Open up the new collection of essays “The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad,” begin reading the real and imagined stories that make up its investigation of American ballads, and you will believe that the air itself has become a radio. Songs are all around you, with their inevitable tales of lost love, or love turned to murder or other forms of death, swirling through the air, not so much raising the dead as reminding you that those people and places you thought of as dead were always with us, waiting for their moment to reclaim their hold on you.
The songs speak in the language of dread and mystery, of glory found and damnation fallen into. In his essay on “Barbara Allen,” Dave Marsh writes about the outcome of the song, the intertwined rose and briar emerging from the graves of the spurned lover and the haughty girl who rejected him, as being both necessary and right. Marsh is talking about accepting the fantastic as fact, and yet doing so in a way that doesn’t take those strange wonders for granted. The lives described in these songs are lives lived in the face of something that fills us with awe and fear, something bigger than ourselves, whether God or fate.
That is not a bad way to make art, or to experience it. And the writers that editors Sean Wilentz, the Princeton University historian, and Greil Marcus, the cultural critic (and former Salon columnist) whose books include “Mystery Train,” “Lipstick Traces” and “Invisible Republic,” invited to contribute essays on the American ballad of their choice respond with the awe and delight and reverence of being in the midst of something bigger than they are. Among the writers here — a lineup that includes Joyce Carol Oates, Stanley Crouch, Sarah Vowell, Paul Berman, Steve Erickson and Howard Hampton — are musicians: David Thomas, leader of the great art-punk band Pere Ubu; Rennie Sparks of the alt-country duo the Handsome Family; Anna Domino of Snakefarm; Jon Langford of the Mekons.
Among the straight essays are entries that are short stories, collages, even R. Crumb’s illustrated version of “When You Go A Courtin’” accompanied by a letter explaining why he could never consent to being in a book that extolled the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song he loathes. In other words, among the jokes, threats, warnings and prophecies that make up the ballads under consideration are all the idiosyncrasies the contributors bring to them.
I talked by phone to Greil Marcus at his home in Berkeley, Calif., and Sean Wilentz in his office at Princeton about how the book came together, how the contributions surprised them, about their wish to recapture the language of American ballads, about who are better ballad singers, Republicans or Democrats, and the gaps that draw us into ballads and make us complicit with their most heavenly ecstasies and most dastardly crimes.
You’re coming to this project from different disciplines. Greil, you’re a cultural critic, and Sean, you’re a historian. What were the differences in your approach?
Greil Marcus: Well, Sean and I have worked together for the last several years at Princeton. Both in terms of Sean being the director of the American studies program and my teaching in it, but also in terms of conversations about politics; Sean being involved in bringing Bob Dylan to Princeton in 2000, a year when he also brought Bill Clinton to Princeton. And Sean is an academic historian but he’s also the official historian of the Bob Dylan Web site, and knows a lot more about folk music and the ballad tradition than I do. So there’s a lot of crossover there.
Sean Wilentz: Yeah, I never encountered a difference in discipline or even in fields or expertise. It was more of a blending of interests but also curiosities and style. I’ve collaborated many times on many things, publications, etc. Never have I had so much fun, never has it gone more smoothly, and never has there been less of a disjunction. I’ve had more disjunction working with other historians than with Greil. And I suppose that’s just a matter of how your respective minds work, but it also says something about the uselessness of certain disciplinary boundaries. You don’t have to be a historian to think historically and Greil’s as good a historian as anybody.
G.M.: One of the most interesting things about how this shook out in terms of disciplines or approaches is that we had no idea what approach anybody was going to take. The charge here for the people who accepted the invitation to participate in this was to choose a ballad and run with it, come up with your own approach, take your own tack. What was so surprising and lucky for us is there are no two pieces where people follow the same formula or approach. Everybody came up with something utterly idiosyncratic. For example, we invited several musicians to take part, not because we knew anything about their writing, but because their sensibilities were so interesting and so unique we decided, “Well, let’s take a chance.”
Rennie Sparks is a great lyricist for the Handsome Family, and she’s also published short stories. But it wouldn’t have occurred to either of us that Rennie would write a serious, historical, mythological essay based on an enormous amount of research. We had to cut her bibliography way, way back. It was maybe 10 pages long. David Thomas, who is the leader of Pere Ubu, has written some very evocative liner notes. But we had no idea that he would come up with a theoretical essay about the influence of modern communications on creativity and music, and the inevitability of why certain events are attractive to ballad makers and singers, and why others are kind of thrown away. Completely theoretical piece.
Anna Domino, who neither of us had met — she is the singer in Snakefarm, which in 1999 put out this amazing record called “Songs From My Funeral,” which are techno versions of the most common American ballads imaginable, everything from “John Henry” on down. We knew nothing about her. As far as we knew, she’d never written a line. And here she comes up with this stunning piece of fiction where she chooses the balled “Omie Wise” about a pregnant woman who’s drowned by her lover in North Carolina in 1807, and she inhabits that character, she becomes her, she’s writing to her aunt the night that she’s going to be murdered. Sean can talk more about this in terms of what’s actually going on in literary and historical terms in that piece. But it was a feast of surprise as these pieces began to come in.
SW: Same thing was true on the other side with the literary people, when I approached Joyce Carol Oates, just knowing that she likes music but not really knowing what she’d pick. I had no idea, first of all, that she would write a story rather than write a piece of criticism, and then that she would pick that song. Which if you asked me, would have been the last thing I would have imagined. But she picks “Little Maggie,” which is a song about a woman who is desired and unattainable and slightly cracked. And what she makes of it is something completely different, completely outside the song but very much true to the ballad itself.
It sounds like you didn’t have to even encourage people’s idiosyncrasies; they just brought them to it freely. Here’s a small example of language from Sarah Vowell’s piece where she starts a sentence by saying, “Like a lot of your bigger hit songs …” I love that “your,” instead of saying, “Like many hit songs,” which would probably be the standard way to do it.
G.M.: It’s conversational but it also has that [pause] salesman’s tone. You know, “You got your big cars over here, you got your small cars over here, but what you’re really looking for is style.” It’s that tone, too, immediately bringing you into a commercial conversation with commercial language.
S.W.: The other part about this is not only the freedom of language but the willingness of people to do this. I mean, everybody we asked came through and they all came through brilliantly. And my theory behind that was that the writers have never been asked to write about music and the musicians have never been asked to write, or rarely been asked to write. And I think that people carry these songs around with them — even more than we realize — carry around with them not only in their brains but in their hearts and there was just this burst of creativity among some creative people, to be sure, but beyond that. Someone like Paul Berman, for example, who writes about politics ["Terror and Liberalism," "A Tale of Two Utopias"], given the chance to write about a ballad, took us to the heart of Brooklyn, and took us all over the place from Longfellow to Mexico City. I don’t think he has ever been asked to write about this kind of thing.
About a year ago, one of your contributors, Howard Hampton, told me that he thinks there are many Americans now who no longer have a sense of the past as a real place. And reading through the book it struck me that each of these pieces, in its own way, is an affirmation of the past as a real place.
G.M.: Well, a real place that we still live in, that we carry with us whether we know it or not, that can’t ever be escaped. I mean, there are lines throughout the book where this comes across to me — they’re almost dreamlike in the way that they carry you to another country, which someone once said the past is. The first line in Ann Powers’ piece on “The Water Is Wide”: “In this part of the story, nothing happens.” What could be more alluring? You know: Tell me about the part where nothing happens, because obviously, that’s where everything happens. It’s an incredible invocation of suspense. And then there’s David Thomas, saying just bluntly, “Thomas Alva Edison is the father of Elvis.” And there, if in fact you live your life according to the notion that the past is not a real place, one simple line like that, a few words, immediately pulls the ground out from under your feet.
Unless you think of Elvis as part of the past.
GM: Well … maybe. But then there’s no hope for you and we can’t help you.
Forgive me for going relevant on you, but this week everyone is talking about national division. One of the things that struck me here is that in a lot of these songs the America that’s being sung about is part of the America that the left is now being encouraged to look down on, in the wake of the election. The passage that smacked me in the head, reading it now, is the one from Steve Erickson’s essay where he writes about Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “He argued that in fact the country, had, for all its short history, existed as an affront to God in its embrace of slavery, that the Civil War was in fact God’s retribution against America for the sin of slavery, that if the nation was destined to fight another 250 years of civil war — one year for every year slavery existed — in order to redeem itself, if the nation was to shed its blood to the last drop in order to cleanse itself of the sin, then that was what it would do.” Reading that in a week when we hear that God won the election, and the idea that if God is made part of politics it is also the most reactionary part of politics, brought me up short. I don’t agree that if the idea of God is present in politics it’s reactionary, because then you don’t have —
S.W.: Martin Luther King.
G.M.: Well, you know, Steve Erickson’s piece is a terrifying piece of writing because he is able to achieve a kind of suspension. There’s an argument he makes about there being three Americas, the one that existed before Lincoln’s second inaugural, the one that existed afterward, and the one that may have only existed in Lincoln’s imagination for weeks or months. And again, it’s “In this part of the story, nothing happens,” it’s the calling up of that void, that place that is a vortex where you can suddenly be sucked into a recognition that we are playing with fire. That when he talks about American identity, the American story, the American mission, the American obligation to live up to its own promises or confront their betrayal, those things are so big, they’re so frightening, that people can run from those questions in any direction.
What Steve is writing about here is Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” and “Louisiana, 1927,” two songs on either side of Lincoln’s great divide. You know, people have often said, “Why do you have to pick these songs apart, and why do you have to analyze them, and you put so much meaning on them, and you just destroy them by burdening them with all this significance.” And here’s Steve Erickson, not burdening these songs with any significance but drawing a whole version of the American story out of them. He’s saying, “No, it’s not a question of what you put on a song. It’s a question of what you can get out of a song and what you can get out of a song is maybe 10 percent of what’s in it, whatever the song is.” That to me is what’s going on here.
S.W.: There is a ballad language that we were out to try and rediscover. And it’s a language that no one can quite put a fix on. I think that one of the problems that you might have had, Charley — and again, I don’t want to be too relevant — is that in some ways the ballad language, the music of America, was actually sung better by the Republicans than by the Democrats. The Democrats don’t know how to sing that way; it sounds very technocratic. I think it’s one of the reasons why the Democrats lost, actually. Whereas, whatever you think of their politics, when George Bush talks of slavery he talks of the sin of slavery. Well, that’s not a whole lot different than what Abraham Lincoln was saying. Regardless of his politics, it’s a language he has, and it’s that language that’s in danger of being lost and we wanted to recover it.
What bothered me isn’t what Erickson was saying — I liked what he was saying. What bothered me was something you’re hitting on now, which is the idea that if you speak as he is speaking you are acceding to the most reactionary side of politics.
S.W.: Well, I think that’s wrong …
I do, too.
S.W.: Look, God is part of the language of America. From the first European who settled here, God was here. So let’s be honest about it, what’s the point in running away from it? It’s there. Greil often quotes David Thomas’ line, “What the ballad wants, the ballad gets.” And what the ballad wants in part, some ballads, is about God, and about a life of the spirit. Indeed, it’s not even just about God, it’s about a Christian God, and you have to deal with that as part of the language. It’s not always there, but it is there.
G.M.: You know, there was a column written by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and the same sort of thing has been written and said by all kinds of people throughout the entire election season. People were voting against their own interests, their own economic interests. If they voted for Bush, people without a lot of money, they were voting against themselves. Well, people want the opportunity to vote for more than themselves —
Someone wrote in to the Times and said they were voting their interests because their interests were more spiritual than economic.
GM: Well, it isn’t just spiritual. They want to be part of something bigger, they want to be part of a bigger story than themselves reduced to a few numbers. You know, what Sean just said about the Republicans singing the ballad better than the Democrats in this election — and of course you can look back to 1992 and turn that exactly backward. There’s a paragraph from Sinclair Lewis’ novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which was published in 1935. And it’s about a right-wing populist senator, a Democrat, taking the nomination away from FDR in 1936 at the Democratic convention and then going on to steamroller his way into the presidency and begin to rule as a fascist dictator. FDR, after having been denied the nomination, forms his own party, called the Jeffersonian Party, and the Republicans run a liberal senator against Buzz Windrip, who is the right-wing Democratic nominee. And here’s Sinclair Lewis summing up the election:
“The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party, like the personal fault of Senator Trowbridge [the Republican nominee] was that it represented integrity and reason in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates, but with baptism by immersion in a creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon.”
S.W.: That’s it.
G.M.: That’s it.
S.W.: Those are the ballads.
In your piece, Greil, you write about the embarrassment you felt as a kid singing folk music in school. And I think that a lot of what we hear when we hear folk music is something very strange. The idea of folk music, whether it’s true or not, is that it’s supposed to be something natural and recognizable. Only what we hear seems so strange, part of a world we don’t understand, and one of the points you make in this book and in “Invisible Republic” is that it’s supposed to be strange.
G.M.: Yeah, it comes out of a whole well of the forbidden. One of the reasons ballads focus so strongly on murders, and particularly murders of young women, is that events like these take place in communities and then they’re forgotten, they’re not spoken of. But there has to be a way for the memory to be preserved. I was doing a reading last week for this book with Cecil Brown who wrote about “Frankie and Albert,” “Frankie and Johnny” in the book. And he started off by talking about the Laci Peterson case and he said it’s really interesting to ask why some crimes find their form in ballads and why others are completely thrown off by the tradition.
Now, the Laci Peterson case, he said, is made for a ballad. Why? Because it happened on Christmas Eve. He immediately digs into that and says, this is something the ballad needs. It needs more than: Here was a murder. It has to strike some kind of chord. And, yes, husbands kill their wives all the time. And here’s a case of a husband killing a pregnant wife. Now, that’s the way it always happens. No [Brown said], you need something more. You need God looking down. That’s what’s happening. God is going to be telling the story of this ballad. He just spun this off. And that’s a lot of it, I think. It is finding a way of talking about what can’t be talked about. What I was so horrified by as a kid was the blandness of folk music, the way in which there were no emotions in it, there was nothing scary about it. It was all good-time singalongs —
Was that because of what you were singing or because of the commercial face of folk music at the time?
G.M.: No, it had to do with the fact that I was attending a left-wing Quaker school where all people are alike and everyone shares the same feelings and all we want to do is hold hands and be brothers and sisters — the whole world! There was an ideology that took the scariness out of folk music, and took the badness out of folk music, and it wasn’t really until I heard this old woman on TV sing “The Streets of Laredo” that I began to understand that what folk music is about is death and the many ways in which you can die, and the many reasons for which you can die, and the ways in which you never die. And how hard it is actually to kill anything.
Now when you go back to the blandest of the bland folk music of the 1960s, and then you listen to the Harry Smith “Anthology of American Music” and you hear this strangeness and the weirdness and the oddity and the singularity that one person brings to a ballad or song that so many thousands of people have sung — not to toot our own horns, but there is an analogue for that in this book. Which is that you could pick another 20-some really terrific people and have them write about the same ballads that people chose for this book and they would come up with something completely different. The idiosyncrasy that is coded in the ballad form that demands it of the singer also demands it of the writers in this book. That’s what the ballad wanted and that’s what the ballad got.
Where are ballads coming from now? Are they coming?
S.W.: I want to hear Cecil’s ballad of Laci Peterson, myself. Certainly the form is still there. I think there are plenty of ballads still being written. And they’re being written in some ways in the same way. “Nebraska” is as strong a ballad as you’re going to find. They don’t always come out in the usual way. If you’re expecting someone to come onstage with a guitar and a harmonica just like Springsteen did, that’s one thing. But they can come out in all kinds of ways. The soul ballad we have on the record, [Bobby Patterson's] “The Trial of Mary Maguire,” now, there’s a song that was released in 1969, got absolutely nowhere, was a flop but a song that, if written today, reads like it comes out of the morning paper. Look, people are at least as imaginative now in retelling stories as they were back then. There is, I think, as I said before, a question of the language, and I sometimes wonder if that language is as widely understood as it might have been at one time.
Greil, we’re almost 40 years from it but you’d probably give “Ode to Billie Joe” as an example.
G.M.: Sure. “Ode to Billie Joe” is a great ballad and it instantly struck a chord across the country when that song appeared. It did have a hook; its hook was the mystery: What are they throwing off the bridge? All the unanswered questions. The whole ballad, again — I keep going back to this: In this part of the song, nothing happens. There is that emptiness, that void. One of the things that modernity has introduced into the ballad is abstraction, an emphasis on those blank spots. David Thomas has been working on a song for quite some time, he’s recorded a couple variations on it, a song called “Little Sister,” which is based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It doesn’t follow the novel in a literalistic way. It’s more about the gaps, the places where the story stops short — when there’s a phone call and nobody answers, that sort of thing. And Dylan is tremendous at making a ballad almost completely out of hints, rather than telling you, There once was a woman named so-and-so and she walked down the street and this bad thing happened to her, now her ghost watches over her grave.
That’s what Wendy Lesser’s essay [on Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"] is about.
G.M.: Yeah. And I think, with “Nebraska,” Springsteen — just amazingly — combines an old modal melody, so that you feel like you’re listening to something that’s hundreds of years old, with the voice of a funeral director and yet there’s so much openness in the song, that Howard Hampton in his piece on it in this book is able to play tricks with it. He’s able to have all different kinds of people flitting in and out of that song, and then people come out of the song and begin to wreak havoc in other realms. I think ballads are all over the place. But I think that one of the things the writers in this book did for Sean and me was to show us that our notion of what a ballad is is somewhat impoverished. That if the burden of the ballad is to tell a story, often it’s done through gaps, hints, warnings and allusions.
Cecil Brown makes an argument in his piece about “Frankie and Johnny” that it had an author, a single real person who wrote this song, and that all kinds of other people brought what they had to bring to it. And he says at the end, “It may be that, yes, to create a great folk ballad, you need a village — but you may also need an untaught genius.” In this sense, people continue to draw on this sense of tradition, this sense of legacy, this particular language, but with the notion that they have to bring something totally of themselves to it. And that may mean breaking the form down.
S.W.: I think that the idea of ellipsis, the idea of indirection, the idea of engagement is absolutely crucial to the ballad form in America. It’s a literary form. One of the other ways to get at why Dylan is such a master of this is in Dave Marsh’s piece, which, believe it or not, manages to make a connection between Dylan singing “Barbara Allen” in [New York's] Gaslight Cafe in 1962, and the way that he did that, and to see that as the beginning of everything that was going to end up in his very early rock ‘n’ roll. We all think of that as surrealistic but it has a root in myth and in ellipsis and in indirection. And that’s an American form that not only in the ballad, it’s a literary form, too. Think of Emily Dickinson. Think of “Moby-Dick,” which is full of allegories that aren’t allegories. It’s part of an American language that isn’t only in the ballad.
If gaps are part of what make a ballad, is it fair to say that those of us listening have to become ballad singers ourselves?
S.W.: We have to become complicit in the ballad. That’s one of the things the ballad demands. We have to be part of what is going on. We have to be active listeners. We have to fill in the gaps. As Wendy Lesser says, you can’t understand “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” any other way. She listened to it 10 times before she actually listened to the words, then she had to figure out what it meant.
G.M.: Part of what that means is that you as a listener have to be ready to take on any of the roles that are sketched out in a ballad. And a good ballad will make you do that, will make you be both killer and victim in the story that’s being told. In Rennie Sparks’ piece on “Pretty Polly,” she does that. She starts out right off the bat saying, “God this is so romantic, it’s so glamorous, all the blood in the forest.” She ends her piece, this historical, logical exploration of “Pretty Polly,” talking about Richard Speck killing the eight nurses in Chicago. And then, as we discovered after Richard Speck died, how Richard Speck became a woman in prison, through hormone treatments. And she starts comparing him to Ed Gein, wearing the skin of his victims over his own body. And you suddenly realize, you absolutely cannot tell who’s who anymore. That’s a lot of what the ballad does. It is meant to play on your identity and to take it away.