Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book Review: The Rose and the Briar

A young man and possible alcoholic dies of a broken heart; the pretty young thing who previously acted like an unrepentant whelp of a whore by spurning the young man’s advances is overcome by grief and soon follows her love to the grave. Death by broken heart.

A somehow-naïve pregnant woman, already saddled with two children and no doubt one helluva alimony case, finds herself murdered by Father Number Two. Or Father Number Three.

A military captain, his advances spurned and in an odd way of showing how much he loves the fair maiden, vows revenge. His stubborn machismo gets him killed; this time, the pretty young thing remains coolly unaffected by the captain’s death.

In short, typical Top 40 radio stuff.

Such stories and others are explored in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (gulp…Dylanologists!). This book gathers a wide variety of artists and writers, including Pere Ubu carnival barker David Thomas, Joyce Carol Oates, and chief Mekon Jon Langford, to examine various American ballads. On paper, if the reader can get past the inevitable problem of defining exactly what an American Ballad is, the book offers an occasionally moving, interesting, and thought-provoking study of American ballads.

Nevertheless, the results are decidedly uneven, primarily for one key reason: the strengths and weaknesses of the book depend entirely on the individual writer’s contribution to the collection. Given the wide range of contributors and the implied assumption that any American song qualifies as an American ballad (Dolly Parton’s Down from Dover is included, for chrissakes), this result was probably inevitable.

At its worst, the book reads like nothing more than a tedious exercise in mind-numbingly boring academia. Cecil Brown, in his chapter devoted to the Frankie and Albert ballad, applies a cold, clinical approach to an otherwise intriguing song and real-life event. Like the worst parts of his recent (and occasionally inaccurate) Stagoloee Shot Billy, Brown approaches the story from the viewpoint of a professor. And that’s not a compliment. I was expecting a pop quiz at the end of the chapter.

Some of the attempts to “fictionalize” the American ballad fail as well. Sharyn McCrumb’s rambling, schizophrenic story centered around the Pretty Peggie-O ballad spends many pages to the come to the ultimate conclusion that (wait for it…drum roll…big finish)…songs are interpreted by different performers to have different meanings as cultural norms shift. James Baldwin’s estate could also rightly sue for royalties on this one. Sonny’s Blues, anyone? “Jack summoned all the old feelings that had once come into him through the music. The pain from so many muted voices. The sorrow…the hunger…the despair…He swelled with the pain and the loss. And then, he…pushed” (66). Ye gods.

Two entries stand out in this collection and make it worth the price of admission. Luc Sante’s study of the Buddy Bolden band in early 20th century New Orleans vividly depicts a singer who has no recorded musical output (and not even any songs on iTunes) and only one known portrait. A modern reader normally wouldn’t care less about Bolden. Yet Sante’s evocative writing style, full of detail but never sounding forced or pretentious, creates a lively understanding of the artist and the New Orleans culture Bolden helped shape . By the end of Sante’s essay, you can nearly hear Bolden’s cornet playing among the chaos of a New Orleans saloon.

Anna Domino’s entry for the story of Omie Wise is the most compelling, and heartbreaking, contribution to the book. Instead of using the stale academic approach favored by some of the writers, Domino writes as Omie Wise, in a letter to an aunt. The effect is like reading the words of a ghost. Despite the fact that Omie was already burdened with children and pregnant yet again (really, at this point, shouldn’t be a little suspicious of men in general?), Domino convincingly portrays Omie as a naïve woman largely unaware of the cruelty of the world. The effect is so convincing and chilling that Domino’s short explanation of the story that follows her letter is largely unnecessary. If you only read one section from this book, make it this one.

At its best, the book offers a deeper understanding of both the American character and how it is reflected in the American ballad, which is perhaps the closest thing this country has to a common mythology. Except, of course, for Star Wars. Although the book is probably not an essential read except for the truly sick muso, it does offer several good entries into the beautiful, heartbreaking, and often brutal world of the American ballad.


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