The Rose and the Briar

Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad - Edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus

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The Rose and the Briar

The emigrants who left Great Britain for America brought their ancient songs with them. As the songs gained citizenship in a new country, they evolved, with new shoots growing from the old wood. The cowboy song “Streets of Laredo,” for instance, has its root in an old ballad (variously “The Unfortunate Rake” or “The Dying Soldier”) about a syphilis epidemic that ravaged the British isles. “Will the Circle be Unbroken” was claimed by A.P. Carter of the famous Carter Family, but its chorus was carried nearly intact from a much older English song.

Some of the old songs have a complicated history and a varied pollination. “Matty Groves,” for instance, a bloody tale of adultery avenged, came to its maturity in England as “Little Musgrave” and “Lady Darnell,” then passed on to America (where some iterations allow the star-crossed lovers to live). But it was “a degenerate American version” that was covered by the English folk-rock group Fairport Convention.

Many of the best English ballads (but not the dirty ones) were preserved by the relatively priggish Harvard professor Francis J. Child in the late 19th century. The father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax later collected songs and made early ?eld recordings.

Traditional music received another boost when the eccentric Harry Smith produced his revelatory Anthology of American Folk Music (released on Folkways in 1952). Without Smith, many of the old recordings might have been lost, which excuses the fact that the collection was originally what we would think of today as a “bootleg.”

The Rose and the Briar is a fascinating and occasionally frustrating collection of essays, short stories and even illustrations about some of the more famous ballads. The editors could have put more effort into their introduction, which name-checks Lomax and Child but never puts their colorful work in any context. An appendix with song lyrics would have also been helpful.

The contributing novelists seem to be out of their element. Sharyn McCrumb’s surrealistic ?ction does little to illuminate the song “Pretty Peggy-O.” Joyce Carol Oates take on “Little Maggie” exhibits all of her southern gothic strengths, but she’s no musicologist. Critic Ann Powers gets lost in literary allusion and allegory when dissecting the lovely song “The Water is Wide.” And it’s hard to know what Jon Langford, formerly of the Mekons, was thinking when he painted a series of garish panels aimed at “The Cuckoo.”

Others do much better. Critic Dave Marsh once wrote a whole book on “Louie, Louie,” so he’s at home with the ancient “Barbara Allen,” which was already well known in 1666 when Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his famous diary.

A highlight of the book is Rennie Sparks’ take on “Pretty Polly.” Like her lyrics for The Handsome Family, Sparks’ prose about this dark but enduring tale of love betrayed is full of spit and fire. The American Polly, stabbed by her trusting paramour in a lonely forest glen, is a strangely passive figure, like the swooning damsels in 19th century paintings. Sparks reveals that in earlier English songs like “Mary Colven” she had more spunk, pushing the murderous knight into the ocean when he turns his back (because he doesn’t want to see her naked!).

Commentator Sarah Vowell tells a story every American should know, but probably doesn’t—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

The Rose and the Briar also illuminates the blues standard “Frankie and Albert” (also, “Frankie and Johnny”) was based on a real 1899 shooting. And according to writer Luc Sante, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” immortalizes the moment trumpet player Buddy Bolden ?rst used the phrase “funky butt” in public. Without Bolden, it might not be common coin to describe James Brown’s music as “funky.”

The Rose and the Briar doesn’t come with a CD but there is one available from Sony Legacy. The juxtaposition of such modern fare as Jan and Dean’s “Deadman’s Curve” with C.B. Grayson’s older-than-dirt version of “Ommie Wise” makes for some rather schizophrenic listening.