The older we get, the saying goes, the more like ourselves we become.
Even as a young rabble-rouser, Bruce Springsteen wrote songs that were, at heart, quintessential evocations of America. With the passing years the great American rocker has burrowed ever deeper into his country's essential sounds and defining experiences: the fast-car fairy tales of ''Born to Run" turned to the working-class ruminations of ''The River" and ''Nebraska," which grew pointed and political on ''Born in the U.S.A."
Springsteen went on to sketch the death of the American dream on ''The Ghost of Tom Joad," find a fierce, redemptive grace on the post-9/11 cycle ''The Rising," and fuse rustic arrangements with topical narratives on last year's ''Devils & Dust."
So it comes as no surprise that Springsteen, at 56, would find himself drawn to songs popularized by this century's foremost activist folk singer: Pete Seeger. What is surprising is the positively jubilant sound of Springsteen's first-ever collection of cover tunes. If we're talking about freedom from oppression -- this is folk music, so we are -- it seems that stepping outside of his oeuvre and into the public domain has released Bruce Springsteen from the shackles of self-imposed gravitas. While there's no denying the passion that fuels the artist's increasingly (and understandably) sober commentary, there's nothing like a hopeful tune to rally the masses.
Which is why ''We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" is neither a lark nor a happy accident. Setting up an unrehearsed 14-piece orchestra of washboard and banjo players, accordionists, fiddlers, and singers in your living room goes a long way toward lassoing the sprawling, joyful noise that fills the album, in stores today. (The ensemble will swell to 17 for the tour, which rolls through the Garden May 27.) Inspired to immerse himself in the folk hero's back catalog after recording this album's title track for a 1997 Seeger tribute, Springsteen cut this collection of protest songs, spirituals, outlaw ballads, minstrel tunes, and sea shanties during three one-day sessions at his farmhouse in New Jersey. The songs were recorded live -- horns in the hallway, the Boss calling out chord changes as the tape rolls -- and each track brims with the rambunctious, freewheeling spirit of an afternoon jam.
Given the 86-year-old Seeger's outspoken left-wing politics, one imagines that Springsteen's album would be driven by commentary. And there is some subtle sermonizing: in the rousing antiwar ballad ''Mrs. McGrath" (where Springsteen can't resist changing the words ''King of France" to ''King of America") the civil rights anthem ''Eyes on the Prize," and ''We Shall Overcome," perhaps the most familiar protest song in the world, fully Springsteenized here as a dense, measured prayer. But mainly the album feels like summer camp. And lo and behold, it turns out that hopped-up jamborees -- these tunes couldn't be more different from Springsteen's recent repertoire of austere originals -- are the very sound of liberation.
''Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man/Washed his face with a fryin' pan/combed his hair with a wagon wheel/And died with a toothache in his heel," Springsteen hollers in the opening track, banjo plinking, upright bass thumping, wife and friends harmonizing. That loping, ramshackle energy sets the tone for the rest of this irrepressible collection, which includes thigh-slapping renditions of ''Jesse James" and ''John Henry," the grade-school staple ''Erie Canal," a blowsy New Orleans-style take on beloved spiritual ''Jacob's Ladder," and the deceptively perky Dust Bowl tale ''My Oklahoma Home." While Springsteen's super-hootenanny-size arrangements are a far cry from Seeger's simple settings, they're similarly defined by a deep, humble affection for tradition.
Maybe that's why on his 21st album (which is being released as a DualDisc with the usual behind-the-scenes footage and bonus tracks on the DVD side), Springsteen sounds looser and freer than he has since he was a young man, just beginning to discover his roots.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org