In books like “Invisible Republic” and “Lipstick Traces,” the rock critic Greil Marcus developed an ability to discern an art movement, or an entire country, lurking inside a song. This is no longer a singular approach; it has become a critical style, as the current volume demonstrates. Many of the writers strain to match Marcus’s insights, and eighty poetic pages go by before Sarah Vowell’s excellent essay about the transformation of “John Brown’s Body” into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” From there, things pick up steam. Luc Sante shadows the ghost of the New Orleans musician Buddy Bolden, and Paul Berman does a meticulous job of tracking the mariachi ballad “Volver, Volver” from Mexico to the counter of the Fast & Fresh deli in Brooklyn.
Arguing that the American ballad is "a major form-musically, perhaps, the major form-through which Americans told each other about themselves and the country they inhabited," Wilentz, a Princeton history professor, and Marcus (Lipstick Traces) offer this impressive, innovative tribute to it. The contributors-critics (Stanley Crouch), novelists (Joyce Carol Oates), poets (Paul Muldoon), songwriters (Anna Domino) and other writers, performers and artists-were asked to "help create some new works of art" about a ballad of their choosing. Sarah Vowell traces the evolution of the ballad "John Brown's Body" into the hit song of 1862, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." John Rockwell meditates on the gentility of Burl Ives's "The Foggy, Foggy Dew" ("this performance helped define vocal beauty, shaping my taste forever"). R. Crumb contributes a hilarious cartoon version of "When You Go A Courtin' " that succinctly exposes the ballad's dark humor. And Eric Weisbard's wide-ranging "Love, Lore, Celebrity and Dead Babies: `Down from Dover' by Dolly Parton" might be the best essay yet on the work done by this misunderstood country-pop diva. Agents, Andrew Wylie and Wendy Weil. (Nov. 22) Forecast: Sony Legacy's September release of an eponymous album featuring 20 ballads should generate a good amount of buzz for this book in the music press. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
History professor Wilentz and rock critic Marcus (Mystery Train) have asked 22 authors and musicians to write about a ballad of their choice. The contributors, ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to R. Crumb, have responded with several standards (e.g., "Frankie and Johnny") but mostly with idiosyncratic surprises like Dolly Parton's "Down from Dover" and Randy Newman's "Sail Away." Both varieties weave tales of love, hate, passion, death, sometimes psychosis, and, almost universally, violence. The essayists use a variety of formats to illuminate their songs, including fictionalized accounts, social history, reminiscences, and even drawings and cartoons. As can be expected, the quality of the entries varies wildly, from the gripping fiction of Oates to the pompous meanderings of a few Rolling Stone cronies of Marcus. With more editorial control, the book would have been greatly improved. Sometimes fascinating and at other times highly dispensable, this collection offers an interesting look at a music staple. Recommended for general readers and larger performing arts collections; note the accompanying CD.-Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.