Whenever You're Ready, Boss

News of a Bruce Springsteen album of Pete Seeger covers causes concern.

Bruce Springsteen fans around the world are excited ... and also a bit nervous, I'm sure. Last week, the rocker announced that a new studio album is only six weeks away, but it's not going to be the big-sounding E-Street Band record we were all expecting. It's a folk album.

Obviously, Bruce is not ready to return to the carefree, pumped-up world of arena rock. And like many Springsteen fans, I'm not sure if I'm ready to watch the Boss pick up a banjo and sing classic folk tunes like "Froggie Went A-Courtin."

"We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions," Bruce Springsteen's 14th studio album, will be released on April 25 and features 13 songs from the repertoire of folk pioneer and activist Pete Seeger.

That's Pete Seeger, not Bob Seger. Just checking.

The morning after the announcement, I called in sick. Hours later, I found myself sitting in an empty diner in downtown Hoboken, N.J., my head full of burning questions. Is Bruce trying to connect with Woody Guthrie? Is he sending secret messages to Bob Dylan? Is he signing a sonic birthday card for Pete Seeger, who turns 87 in May?

Coffee, please.

Ten minutes into my meditation, the Springsteen song "Dancing in the Dark" launches on the radio -- probably Jack-FM -- engulfing me with its warm, pulsating synth riff. This sparkling '80s pop hit couldn't be farther removed from the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," which Seeger adapted from traditional Gospel -– the rest is history. The two songs are worlds apart, and that's the beauty. Bruce may have many faces, but he only has one voice.

This folk project shouldn't come as a surprise. In the 1980s, Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" became staples of Bruce's concert performances with the E-Street Band, and his 1995 acoustic effort "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was unavoidably Guthrie-esque.

After all, Springsteen started out as a skinny, fast-singing wordsmith in 1973, pitched as one of the "New Dylans," even though his music screamed, "I'm a rocker." Now, more than 30 years later, Bruce is whispering, "I'm a folk musician, not a rocker." Times Are A-Changin.' Circles are closing. New discs arrive on the shelves.

More coffee, please.

So Bruce is getting folked up, he's staying unplugged. Released in April 2005, the stripped-down "Devils & Dust," Springsteen's first DualDisc release, sold 612,000 copies in the United States, according to SoundScan. The accompanying small-venue solo tour did big business, grossing more than $33.4 million from 65 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore. Forty-six of the shows were sellouts. In February, the title track from "Devils & Dust" won a Grammy for best solo rock vocal performance.

"The Rising" (2002), his most recent E-Street album, has sold 2.1 million copies.

Just the check, please.

Springsteenology aside, here's the real question: What will Bruce's new album sound like?

That's easy. Bruce has covered Seeger before. He quietly recorded "We Shall Overcome" for the 1998 tribute album "Where Have All the Flowers Gone – The Music of Pete Seeger," featuring contributions by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, among others (the two-disc set sold 41,000 U.S. copies). On that set, Bruce sounds surprisingly relaxed, carrying the protest anthem with unexpected lightness and ease. OK, the accordion pretty much runs the show, and the guitars are cautiously finger-picked, but Bruce's hopeful rasp -- which we have come to depend on -- is as vital as ever. You can almost hear him smiling.

On my way back to the city, a realization: This shouldn't be about Bruce. This is all about Pete.

"The Seeger Sessions" honors a music legend and political activist who tirelessly promoted American folk music. Millions of children across America have learned to sing and clap to Pete Seeger's Folkways recordings. His passion for traditional folk music was so burning that he tried to pull the plug on Bob Dylan's first electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, feeling that Dylan had betrayed the folk community. Forty years later, Seeger is keeping Bruce from plugging in and cranking it up. This man must have legendary power.

Kudos to Bruce for thwarting our expectations and ensuring that Seeger's legacy survives and inspires -– maybe even enlightens -- rock fans all over the world. The next E-Street record will come, I'm sure... just not right now.

Whenever you're ready, Bruce. You're the Boss.