ASBURY PARK, N.J. – Bruce Springsteen, rock 'n' roll icon, stands on a cramped Jersey shore stage surrounded by 16 musicians. There's a fiddle, a banjo, a tuba, an accordion — and not a single electric guitar.
The music swells, a glorious noise, as Springsteen leans into the microphone and sings a familiar song: "He floats through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze."
The vintage tale of a high-flying, womanizing circus star is followed by "Poor Man," a reworking of a Blind Alfred Reed song from the 1920s. This is the music of the moment for Springsteen: folk songs from decades past as he releases an album of songs culled from the Pete Seeger catalogue.
Bob Dylan once went electric. This is Springsteen going eclectic.
"The songs have lasted 100 years, or hundreds of years, for a reason," Springsteen explains in a spartan dressing room after rehearsing with his new big band. "They were really, really well-written pieces of music.
"They have worlds in them. You just kind of go in — it's a playground. You go in, and you get to play around."
"We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" arrives Tuesday, with a tour to follow (including a trip to New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival). Springsteen, still damp with perspiration from his rehearsal, sat backstage for a 40-minute interview with The Associated Press that covered his musical past, present and future.
The new album is Springsteen's most sonically surprising since the spare "Nebraska" in 1982. Springsteen compares its variety with his second album, "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle," where the music veered from straight rock ("Rosalita") to jazz ("New York City Serenade") to oompah ("Wild Billy's Circus Story").
Leaning back on a couch, Springsteen said he was intent on getting out more music, including a group of songs already written for the E Street Band and a follow-up to "Tracks," his collection of unreleased studio cuts. He was working on the latter before deciding to do the new record.
"After a long time, you get a lot more secure about what you're doing," Springsteen said between sips from a bottle of water. "I spend much less time making decisions. Incredibly less. It used to be, like, there's a line in a song that I sang a certain way.
"I might mull it over for three days. Maybe longer, right? Now, you know, it's very different. I realize it's not necessary. You know your craft better."
"The Seeger Sessions" featured Springsteen making an album in record time. The rock Hall of Famer, who in the past went years between releases, did the new album in three days. The 13 songs, plus two bonus tracks, were recorded inside the living room of a farm house at Springsteen's New Jersey home — with the horn section playing in the hall.
There were no rehearsals, no arrangements, no overdubs. Springsteen wasn't even sure if the results would become an album.
"It was just playing music," Springsteen said of the sessions. "I didn't have any intention for it. I knew that I enjoyed making this kind of music. ... It was really just purely for the joy of doing it. It was a lot of fun."
Springsteen, 56, is coming off a busy year when he toured extensively behind his Grammy-winning solo album "Devils & Dust." Last year also marked the 30th anniversary of "Born To Run," the classic album that turned the local hero into a worldwide star.
Springsteen first connected with the Seeger songboook in 1997, when he recorded "We Shall Overcome" for a tribute album. His interest grew as he delved into the material — sturdy songs like "John Henry," "Erie Canal" and "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep."
"I wasn't aware of the vast library of music that Pete helped create and also collected," said Springsteen, who was more familiar with the work of Woody Guthrie. "Just this whole wonderful world of songwriting with all these lost voices. Great stories. Great characters."
Like Seeger, Springsteen is well-known for his role as a social activist. In 2004, Springsteen campaigned for John Kerry and criticized the Bush administration for bringing the country to war in Iraq. He's been a longtime advocate for local food banks, and played benefits for union workers, flood victims and other causes.
Seeger paid a heavy price for his beliefs. During the McCarthy era, he was summoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as it investigated supposed subversive influences in entertainment. He refused to cooperate and was blacklisted for the next decade.
So was releasing an album of Seeger's songs during President Bush's second term a political statement?
"I'll let somebody else sort that part of it, I guess," Springsteen said. "But a lot of 'em seem pretty applicable, you know? `Mrs. McGrath' is basically an Irish anti-war song, but it's ripped right out of the headlines everyday today."
The songs once sung by Seeger "shine a continuing light on a whole set of not just wonderful stories, but obviously a lot of social issues, the direction the country is going down," he continued. "There's still a place for a lot of that music."
Once Springsteen decided to forge ahead with the project, he called Seeger with the news. Seeger asked which songs would be on the record.
"He'd start giving me the history of each song," Springsteen said. "He actually knows about all those things. So it was an enjoyable conversation, and I hope he likes the record."
Springsteen had no concerns about audience reaction to his foray into a new musical landscape. He expects "the adventurous part of my fans" will enjoy the album. And he considers change a requirement for any successful musician.
"Your job as an artist is to build a box, and then let people watch you escape from it," Springsteen explained. "And then they follow you to the next box, and they watch you escape from that one. ... Escape artistry is part of the survival mechanism of the job.
"If you want to do the job well, you have got to be able to escape from what you've previously built."
There's one other major difference between "Seeger Sessions" and all of Springsteen's previous work: He didn't write a single song for this project.
"A real pleasure," he said of the break from writing. "Once we put it together, it was like, `Wow. I can make records and I don't have to write anything.' There are thousands of great songs sitting out there waiting to be heard, and I know a way to act as an interpreter on these things."
In between finishing up the album and preparing for the tour, Springsteen was inducted into another Hall of Fame — at his alma mater, Freehold High School. Springsteen, whose mother attended the ceremony, was bemused by the award.
"The high school hall of fame was, I suppose, less expected," Springsteen said between smiles. "I was at best a mediocre student, and I was an outcast. I didn't even attend my graduation. I went back in the middle of the summer and picked up my diploma across a desk and I went home.
"It's a little on the ironic side, I'd have to say. But it was nice."