Our Man on The Rose & the Briar

12.16.2004 | Russ Smith | Music

From The New York Sun

It’s mildly irritating to me that discussion and criticism of American folk music is considered almost solely the domain of writers who share a pronounced left-wing view of politics, as if union rallies and civil rights songs comprised the entirety of this very diverse genre. Nevertheless, to paraphrase a moldy Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition, it’s the song, not the writer, that ultimately matters.

And that’s why “The Rose & the Briar” (W. W. Norton, 406 pages, $26.95), a collection of 23 essays on particular ballads, is a fascinating book. It not only introduces you to - or reminds you of - notable tunes. It also encourages you to seek the recorded material to hear for yourself. (The accompanying CD is available on Sony.)

Stanley Crouch, once a fixture at the Village Voice, who now writes an iconoclastic weekly column for the New York Daily News, contributes the finest piece. He tells an inspirational story about Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson’s collaboration, 46 years ago, to record the gospel-tinged “Come Sunday.” Mr. Crouch emphasizes how both black musical icons overcame enormous hurdles to succeed in their respective careers. And the following sentence is perhaps the single most impressive in the entire book: “In 1958, America had not yet descended to the low place where it now resides, caught in commercialized sexual desperation and hungering for something of spiritual value that cannot be reduced to a spotted trend or packaged like dead sardines in oil.”

In an era in which cartoon characters like Al Sharpton and demagogues such as Julian Bond claim to represent the concerns of black citizens in the United States, Mr. Crouch’s heartfelt emotions about “Come Sunday,” a song about God and suffering, are a welcome tonic. The lyrics of the song celebrate the sanctity of church and community: “He’ll give peace and comfort / To every troubled mind / Come Sunday, O come Sunday / That’s the day.”

James Miller is the author of another successful essay, an engrossing account of the haunting 1959 Marty Robbins Top 40 hit “El Paso.” Mr. Miller takes in not only Mr. Robbins’s career, but his own Nebraska upbringing and his lifelong affection for the American West. Mr. Miller’s father was born in Oklahoma in 1920, when cowboys “still tended cattle,” and even though he helped his father recruit members for the local oil workers’ union, his love of Gene Autry films and the swing music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys weren’t considered contradictory.

“El Paso,” with its tale of sudden romance, a cantina shootout, running from the law and, finally, death, is timeless. I’d bet that if the song were released today, it would attain the same popularity as it did a year before John F. Kennedy was elected president, when Bob Dylan was still living in Minnesota.

No book written or edited by Greil Marcus could fail to include at least one section on Mr. Dylan (Mr. Marcus wrote the seminal “Mystery Train” in 1975, and later lapsed into pedantic gibberish, as in “Invisible Republic,” his 1997 volume devoted to Mr. Dylan’s “Basement Tapes”). Unfortunately, given the wealth of ballads written by Mr. Dylan in more than a generation, the song chosen by writer Wendy Lesser is the campy “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” included on 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.”

Besides ignoring songs that would better fit this book’s mandate - “Only a Hobo,” “Percy’s Song,” or “Who Killed Davey Moore?” all come to mind - Ms. Lesser is ill-equipped to handle the subject. She subjects the reader to a line-by-line deconstruction, clouding whatever point she’s attempting to make. It’s hard to take Ms. Lesser’s professed affinity for Mr. Dylan seriously. She writes about hearing the hit “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” when it was released in 1966 on a trip to Mendocino at the age of 14. Yet she didn’t first listen to Mr. Dylan’s signature album “Blonde on Blonde” (which included “Rainy Day Women”) until several years later when she was in college.

At some points in “The Rose & the Briar,” political correctness overwhelms the subject of the essay. Paul Berman writes about the mariachi song “Volver, Volver,” and while his affection for the Spanish standard is not in doubt - in fact, when discussing the tune itself Mr. Berman is excellent - he can’t resist prolonging the piece with gratuitous and patronizing remarks about people he’s encountered who are equally enthusiastic about “Volver, Volver.”

Mr. Berman describes a rendition of the song he heard at a parade in Costa Rica one Christmas Eve - an occasion that seems wonderful, with its festive costumes, men riding on horses, and a festive crowd filled with young people caught up in the moment. But then Mr. Berman spoils the mood, writing, “I worry that … recalling the mariachi horseman of Costa Rica and the tipsy crowd, I am giving the wrong impression of this song. … But no, no - there are jewels in this music. Besides, I don’t want to sneer at the crowd. Even feelings that are roared in the street may have their justification.”

It seems to me that “feelings roared in the street” are exactly what have made so many of the songs in “The Rose & the Briar” endure to this today. Folk music (or country & western, or mariachi) doesn’t exist in a vacuum, enjoyed only by intellectuals who look down at the rabble less comfortably stationed than them.

There’s much to recommend “The Rose & the Briar,” though. I was drawn to Sarah Vowell’s chapter on “John Brown’s Body” (which soon morphed into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) more by the history than Ms. Vowell’s writing style. Dave Marsh on “Barbara Allen,” John Rockwell on “The Foggy, Foggy Dew,” and Steve Erickson on Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” and “Louisiana 1927” all made for absorbing reading, too.

I, for one, am not entirely convinced of the current political cliche that the United States is hopelessly “polarized.” A book like “The Rose & the Briar” proves that just as liberals and conservatives can find common ground in discussing sports, the same is true with music.

Unless, perhaps, we’re talking about R.E.M. or Jackson Browne.

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