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In the world critic Greil Marcus inhabits, music is much more than that which is written on a staff. It is more than a key signature and a time signature. Indeed, each and every song he writes about is a door into another land deep with history and meaning. Occasionally his introduction to a song will lead his reader into a labyrinth of innuendo, misunderstood tales and a minotaur of love, lust and death; other times the reader finds themselves on a crooked highway leading into an open wound between the prairie sky and its grass. No song, no matter how simple, remains just a song. If you ever think music has no depth, no meaning, no power to tear out your soul and leave it crying on the ground, then read some music writing by Marcus. Better yet, take one of his song lists from any of his books, listen to a few songs of your choosing and, if you still are not convinced, read some music writing by Marcus.
In his most recent book, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, Greil Marcus presents the reader with three relatively brief explications of three songs, each one representing elements of the American myth. Meanwhile, each song exposed and explained is merely an entry point to other songs, other renditions and ultimately, other worlds. These are worlds where darkness, deceit and death compete with despair, desire and occasional joy to create a landscape that can be as terrifying as Hieronymus Bosch’s “Hell” panel in his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, as offbeat and weirdly funny as a Zap Comic, and even sometimes as beautiful as a morning sunlight seen from the fishing pier in Chatham, Massachusetts, way out on Cape Cod.
Marcus begins this endeavor with an exploration of Bob Dylan’s tune, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”. The song, about a desperate farmer who sees no other solution to his economic dilemma but to kill his family and himself, is obviously anything but cheerful. Simultaneously a poem about the depths of the human spirit and the pitfalls of farming, Dylan meant it as something much more than either of these. Although Marcus barely touches on the economic element, it seems clear that the story Dylan tells is also about the heartlessness of the capitalist system—a system that is not immoral but amoral and cares nothing about its human cost. Then again, neither Dylan nor Marcus has to provide an economic analysis. The entire package that is the song accepts that analysis as part of its strength. As any student of Bob Dylan knows, he re-creates his songs often, changing words, timing, and even styles. Critics have note how each new rendition of a Dylan tune makes that song something new. Like the performed literature of the years before written literacy was a standard among humans, the telling of a story (and the teller) is part of the story being told at that particular moment. Dylan is a storyteller who understands this innately. Marcus reminds us of this again.
After embarking on this journey with Bob Dylan and Hollis Brown, the reader is taken to a chapter titled “Disappearance and Forgetting.” The song Marcus discusses is somewhat obscure when compared to those by Dylan. Titled “Last Kind Word Blues” and sung by a woman whose name on the record is Geeshie Wiley, the only thing really certain about her is the mystery surrounding her. African-American, poor and possibly lesbian, she is truly representative of those residents mainstream America never sees and rarely remembers. Her world is not one the dominant culture recognizes except when it is stealing from it. Even then, the theft is considerably greater than any attribution. Like Hollis Brown, they do not make the grade. Consequently, their existence is barely acknowledged; their contributions stolen from the souls that first rendered them.
Like a mole in the ground, the forgotten and dismissed Americans, could tear down a mountain if they only knew the power of their numbers. Marcus notes as much in his final chapter “World Upside Down.” Like a preacher explaining chapter and verse, Marcus recites the lyrics to the classic Appalachian folk song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” Then he proceeds to give those words meaning—meaning and history, both informing the other. From this point, his sermon delves into folk song itself: the theft and the borrowing of lyrics and tunes; the multiple meanings and their common understandings; the place these songs exist in our culture and even our beings.
Like the roads and railroad tracks that patch the peoples of this big old country together; if you remember also that they take us back and forth in time- then you can begin to understand what Marcus does in this tidy little book. Small in size, it is vast in its approach, and an excellent primer on Greil Marcus’ writing.