The issue of contemporary American identity has been explored perhaps most profoundly in recent years by the television show The Sopranos, in whose second season several of the main characters travel to Naples, in part for Mafia business, but also to explore the “Old Country.” Since the United States is by and large composed of immigrants, the question of what happens when old and new cultures actually meet is applicable both to Italian-Americans and to the broader national population. When the characters actually experience the “Old Country,” their sense of alienation is palpable: oddly, they encounter the same sense of alienation that they sometimes feel in the U.S. itself, where no one is entirely safe from persecution or “otherness,” save a few individuals whose ancestors were on the Mayflower.
The three characters are mystified by Italian customs, the way of life promulgated by the Mafiosi they meet within Naples, and the overall lack of welcome they feel. It is clear, for example, that the Neapolitans they encounter regard them not as Italians, but entirely as Americans. Despite their reverence for the country of their ancestors, these Americans abroad are so deeply at odds with the culture to which they have “returned” that they may as well be from Germany, as one Italian character puts it. It is telling, then, that the final scene of the entire series (in an episode titled “Made in America”) takes place not in an Italian-themed location, but in a hamburger restaurant, with American pop music playing over loudspeakers. As far as the question of national belonging goes, the series ends on a deeply inclusive note, precisely because there are no straightforward answers.
As an idea, American culture is difficult to define because the country's stated values are often incommensurable with its political reality. Comparable, in this respect, to twenty-first–century America was the England of the nineteenth century, which shared a deeply flawed—although occasionally successful—civic-mindedness, a dishonest sense of empire-building-as-duty, and a confusedly Christian value system. This cognitive dissonance writ large was explored by writers such as Dickens and Hardy, and spoke to the fundamental human truth that while most people try to be virtuous, and have a good sense of conscience despite their flaws, they are constantly swayed firstly by a self-interested minority of powerful leaders and their lackey psychopaths, and secondly by the need to earn a living or face absolute penury. But which American voices will be judged, a century on from now, as having expressed this same deep well of thinking for our own time—as writers such as Hawthorne, Emerson, and James did in the centuries before ours—is anyone's guess.
The smart money would be on Greil Marcus. Few writers have probed the highways and byways of American culture and music longer and more enduringly: for example, Dead Elvis, his book of essays on Elvis Presley, provides much-needed context on America’s obsession with figures who rise stratospherically out of and fall catastrophically straight back into the depths of Biblical myth. (Even the genius Nick Cave rendered Presley's story as a myth in his song “Tupelo.” Here he is as complex and mysterious a character as John the Baptist in Cave’s deeply-underrated song “Mercy,” itself a great work of twentieth-century literature and musical composition.) Over the course of a highly productive career Marcus has consistently set himself the task of following a dreamlike thread through U.S. cultural history, to identify figures such as Presley within the same alternately gothic or cerebrally bright vein as Edgar Allan Poe or Walt Whitman. In his new book, Three Songs, Three Nations, Three Singers, Marcus attempts to explain how three folk songs can be said to define a particularly American mindset as embodied in artistic form.
This subject of what exactly constitutes a particularly American form of culture is the deeply knotted subject of Marcus's book. Through an analysis of Bob Dylan's “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Geeshie Wiley and L.V. “Elvie” Thomas’s “Last Kind Word Blues,” and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Marcus sets out to define what makes these folk songs so representative of a particularly American form of expression. “Hollis Brown,” which appears on what is perhaps Dylan's best album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, receives some of the most in-depth discussion in this respect. For Dylan remains a strange figure in American music, the odd person who happens genuinely to be a genius, despite his reputation as a genius.
The song’s story of a desperate farmer who murders his family and then takes his own life, rather than face the prospect of starvation, is illustrative of the violence (particularly death-via-firearm) so pervasive in American life. As Marcus astutely writes, America “is a nation where the prospect of violence is the absolute solution to absolute problems; it is a nation of absolutes.” Anyone who has spent even a brief time examining the hypocrisy and grandstanding of American politics in the face of near-constant mass shootings would find this to be true. Indeed, it is this sense of allusion to life-as-tragedy that seems to unite the three songs Marcus examines.
In Marcus's assessment, “Last Kind Word Blues” represents of the degree to which America inadvertently tends to cut its own mythology from the cloth of a deeply oppressed underclass that shares little resemblance to the “respectable” status quo. Akin to the lost-by-history legend of blues musician Robert Johnson, who left behind as little historical trace as possible, Wiley and Thomas were obscure blues artists who created songs for Paramount Records, a label notorious, Marcus notes, for the poor quality of their recordings (the label was begun as a sideline by a furniture company to sell records for the gramophones they hawked to customers). It is in the near-total obscurity of Wiley and Thomas that Marcus finds a sort of counterpoint to America as it would like to see itself: in her performance, Wiley is directly emotional in a way that would be career suicide for a politician. As Marcus shows, here was a person who experienced more tragedy than most people could imagine in their deepest nightmares—she stabbed a pimp to death who, in other circumstances, may well have killed her, before descending into the kind of obscurity that only another era could have provided. And yet she was given the rare chance to express all that misery in the six lone songs she recorded in her lifetime.
Despite its welcome examination of little-known figures such as Wiley and Thomas, Marcus’s book sometimes falls flat in its bombastic descriptions of its musical subjects. Thus each singer, in Marcus's estimation, has an almost elemental, supercharged ability to express the American landscape and culture within their songs—an ability that, upon further reflection, beggars belief. In this way, Marcus surely reads far too much into what the composers were thinking when they performed their songs. Lunsford's “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” suffers from a flatness of playing and affect, an almost a deeply-ingrained politeness; it is no coincidence that Jackson C. Frank's deeply moving “Kimbie,” for which it provided the basis, is far more emotional than Lunsford's famous version. Marcus totally ignores this fact, and guns instead for a supernatural reading of the song it is hard to imagine its performer could have felt, much less consciously attempted to express. Similarly, Wiley's “Last Kind Word Blues,” while certainly haunting, seems much more like the brief expression of a troubled soul rather than a metaphysical expression of some deeper truth about America. Like an American accent, the language of “Last Kind Word” is the unconscious function of how Wiley thought and spoke, rather than of what she thought of America.
This over-reliance on high-flown musical description is especially present in Marcus's appeals to contemporary musicians, such as the arrogant Jack White, who laughably informs Marcus that it was God's idea for White to cover “Last Kind Word Blues,” or Matthew Friedberger from the group Fiery Furnaces, who describes “Last Kind Word Blues” as the most “ordinary and unearthly thing I've ever heard.” White and Friedberger's statements come off as false and insincere, said more for effect than out of any deep conviction. Indeed, there is a middle-class nostalgie de la boue in all this mythologizing—in the case of White, a game of playing “dress-up” as a Depression-era blues musician. Marcus's constant references to contemporary covers of his three songs, including David Lynch's atrocious version of “Hollis Brown” and DJ /rupture and Sindhu Zagoren's take on “Mole in the Ground,” which is sentimental yet completely devoid of any sense of the original’s emotional meaning (they render it as the kind of mawkish fodder Pitchfork used to sell to naïve readers ten years ago), only drives home the mistake made by many artists who position themselves at the feet of their forebears without a sense of absolute humility. It is perhaps notable that Dylan himself has done a far better job of interpreting older material than Lynch or White ever have. The affected accent of Dylan’s early years aside, his versions of songs such as “Moonshiner Blues,” “Two Soldiers,” and “Barbara Allen” are nearly beyond reproach, precisely because they are so respectful of the original subject matter.
These lapses into sentimentality notwithstanding, the flaws in Three Songs, Three Nations, Three Singers are admittedly minor, springing more from Marcus’s good-natured willingness to take the emotional expression of others on credit, rather than out of any writerly missteps. Here he seems much more at home when analyzing the importance of an artwork as it pertains to the past, than when trying to place it within the context of the present.
One of the tragedies of American life is that we tend to idealize our painful history in much the same way that we idealize the “Old Country.” The pain experienced by people such as Geeshie Wiley was a reflection of history at its cruelest, and it is perhaps for the best that only a few singers could ever understand just how terrible things were at the time during which she lived. Our own time has its own pain, too, but it is a less certain pain, one unleavened by the promise of redemption that seemed to accompany the religious conviction of early America. This is surely one of the main reasons why so many contemporary folk musicians fall so short in their approximations of historical traditions, seeming merely to ape bygone styles, without any appreciation for the fact that performers from the earlier part of the last century lived in an extremely formal society, one that cloaked even artistic performance in a kind of restraint—a restraint that is utterly alien to our own need for endless self-confession and self-analysis. After all, Bob Dylan, whose work Marcus holds in such high esteem throughout this book, moved beyond the folk genre not long after releasing “Hollis Brown,” and went in such new directions as electrified rock, the better to express the realities of his own era.
Jordan Anderson lives near Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in World Literature Today, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The Quarterly Conversation, and the blog of The Coffin Factory Magazine.