Seeger, Springsteen and "We Shall Overcome"

ON HIS new album, Bruce Springsteen sings some of the most celebrated songs of struggle in U.S. history.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions honors socialist folk singer Pete Seeger, collecting a small part of the music Seeger helped to spread during his decades of making music and political activism.

Some of these songs–like “We Shall Overcome” and “Eyes on the Prize”–are inseparable in anyone’s mind from the great struggles for justice and social change in U.S. history. Others–the early 19th century antiwar ballad “Mrs. McGrath,” or “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away,” about the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression–are less known, but shot through with a political message that could be about today’s headlines. Still others–like “Erie Canal” or “Shenandoah” or “John Henry”–probably reside in the recesses of your brain from singing them in grade school.

Springsteen makes all of them his own, setting them to a comprehensive range of American musical styles, all performed by a rollicking 18-piece band, complete with fiddle and horn sections.

The life of these songs-out-of-the-pre-musical-recording-past is documented in liner notes on Springsteen’s Web site (go to and click on “Liner Notes”) by Dave Marsh, author of two biographies of Springsteen and numerous other books on music, and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, a monthly newsletter on music and politics.
Can you talk about the sources for the music on this album?

Basically, the songs come from three traditions. The most important are the African American tradition and the British Isles folk tradition.

There’s also a category of work songs, which overlaps. “Shenandoah” is a work song, even though the lyric isn’t anything to do with work. “Pay Me My Money Down” is a work song that started out in South Carolina, and then gets adopted by sailors and becomes a work shanty for sailors, especially in the Caribbean. It’s usually done with a calypso beat–that’s how the Weavers did it, and that’s how the Kingston Trio did it.

The oldest songs are the songs from that Anglo-Scottish-Irish tradition. The oldest of all is “Froggie Went a Courtin’,” which was first written down and published in 1549. But I would be willing to bet you that by then, it was probably very antique.

The songs from the African American tradition divide into two categories. One category is spirituals and hymns. There are four of them on the album: “We Shall Overcome,” “Eyes on the Prize,” (which is more commonly known as “Gospel Plow” or “Hold On”–it has many names), “Jacob’s Ladder” and “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

All of these songs were used as freedom songs during the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome,” of course, has been used in many other movements. There’s a whole history of that song in the labor movement, and how it got from the church to the labor movement is a very fascinating story.

But there are other songs, too, that are based in the African American culture. One would be “Pay Me My Money Down,” because that was originally sung by Black stevedores on the South Carolina coast. Also, there’s “John Henry,” who has always been understood to be African American, even though none of the lyrics in this version and very few of the lyrics in any version ever say so explicitly.


These are songs that tell stories, but they’re also protest songs. Can you talk about how politics comes through in a song like “Mrs. McGrath”?

“MRS. McGRATH” is an Irish song that actually sounds like it should have been written in the early 20th century, around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising–and in fact, it was used then.

But it actually comes from the Napoleonic period–from the time of the peninsular campaign in Spain and Portugal against Napoleon. There were tens of thousands of Irish natives inveigled into the British Army, and this song simply reflects that. But, of course, the story is so universal that it sounds like it could be about now.

But I want to go back to your question, because the songs on this album are not protest songs–with the exception of “Pay Me My Money Down” and, metaphorically, “Mrs. McGrath.”

“We Shall Overcome” is not a protest song. “Eyes on the Prize” is not a protest song. They’re much more complicated than that–the ones that have been used for expressly political purposes. “John Henry” isn’t a protest song, although it makes a very strong criticism of the way capitalism works people to death.

The reason to me that this is important is that these songs have all sorts of purposes. And the purpose to which Springsteen has turned them, I think, is almost the opposite–a celebratory purpose, an affirmation.

At the end of “John Henry,” when his wife, Polly Ann, picks up the hammer, that’s an affirmation of all sorts of things. It’s an affirmation of the power of labor. It’s an affirmation of solidarity. It’s an affirmation of female power. It’s a statement that we won’t quit.

So calling them protest songs makes them sound like something much more limited than what they are.

Look at “We Shall Overcome,” which is the most famous so-called protest song of them all. I think it’s probably the most famous American song of the 20th century worldwide–and not incidentally was never widely recorded, was never played on the radio, except in news clips.

If you look at “We Shall Overcome,” there are protest elements, but it contains everything. There’s the verse “We are not afraid,” and that’s not a protest. That’s something else–that’s spitting in the eye of the people who want to keep you afraid. There’s a fascinating story about how that verse came to be written, at the Highlander Center [a civil rights training school] in the late 1950s, and a girl came up with it during a Klan raid.

Listen to “O Mary, Don’t you Weep,” and imagine that you’re a Mississippi prison guard in Parchman penitentiary. You’ve got all these Freedom Riders locked up in their cells, and what they’re singing is “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.” Well, you’ve got to understand that you’re working for pharaoh.

Actually, there was this whole history in the civil rights movement of jailers and prison guards punishing people for singing these songs. Southern Black people, when they sing these songs, in church or in protests–they’re loud, and they’re aggressive.

So it’s not as simple as protest. I think that’s a prime political point.


Can you talk about how songs like “We Shall Overcome” grew and changed over the years?

They used to call it the “folk process,” which sort of gilded the lily a bit, but the idea was that these songs sort of sprouted up out of the people, and then the people carried them forward, and changed them as circumstances or imagination warranted.

They didn’t get the beginning of the process right. I think every song probably has, initially, an individual creator. But it’s also true that every song, once it’s sung, becomes part of the cultural storehouse of the whole human species. And this speaks directly to the intellectual property wars of our time, and the attempt to impoverish and incarcerate people for listening to or using music.

So every song has its individual, specific history. But the history of all of them, if they’ve survived for any length of time, is that somebody picks them up and puts themselves into them. It’s always particular to the people who are singing them, and it’s always a link back to the origins–you’re looking backward while you look forward.

The example I’d use is the least recorded song that’s on the album, which is “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.”

It was written by Sis Cunningham, who edited Broadside magazine, which was a magazine of topical and protest songs–songs that were written mostly about immediate social issues. It was a very left-wing publication founded by Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds, another folk-style songwriter. And then Sis Cunningham and her husband Gordan Freisen ran it for about a decade, in the midst of both the folk revival and the civil rights and antiwar movements.

I think what happened is that Sis and her brother wrote a version of “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away” that Pete Seeger recorded in 1961, but never put out on a record. Then Sis put the lyrics in Broadside late in the game–in 1966 or 1967.

Broadside would often put out compilation albums of its songwriters, and one of the compilations had her singing this song. Then that song was put out on a Broadside collection–a box set that Smithsonian Folkways issued.

So what you’ve got is the originator’s version, which actually comes after the first adapter’s version. And then the song lies there for 30 years, and nobody sings it, and nobody hears it.

In 1994, there was a box set of Pete’s stuff issued on Columbia, called A Link in the Chain. It had a few un-issued tracks, and the first of them was “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.” I wrote the liner notes, I can remember listening to the song over and over, and thinking, “Wow, how did I miss this?”

The automatic assumption of everybody was that it was a Woody Guthrie song. Bruce assumed it was a Woody Guthrie song until I told him otherwise.

But Bruce finds it, and his version is radically different from either of the other versions, and the reason it’s radically different is he sings it as if it’s a Bruce Springsteen song, and he puts the whole force of his personality through this story. And I think that’s the process right there. Because that song now will find a life, I believe.

Another great example that’s also on this album is “Buffalo Gals.” “Buffalo Gals” was a canal song from the Erie Canal period. The Buffalo gals had nothing to do with Buffalo soldiers. The song is about prostitutes on Canal Street in Buffalo, New York, at the end of the Erie Canal.

It was written in 1844, and it was widely sung on the boats. Then it sort of vanished after its time was up. Then, in 1944, it was revived by a dance band and recorded as “Dance with the Dolly.”

And now, this Christmas, when you see It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll notice that not only do Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart sing this song while they’re skipping down the street at the beginning of the romance, but it’s the overture to the whole movie. The theme song of It’s a Wonderful Life is “Buffalo Gals.”

That’s exactly 100 years from its inception, and it’s a totally different musical landscape.

Plus, Pete would sing it, as well as various other people, and then “Buffalo Gals” comes around to this version, which is somewhere in between–actually closer to that dance version of the 1940s, but Bruce has got this big folk band playing it.

That’s another thing–why this is a folk album in people’s heads has a lot more to do with its title than with its music. That’s partly what’s tricky to explain to people about it.

It is a folk album, but there are also the song origins and these other things. For example, when you get into Sam Bardfeld’s klezmerish-jazz fiddle, it evokes a certain kind of music that’s actually Eastern European folk music. Sam doesn’t consider that to be his style, but I don’t know how you can listen to the beginning of “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” and not hear that.
There’s a perception about folk music that’s it’s musically tame. Bruce himself in the liner notes talks about how “rock n’ roll kids” like himself didn’t know much about Pete Seeger’s music. But then you hear this album, and right from the first song, it’s anything but tame.

I did an interview with Bruce for my Sirius satellite radio show, and he talked about this in a much more complicated way. He said that when he was a kid, he would be at the beach, and young people would be standing around with a couple of acoustic guitars, singing folk songs. And he said he always wished he could be in that circle.

I think that’s a great social metaphor and political metaphor, if you want to understand where he comes off.

But this side of the music has always been there. It’s the side of rock and roll that’s not about individual, self-destructive rebellion.

At the same time, though, the specific folk repertoire has been captured by what I call–in Forever Young, a book I wrote about Bob Dylan in 1964–the folk police, who are there to make sure that these songs remain desiccated and drained of fun and vitality.

Basically, Bruce’s idea was that everybody knows these songs–or at least some of them–but they don’t know what to do with them. Well, the answer of what to do with them is in the last line of the album, from “Froggie Went A Courtin'”: “If you want any more, you can sing it yourself.”

That’s the other exciting idea that’s here–that music is not about crafting, in a very specialized-labor kind of way, songs and recorded performances. Music is an activity.

There’s a great musicologist called Christopher Small, who wrote a book called Music of the Common Tongue, where he talks about why African American music replaced what we now think of as European classical music as the vernacular music of its time. He begins by saying that English is a deficient language for explaining music, because it thinks that music is a noun, and music is really a verb. We need the verb “musicking.”

Musicking is what this album is about. Bruce talks about this in the liner notes–that this album is about the making of the music.

But we forget that we’re living in this kind of ass-backwards period of history. Throughout the history of human beings, from the earliest campfires, we’ve had music–at least as long as we’ve had spoken language. Actually, there’s one study I’ve read that suggested that we’ve had music longer than we’ve had fire.

There was a great column by Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal, saying that this was a survival thing–because music is about cooperative labor, and it was a way to bind us together. So all those work songs take on a much more central importance, among other things. And the idea of possessing those songs and treating them as property becomes even more outrageous.

Before 1890 or so, there was no recorded music, so if you wanted to hear something again, you had to do it yourself, or someone had to do it in your house, so that was a much more participatory event.

Even up to about 1950, music was still dominated by music publishers–people who produced written scores. That was the performance. It’s when the recorded thing becomes bigger than the published thing that the tail begins to wag the dog, and people stop performing and become much more passive about music.

The folk revival and Beatlemania were sort of the last gasps of a kind of different relationship. And in England, with punk rock, the do-it-yourself thing had many meanings, and one of them was to make your own music. That becomes much more of an activity. I think that’s another part of what this record does.
Did Springsteen listen to a lot of the earlier versions of these songs, or did he come up with his own ways of arranging the music?

That was one of the smartest things he did–he sort of went into it with a willful ignorance.

He certainly heard Pete’s version of many of the songs. But when I interviewed him, he talked about how he didn’t go back and listen. He was trying to find his ways through the songs, and I think that’s another reason it works–because it’s completely out of bounds. I’m actually surprised that he hasn’t been attacked more by folk purists–by people who think there is a right way to sing these songs.

One of his assistants went on the Internet and grabbed lyrics for the songs. On a song like “Froggie Went A Courtin’,” there’s like 200 verses. A verse is two lines long in that song, but still, that’s a lot of lines. So he picked and chose.

Some of the stuff is hybridized. Not every version of “John Henry” has Polly Ann. Similarly, many versions of “Froggie Went A Courtin'” end with a snake and a cat coming in and eating everybody. And at least one version that Pete Seeger sings has the frog and the mouse reproducing and creating furry tadpoles.

I had my own problem with the album in one respect. If you understand “We Shall Overcome” as a movement song and an expression of the “beloved community” of the civil rights movement, here’s a guy who changes the key line from “deep in my heart” to “here in my heart,” and adds in front a “darlin’.”

And it’s sung very quietly. It’s everything that a movement version wouldn’t be. It felt almost solipsistic to me.

Until I saw him sing it live in New Orleans–where even Soozie Tyrell, the violin player, was wiping tears out of her eyes–I didn’t really understand why this is a time to sing “We Shall Overcome” that way.

Bruce has said that his theory behind doing this song is that it’s about a guy hiding in an alley. And he knows right from wrong–he knows what the possibilities of human beings are. Well, first, he has to convince himself. And then he has to convince the person he loves most in the world. And they have to go out and convince a few more people.

He did exactly the same thing on “Eyes on the Prize.” On the version of “Eyes on the Prize” on the album, you can hear him building the song like that–which to him is a metaphor of building the movement.

Bruce is in an interesting place right now. I was shocked a little by the middle verse that he wrote for the song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” which he’s playing in concert. And I was also shocked by the lack of reaction to it.

In it, the guy goes out and gets his 16-guage shotgun and shells to deal with the flooding of New Orleans. To me, the implication of that is armed revolution. And that shows you the bind we’re in, because now we’re back to that isolated guy in the alley, with just his wife and him, going to fight it out, until they can find some allies.

I was actually very surprised that this verse didn’t excite some Bill O’Reilly frenzy.

The other undercurrent to this album is that it’s a tribute to a singer who was a communist, and who was blacklisted for it. It’s a pretty serious statement for Springsteen to champion Pete Seeger’s music, isn’t it?

This is my interpretation of it–not Bruce’s, because I don’t know his–but Pete cuts several ways. The other thing that’s in there is Pete Seeger, great American, which he is–Pete Seeger, patriot even. Pete Seeger, lover of American culture, teacher of American culture. And beyond that, Pete Seeger, world citizen and person of courage.

So I don’t think it’s as simple as Pete Seeger the communist. But I don’t think that Pete Seeger as a communist is eliminated either.

How you reconcile this with working for John Kerry for president, as Bruce did, is a very good question. But a better question is what does releasing this record have to do with Vote for Change, and what does this portend for the next group of Democrats who try to swindle artists into supporting them.

I frankly don’t know. If Hillary Clinton was counting on that support, I’d say she’d be in some trouble–that’s just a guess. But none of the Democrats are going to address the stuff that’s on this album.

The other political undercurrent in this record is the war, which except for “Mrs. McGrath,” never comes up. And yet, I think it’s probably in every note on the record. And in the concerts, it’s explicit and getting more so. The other night in Paris, Bruce sang “Bring ‘Em Home,” Pete’s antiwar song.

What do we know if we’re serious about our politics? We know that we need a movement, and we know that movements start out of human need. Therefore, writing the right song or singing the right song can’t start a movement.

But it can do about a hundred other things as the movement gets rolling. It can spread the word. It can enliven spirits. It can express the issue. It can give you comfort when, inevitably, you lose a battle. There are a whole bunch of things a song can do.

This isn’t going to generate a more productive antiwar movement–that’s up to the rest of us. But we have another tool.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and the author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at:



ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: