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Listen to Springsteen sing to Mary of Bethany

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"The Boss" surrounded himself with jazz virtuosi for his 2006 album.

“Mary Don’t You Weep” is an old spiritual that was written before the American Civil War. It is what scholars call a “slave song,” as it found its origins among the enslaved. The repeated phrase “Pharaoh’s army got drowned” was intended as a coded message of hope and resistance, comparing their captors with the slave-owners of ancient Egypt.

The Mary of the song title is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who was weeping over her brother’s death before Jesus restored him to life. Other Marys evoked in the song include Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who rejoiced over the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, and of course the Blessed Mother, who wept at the foot of the cross. The message of the spiritual is one of overcoming death — and liberation from slavery.

Bruce Springsteen recorded “Mary Don’t You Weep” for his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The work is Springsteen’s first and only album of entirely non-Springsteen material, for which he took inspiration from his longtime friend, American folk singer Pete Seeger.

Of the work, Pete Seeger told The Guardian that he was not particularly pleased to see his name on the album:

“I’ve managed to survive all these years by keeping a low profile. Now my cover’s blown. If I had known, I’d have asked him to mention my name somewhere inside.” He added, “They’re not my songs, they’re old songs, I just happened to sing ’em,”

For the recording and the subsequent tour Springsteen gathered an 18-piece band full of New Orleans style jazz musicians. All of them were obviously in love with the music as the tour routinely elongated the pieces through solo sections to extend the 13 song album to last for 2.5 hours.

For his part, Bruce picked the perfect genre to suit his gruff voice. Most of these old folk songs were written before the 20th century, in a time when pop singer’s bright, clean voices were not the norm. The addition of such a masterful jazz group also adds a thrilling and fresh mood which helped modern ears tune in.

Here is an example of how Springsteen and his band sounded just as good live as they did in the recordings.

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