- Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations by Greil Marcus
Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is an adaptation of the series of William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard that Greil Marcus delivered in 2013. The compact volume consists of three chapters, each an examination of a different song from American folk music. He focuses on a single performance of each piece, but puts them in the context of other interpretations of the work. Marcus acts as storyteller more than a lecturer. Each of the three impressionistic chapters leisurely unwinds. The introduction to each section is so extended that Marcus induces the reader into wondering where he is going and what his point is. Marcus finally makes his purpose explicit a full twenty-four pages into the book: “I am looking at three commonplace, seemingly authorless songs as bedrock, founding documents of American history” (p. 24).
Marcus sets the scene for the first chapter, “Inflection,” in the 1960s folk revival with the backdrop of the Cold War. In 1963, John Henry Faulk was the once-blacklisted host of the television program Folk Songs and More Folk Songs! He narrates the story of American history as told through folk song, with an undercurrent of rebellion against the contemporaneous anticommunist impingement of freedom. Faulk leads to Bob Dylan’s performance of “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Marcus describes many facets of the Dylan presentation, including the accompanying visuals and where in the lyrics he places his vocal emphasis. He also looks at the song more broadly. Dylan borrowed the melody from “Pretty Polly,” an old murder ballad, and turned it into a murder ballad of his own about a desperate South Dakota farmer who shoots his destitute family, then himself. Marcus offers a brief history of murder ballads, and describes how the work sounds like something from earlier in our country’s history than a current composition. He focuses on the version released on Dylan’s third album, the 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’, but also examines the subtle variations in other performances by Dylan.
Next, Marcus turns his attention to 1930’s “Last Kind Words Blues” by Geeshie Wiley. The song was one of only six ever recorded by Wiley under her own name or with her musical partner L.V. Thomas, both guitarists and singers. The main theme for the chapter, “Disappearance and Forgetting,” is about tracking the mysterious origins and paths of the song and the musicians. For decades, it was a source of intrigue for blues enthusiasts because it was tied to questions about the source of the blues, and because the single was a prized rarity for record collectors. Marcus quotes a 1961 interview with Thomas that had long been unpublished, where she recalls a time before the blues existed, implying that she witnessed the birth. The lyrics are that of a folk–lyric song “where phrases, lines, couplets, or whole verses migrate from tune to tune, from blacks to whites and back again, without regard for subject or locale” (p. 69). Wiley and Thomas’s guitar work bears traces of other early blues songs, leading to questions of whether they originated or echoed those first sounds. The song’s ambiguous point of view leads to an ambiguous meaning, and the mystery is compounded by the few details available about the songs’ creators. The track was recorded for Paramount Records, and the chapter includes a concise description of [End Page 273] the operations of the label, leading readers to the more extensive coverage in the end-notes, making this book a handy supplement for those libraries fortunate enough to own the recently-issued Paramount Records box sets.
Finally, Marcus offers a meditation on “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” as recorded by song-catcher Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The theme of the chapter entitled “World Upside Down” is the unfathomable meaning of the lyrics, but also the song...