For his new album, he digs into classic labor and protest folk son made famous by Pete Seeger
We're in the ballpark," Bruce Springsteen tells his band during a rehearsal of "Devils and Dust" at the Paramount Theatre, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. "One more time, then we'll take a break." The band runs through the song one more time, as instructed, yet the promised break doesn't come. In fact, Springsteen shows no signs of stopping. "The first note is dark," he tells the guitarist. To the backup singers: "Underline 'Fear's a dangerous thing' on the lyric sheet." The band members look exhausted. They have been going for five hours straight.
"It's lunchtime," Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife, backup singer, guitarist and timekeeper, suggests.
"Let's just see what we got."
"Maybe we should do lunch first," she hints again.
"One more time, then we'll all take a break," Springsteen presses on.
Wearily, horns are put to lips, violin bows to strings, fingers to accordion buttons. When it comes to energy level and focus, Springsteen, even in rehearsal, remains superhuman.
The band has three weeks until its debut performance, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Scheduled afterward are a ten-date European tour and a monthlong American roadshow, which kicks off on Memorial Day. However, this ensemble is not Springsteen's walloping blood-brothers the E Street Band. It's a mix of old friends and new faces, a thirteen-piece outfit that has been nearly ten years in the making. In various incarnations, it has convened exactly three times before this stretch of rehearsals. Those three times led to Springsteen's newest and perhaps least commercial album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of labor, civil-rights, protest and story songs from the repertoire of Pete Seeger, the pillar of the midcentury folk revival, now eighty-seven and laid up with a bad leg in upstate New York.
When the promised break finally comes, Springsteen pulls off his horse-emblazoned country & western shirt, revealing a thinning but still solid frame, and wriggles into a faded black T-shirt. He has small hoop earrings in his ears, string bracelets fraying on his wrists, brown work pants bunched around his boots and two days of stubble mottled with gray.
He wanders through the tangle of musicians and crew onstage, glad-handing and making small talk, slightly uncomfortable in an effort to make sure everyone else is comfortable. At fifty-six, Springsteen has earned his Neil Young pass, entitling him to basically record whatever he wants because, be it good or bad, commercial or noncommercial, it's done with integrity.
"My goal has been to try and put more things out, because in my youth I was so spare with ray releases," Springsteen explains. "So now, like, the rules are off. By the time you're fifty-six, hell, if you're worrying yourself at that point, then you haven't learned your lesson. And I can say one thing: I have learned my lesson. The kind of fretting I did as a young man, I don't do anymore. I'm an old guy who can do what he wants, you know." He takes a step backward, laughs and spreads his arms, letting it be known that a big, heartfelt conclusion is on its way. "Right now, I just feel like I'm at the top of my game. And I've never felt freer or like I've had more music in me."
People often use words like "real" and "grounded" when they describe Springsteen, but to get more specific, what's most unusual about him is that he doesn't have a fiber of pretension in his being – especially rare for a guy who's been called the Boss for most of his adult life. Beyond that, he's the only rock-star dad I've ever interviewed who not only seems happy to chauffeur his children around but can actually remember and quote papers they've written for school.
"We've got two teenagers and one on the cusp," Springsteen says after discussing a paper his eldest son wrote on George Orwell. "And they're people now. I like that a lot. I remember walking in my son's room one day, and I looked at him and it was a man sitting there. And there was something in the way he looked at me where I said, 'Oh, yeah, he's going to be OK.'"
After lunch, the musicians attack the material with renewed energy. Once Springsteen becomes aware that people are watching, the rehearsal turns into a full-fledged performance.
"Get out the way, old Dan Tucker/You're too late to get your supper," he rasps. Guitar cocked back along his hip like a machine gun, right leg thrust forward like a sprinter on the starting block, horse shirt once more on his back and stuck to the sweat, he powers through a performance of the bluegrass-tinged lead track from the new CD.
"Sing!" he yells at the audience.
The audience sits in absolute silence.
"Sing!" he insists, as if insulted by the silence.
The audience looks around, confused.
There are only four people in the theater.
Later, Springsteen relaxes in a small upstairs room. He initially sits on the couch, then switches to an uncomfortable hard-backed folding chair to discuss relationships, politics and The Seeger Sessions.
Initially, Springsteen had no intention of putting out an album of centuries-old folk songs. After touring behind Devils and Dust, he'd planned to take a year off, then get back together with the E Street Band to record some new songs he'd written for them.
But idleness is not something that sits well with Springsteen. First, he thought he'd use the time to dig through the vaults for a second volume of Tracks, his 1998 collection of rarities and outtakes. That, however, led him to consider revisiting a record he made but never released in the mid-Nineties: a solo album of songs over tape loops, extending the terrain he explored in "Streets of Philadelphia."
Still, something kept haunting him: a 1997 session he had recorded for a Pete Seeger tribute album. After agreeing to do a song for the disc, he bought an armful of Seeger records, studied them, gathered a dozen or so musicians in his Monmouth County, New Jersey, farmhouse and cut seven songs; "We Shall Overcome" was used on the tribute album. Because he enjoyed listening to the recordings from time to time, Springsteen decided to release them. So he called the musicians back to his house two more times in the past two years.
"It was the shortest record I ever made," Springsteen says, stumbling to find the right words. "We played nothing more than three times. There were no rehearsals and no arrangements. Everything was live, recorded into old-fashioned room mikes. If you listen to the record, you can hear me calling people's names, conducting as we go."
Where most of Springsteen's repertoire is for the people, the new songs are music by the people; they're field songs, not stage songs, many originally intended to be sung by civil-rights marchers, dockworkers, draft dodgers. These range from ultra-canonical songs etched into the brain of anyone who's ever been in a grade-school music room, like "John Henry" and "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," to spirituals that faced hardship head-on, like "Eyes on the Prize" and "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep." He doesn't attempt to recontextualize the songs so much as to resuscitate them, to pick up and pass them on to, as Springsteen puts it, "the next guy with a guitar out there on the highway willing to come along and give them a ride.
"The songwriting was what struck me, how alive the songs were," he adds. "You have all those lost voices floating in there. And that's something I pursue in my own work all the time, I'm interested in lost voices. I don't know if I'm chasing that or if it's chasing me."
Though one might expect sparse, haunting acoustic ballads in the vein of The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Seeger Sessions is more of an old-timey party album, with influences reaching into jazz, zydeco, bluegrass and, in the newest songs, gospel, which has been Springsteen's kick lately.
"What's great about gospel is that combination where transcendence is in view and you can see the light, you can smell the light and you can hear the light, but the apocalypse is at your heels," he says, slipping into the preacher dialect he occasionally uses to heighten the energy onstage. "Those are the two elements I wanted in my songs. That's why I always say in my music – the verses are the blues and the choruses are the gospel, the promised land."
It was these thematic reasons, rather than the current political climate, that drew Springsteen to release The Seeger Sessions – less a political protest record than a celebration of American life, struggle and hope in the face of adversity. "I guess my take on some of the last experiences we've had," Springsteen says, "is that a small group of men with a very particular ideology found their way into power and pressed themselves on an immature president. They were able to literally get what they wanted: They got their tax cuts, they got their war, they got their money going to the places they wanted it to go to. I don't think that's being cynical. That's just what happened."
When asked why he doesn't try to meet with politicians to influence them directly, like U2's Bono, Springsteen responds, "I probably don't have that confidence or the flat-out social ability to pull it off. It's the Irish in Bono that gets him in and to where he can survive anywhere if there are ears around." Big, nervous laugh. "I'm only about twenty-five or thirty percent Irish.
"But when you sit back and see that everyone feels incredibly frustrated and flummoxed, that means . . ." He pauses to find the right words, then falls back on what he knows best: " . . . there's music to be played, my friend. And there are songs to be sung. Right now. If ever, right now!"