The first cut, “Old Dan Tucker,” is a rural fiddle tune with nonsense lyrics by minstrel maestro Dan Emmett, and Springsteen’s 13-piece band lurches into it with crazy abandon. What holds the tune together is Mark Clifford’s banjo and the leader’s smiling delivery of the verses, coupled with the sing-along chorus. It is, as they say, infectious. But what you discover, as you listen to the next cut (“Jesse James”) and the one after that (“Mrs. McGrath”) is that almost everything here has been configured in the same mold, as uplifting hootenanny fodder. Springsteen twangs away, the band bangs away, and there’s an invariable chorus around the campfire, as if Pete Seeger were merely a more grizzled version of Dan Zanes — or Raffi with a bigger Adam’s apple.

Let’s be clear: I’m not a purist, and don’t want or expect Springsteen to mimic Pete Seeger. The fact that he hasn’t is one measure of his superiority. Still, I think he could learn a few things from his predecessor. When Seeger did this material, he often worked in a self-abnegating mode: he wanted to present the song without any showbizzy interference on the performer’s part. Yet that didn’t prevent him from tapping into the music’s potential for terror, loneliness, and melancholy.

Springsteen, with an almost vaudevillian appetite for performance, steamrolls right over this quieter undercurrent. He catches a hint of it in the sprawling, minor-key version of “O Mary Don’t You Weep”– the closest thing to a rock-and-roll song on the entire disc– and “Eyes on the Prize” begins in a similarly somber vein. By the end, though, the chorus has kicked in again, along with a full horn section, and we’re back around the campfire.

To prove that I’m not a complete churl, I’ll admit to enjoying “Pay Me My Money Down.” Springsteen, who grossed more than $26 million in touring alone last year, tears into this proletarian anthem with an appealing swagger and an unidentifiable accent (maybe it’s that Jersey-Pennsylvania lilt we’ve heard so much about). And the DVD on the flip side of the DualDisc is a giant improvement over the shabby-chic visuals that accompanied “Devils & Dust.” Here we see Springsteen and his ensemble careening through several tunes, with the leader cueing soloists and directing the horn section down the hallway. You get a real sense of how much fun the sessions must have been, even on the more lugubrious material.

Soon enough, though, the fog of redundancy settles in again, and I find myself itching to escape the bellowing vocals and cornball diction. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, but all I can do after three or four cuts is turn the thing off and sadly echo Springsteen’s own refrain on “John Henry”: “Lawd, lawd.”


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