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.