Near the end of “Mrs. McGrath,” a nineteenth-century Irish ballad that is the third track on Bruce Springsteen’s new album, comes a couplet that gives a pretty good sense of why he’s putting out an album of traditional folk music right now: “All foreign wars, I do proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.” We Shall Overcome — which was recorded live in Springsteen’s New Jersey home with a fourteen-piece band, including horns, banjo, fiddles, washboard, organ and accordion — is his most jubilant disc since Born in the U.S.A. and more fun than a tribute to Pete Seeger has any right to be. But as on Born in the U.S.A., seemingly triumphant anthems are paired with lyrics of pain and protest that champion the oppressed and the exploited (not to mention the calamity-prone protagonist of “My Oklahoma Home,” whose wife, house and crops get blown away by a tornado, leaving him with nothing but a mortgage).
Springsteen has always mined a deep vein of Americana, from the hot-rod-and-B-movie-obsessed early albums to the Steinbeckian social realism of The Ghost of Tom Joad and last year’s Devils and Dust. But with his first-ever album of songs written by other people, it feels like he’s turned to the music of our shared past to find a moral compass for a nation that’s gone off the rails. The protest anthems “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome” are performed with an understated urgency; the gospel standard “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep” — which Springsteen sings in a gruff Tom Waits-ish baritone and to which the Seeger Sessions Band gives a Dixieland treatment with Stephane Grappelli-style violin — promises, “Brothers and sisters, don’t you cry/There’ll be good times by and by.”
Springsteen discovered most of these tunes — which also include sea chanteys (“Pay Me My Money Down”), minstrel songs (“Old Dan Tucker”) and outlaw ballads (“Jessie James”) — on LPs by Seeger. Among the pleasures of this album is rediscovering childhood staples like “Erie Canal” or “John Henry” via Springsteen’s craggy, familiar voice — which is as mighty and powerful as the steel-driving man himself.