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May 17-23, 2006

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Bruce Springsteen's 'We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions'

We Shall Overcome Bad Tribute Albums: Springsteen recorded personal reinterpretations of Pete Seeger's songs.

A Tribute to Tribute Records

Bruce Springsteen's take on Pete Seeger respects the man as well as the message

By Sara Bir

TRIBUTE albums good and bad appear with increasing frequency, and there seems to be no end in sight. This year has already seen tributes to Elliott Smith, KMFDM, 7 Seconds and Morbid Angel. People keep on buying the things, because they provide a safe gamble, painting the familiar with at least a few degrees of unfamiliarity. There is the single-artist tribute album, in which one performer interprets the songbook of another, as with John Hammond's Wicked Grin, an album of Tom Waits songs, or Kathy McCarthy's Dead Dog's Eyeball, an album of Daniel Johnston songs. There is the various-artist re-creation of an entire album (Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska) and the single-artist re-creation of an entire album (Petra Hayden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a one-woman, a cappella overdub fest). The unlikely genre tribute album produces examples like Dub Side of the Moon, a reggae-dancehall take on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Tracy Thornton's Pan for Punks: A Steelpan Tribute to the Ramones drips with tropical-resort flavor, but for most listeners, the charm wears off a few songs in.

The above examples are from the high end of the tribute-album spectrum. There are more that are uninspired, unfocused and terribly uneven. Tribute albums work best when they have more of a point than simply packaging a bunch of disparate covers for the novelty of it. Even an abundance of respect for the subject of the tribute isn't enough; there needs to be a desire to create a new channel of listener accessibility, a reason to put the song out there for other people to carry on in the first place. With music that is in no danger of slipping from public consciousness, most folks would happily forgo the covers in favor of spinning the real thing.

The tribute album may be a phenomenon of the past decade or so, but the idea behind it isn't new at all. Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles or Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites weren't billed as tribute albums at the time of their release because back then they were exercises in commerce more than creativity. If a song was popular, everyone recorded it, a practice going back to the era before recorded music, when songs—not their performers—were the star. Such superstar songs form the backbone of the American folk song canon, the stuff that seminal folkie Pete Seeger devoted his musical career to passing down.

Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia) differs from most tribute albums in that Pete Seeger, who is ostensibly the subject of the tribute, didn't write any of the songs included on the CD. What Seeger did do was gather and popularize those songs, which include "Eyes on the Prize," "Pay Me My Money Down" and "Shenandoah"—and Springsteen's approach was to continue doing so. "You forget how great they were," Springsteen says of the songs. "They're music that gets lost by the fact that it hasn't been recontextualized. Sometimes if you recontextualize the stuff a little bit, it comes to life again. If they don't get picked up again, you can forget all the life that's in them, all the human experience that's in them." That's the mission behind We Shall Overcome, but the album succeeds because it thrums with heartfelt spontaneity. While Seeger's recordings of these songs are mostly accompanied by nothing but a banjo, Springsteen invited a 17-member backing band to belt out these tunes in a studio improvised in his living room. Seeger often cues listener to sing along, but Springsteen gives you a full-formed party-in-progress. An album like We Shall Overcome is an invitation to participate in a chain that goes back hundreds of years. The current glut of tribute albums can only wish to be so vital.

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