Charles Taylor: Review of Sean Wilentz & Greil Marcus, The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad
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 either make or experience art. 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, Joyce Carol Oates, Stanley Crouch, Sarah Vowell, Paul Berman, Steve Erickson and Howard Hampton among them, 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.
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