You won’t find any of folk icon Pete Seeger’s greatest hits on Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. You won’t come across ”Turn! Turn! Turn!,” ”If I Had a Hammer,” or ”Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” What you will find, though, is something unexpected and liberating: Springsteen injecting rock & roll energy into Seeger’s vast repertoire, which consists of both his originals and centuries-old traditional tunes. And you’ll likely breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve long known that Springsteen loves acoustic music. But aside from Nebraska, Springsteen’s forays into this turf — The Ghost of Tom Joad and last year’s Devils & Dust — have been desultory, tune-challenged mumbles, as if he kept forgetting that in folkie story-songs, the story should never be more important than the song.
We Shall Overcome could have been more of the same. But, enlivened by flailing banjos, tub-thumping horns, and hopped-up accordions, the album is, thank God, neither dull nor fusty. His voice a husky field holler, Springsteen throws himself into the rollicking folk dance ”Old Dan Tucker” and swaggers through the spiritual ”O Mary Don’t You Weep” as if he were still auditioning for record companies in a Jersey bar. ”Erie Canal” brings an edge-of-town darkness to the tale of (no joke) a barge worker and his mule. He doesn’t forget that folk can be pretty funny, however: In black-humored ”My Oklahoma Home,” the twister takes the narrator’s home — and his woman, too.
Given all the protest songs in Seeger’s songbook — and given Springsteen’s blunt criticisms of the current administration — We Shall Overcome is surprisingly light on politics; none of Seeger’s songs about civil rights incidents or labor unions are here. Only ”Mrs. McGrath,” about a soldier who returns from combat with two peg legs, makes the most overt reference to modern times. (To ensure we get the connection, Springsteen changes the original’s ”King of France” to ”King of America.”) Springsteen is more interested in plumbing Americana folklore legends, and the plan works. With its strapping versions of ”John Henry” and ”Jesse James,” the album taps back into what Springsteen does best: making music that’s as grand and mythopoetic as the country itself.
Sometimes he and his musicians — a big, unwieldy combo with no E Streeters save for wife Patti Scialfa — seem a little too excited and end up riding roughshod over songs that Seeger performed with charming simplicity. But we all know what happens when Springsteen pares things down dramatically (can you hum even one song from Joad or Devils & Dust?), so let’s not complain too much. We Shall Overcome lets us revel in the sound of a man who no longer confuses unplugged with uninspiring — and who isn’t afraid to mix in some merriment with the message.