Review: We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) - Bruce Springsteen

We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) is Bruce Springsteen's children's music album.

Or, at least, it's as close as we'll ever get.

I have listened to Springsteen's newest album several times since picking it up on Wednesday, inspired by this NPR story. The story led me to believe that the songs, culled from folk musician Pete Seeger's songbook, could be just as appropriate for 4-year-olds as they would be for a 54-year-old.

There are plenty of other reviews of the album which approach it from an adult's perspective. My goal here is to talk about the album's appropriateness for kids.

Springsteen collects a whole host of musicians (17 in addition to himself) to play a wide variety of folk songs and spirituals in styles ranging from bluegrass to Dixieland. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the entire enterprise is the obvious sense of joy Springsteen and the band takes in playing these songs. The idea that people should get together and just sing and play isn't new to children's music (hello, Dan Zanes!), but it certainly gets a forceful endorsement here.

The songs that end up working best, then, are those songs which allow the band to let loose and play. "Old Dan Tucker," even though it's a song about a man who "got drunk and fell / In the fire and kicked up holy hell," is guaranteed to end up in my list of top 10 children's songs in 2006. It's played with bluegrass style and verve and had our entire family dancing. (Well, except for the nine-month-old. It's a great song, but not miraculous.) The Cajun stylings of "Pay Me My Money Down," in a version more umtempo than Zanes' version, give it an extra kick, fun for dancing. It's also the one song where Springsteen allows himself the barest hint of a modern-day reference (if you're using a computer, you'll recognize it). It's a testament to the enthusiasm Springsteen brings to the song that the thought Springsteen is a man who has his "money hauled in, in crates" barely crosses one's mind.

Where kids might not like the album as much is in its slower songs such as "Shenandoah" (in which our daughter during the extended intro, said, "Go back to the one with words.") As much as it pains me to say it, the version of "We Shall Overcome" on the album (recorded and released about eight years ago) is not much fun to listen to. And the extended instrumental soloing, even in the uptempo numbers, may or may not interest the kids.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a pretty amazing album from a man who is one of the few popular musicians even attempting modern folk music. ("The River" is one of the finest folk songs written in the second half of the twentieth century and The Rising, while not perfect, is still the best musical attempt to talk about the events of 9/11.) Parents will be able to use the songs to talk about a whole host of social issues -- economic justice, war, civil rights. And they may even, like I am now, be inspired to track down the original Seeger recordings. (Or just go to this website.)

I think kids age 5 and older may be best positioned to enjoy the lyrics and ideas raised by the songs. (Though, as I said, "Old Dan Tucker" is a stone-cold classic for all ages.) The album is available just about everywhere, of course. (You can listen to samples at Springsteen's site.) The album comes in the DualDisc format which has problems playing in some computer and car CD players (somebody needs to write a protest song about that); the documentary on the DVD side is just OK, but the two bonus tracks on the DVD side, "Buffalo Gals" and "How Can I Keep From Singing," are well worth the time to listen to.

Final thoughts: This is a great album. As an album of "old-time" music, it's much more cohesive than the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (Along those lines, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the album that finally gets Springsteen his Best Album Grammy next year.) Your kids' enthusiasm for the album may flag during its 60-minute runtime, but they're likely to enjoy most of it as well.