A 1997 invitation from Appleseed Recordings’ president and founder, Jim Musselman, for Bruce Springsteen to record a track for the label’s first multi-artist CD celebration of the music of Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone (1998), was the spark for a historic relationship between the two musical icons. Not only did The Boss record “We Shall Overcome” for the Seeger tribute released in 1998, but Seeger’s music inspired Springsteen’s 2006 CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, his subsequent American and European tours, and a live CD/DVD set, Live in Dublin, and two collaborations with Pete on recent Appleseed releases.
Bruce was high on Musselman’s want list when Jim started approaching musicians to record new versions of Seeger-written or -performed tracks for Where Have All the Flowers Gone. Scheduling conflicts initially forced Springsteen to decline participation, but the persistent Musselman finally received the green light from Springsteen’s management and he presented Bruce with an armload of Seeger recordings and a list of suggestions for what track to cut. “Growing up a rock ’n’ roll kid, I didn’t know much about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence,” wrote Bruce in the We Shall Overcome liner notes.
Those 1997 sessions yielded “We Shall Overcome,” donated to the Where Have All the Flowers Gone compilation, and a handful of other tracks that eventually appeared, supplemented by additional 2005 and ’06 recordings of Seeger-related material, almost a decade later on Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. That CD was expanded a few months later as We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – American Land Edition, containing, among many extra features, five additional songs, including “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam),” an anti-Vietnam War song Seeger originally wrote in 1965. Pete was in the recording studio with our own Mr. Musselman in 2003 on the first day American bombs fell on Iraq, and Jim suggested updating the song in response to the erupting invasion, even supplying new lyrics that Pete added to the song: “If you love this land of the free/Bring them back from overseas.” Pete inserted his own new, spoken middle-section to the track, in which he emphasized the importance of dissent in a democracy, a somewhat inflammatory sentiment under the current administration. This version, on which Pete was joined by guests Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg, appears on our third tribute set to Pete and his music, Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3, released in 2003. Springsteen subsequently heard the Seeds rendition (Seeger’s only in-print recording of the song, also available as an iTunes download), added some politically charged verses of his own, recorded the track and started performing it as one of his encore numbers on the ensuing “Sessions” tours. He also performed the song on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Late Show with Conan O’Brien.”
Musselman is elated that Springsteen used his first 1997 recordings of Seeger-oriented material for Where Have All the Flowers Gone as the basis for We Shall Overcome(and the ensuing tours). “Appleseed was started partly to keep folk songs alive, and Bruce has done that with this album,” says Musselman. “Now Bruce will carry all these songs on to another generation and give them greater exposure. I have the deepest respect for Bruce Springsteen as a musician and a human being. He has always made an effort to understand the roots and history of music, be it Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds or Roy Orbison or Pete Seeger. I am proud that this CD by Bruce was inspired by our original Pete Seeger tribute.”
Springsteen’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” on Flowers was put to good use years before its appearance on his own CDs. Already a cornerstone of labor and civil rights movements in the U.S. and around the world, the song arose again in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist airplane hijackings and attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
When David Hyman, director of creative services for NBC4-TV in New York, was searching for music to accompany a news video featuring heroic responses to the destruction of the twin towers of the city’s World Trade Center, he found Bruce’s version of the song on the Internet. “I heard 20 seconds of his version and I said, ‘That’s the one, absolutely the one,’ ” Hyman told reporter Geoff Gehman of the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call. “It’s so plaintive, so stirring, so terribly, terribly evocative. It has a peaceful tone, rather than a saber-rattling, angry, nationalistic feeling.”
On September 13, Springsteen’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” was heard as the soundtrack for the Hyman-produced video that was played at the end of NBC’s nightly newscast. The two-minute montage became a theme for recovery from the shocking, horrific events of September 11 and was broadcast frequently on the NBC Nightly News and also appeared on NBC’s “Dateline” and CNBC’s “News with Brian Williams.”
During the September 17 broadcast of the video on NBC’s “Nightly News,” anchor Tom Brokaw called Springsteen’s recording “an important anthem of hope for these troubled times.” In subsequent days, the song was played during a Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium, the first sports event in New York City held after the attacks, and was played between innings at baseball games at Yankee Stadium.
Musselman was stunned and gratified by the song’s role in the nation’s attempts to come to terms with the attacks. “It’s been surrealistic for Tom Brokaw to play DJ,” he told the Morning Call’s Gehman. “I’ve had people tell me that the song, and the video, has allowed them to cry, has given them true release…If I ever thought I’d hear 60,000 screaming Yankee fans giving a standing ovation for this song, I would have said, ‘No way.’
“It’s so nice, and so humbling, to be able to put out music that people turn to for comfort,” Musselman told Gehman. “This song has been used throughout [its] history in any place where people have overcome adversity. Now it’s not only moving people, it’s nurturing them, in a way.”
The events of September 11 were, sadly, not the first tragedy to inspire use of Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome.” The recording was also used in the healing process by those who lost family and friends in the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
The connection between Bruce, Pete and Appleseed has been reaffirmed by exclusive collaborations between Seeger and Springsteen on two of our September 2007 releases, Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary, a 2-CD set celebrating Appleseed’s first decade, and Give US Your Poor.
In a reversal of the Seeger Sessions format, in which Bruce and a large acoustic band recorded numerous folk songs written, adapted or performed by Seeger, Pete takes the lead vocal on the Springsteen-penned “Ghost of Tom Joad” on Sowing the Seeds, with Bruce adding a counterpoint vocal as well as guitar and harmonica. As Musselman writes in the Sowing liner notes, “I feel Bruce has carried on Pete’s legacy in many ways, and when Pete sings, ‘Wherever someone is struggling to be free/Look in your eyes, Mom, you will see me,’ and Bruce echoes the line, it is the sound of a torch being passed. I also sensed that it was the end of the chapter of Bruce emphasizing Pete’s material so I wanted to have an O. Henry-like ending to it all with Pete doing a Bruce song.”
This collaboration between musical giants of different generations wasn’t over yet, though – the duo, with help from “the Sessions Band,” recorded the folk standard “Hobo’s Lullaby” for our fund- and consciousness-raising Give US Your Poor CD.
Bruce Springsteen performs “We Shall Overcome” on Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger and Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Celebration.
Bruce and Pete Seeger duet on their exclusive versions of “Ghost of Tom Joad” on Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Celebration and “Hobo’s Lullaby” on our various artists’ Give US Your Poor homeless charity CD, respectively.
To hear Bruce talk about reinterpreting the music of Pete Seeger on NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2006, please follow this link.