From Publishers Weekly
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.
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*Starred Review* Defining ballad
loosely as a song with narrative content or reference, coeditors Wilentz and Marcus, a historian and a rock critic, respectively, asked 22 nonacademic writers to each pick an American ballad and expatiate on it. Their responses are wonderfully varied, from John Rockwell on the performance style of Burl Ives' recording of "The Foggy, Foggy Dew" to poet Paul Muldoon's brand-new variant, "Blackwatertown," of "The Unfortunate Rake" and its cognate, "The Streets of Laredo"; from Anna Domino's historical research on the real murder behind "Omie Wise" to Ed Ward's knockout new-journalism-style excavation of an obscure 1960s soul song. Novelists Sharon McCrumb and Joyce Carol Oates respond with fiction, artists R. Crumb and Jon Langford with cartoons. Paul Berman's "Mariachi Reverie," inspired by Vicente Fernandez's "Volver, Volver," which opens up a new world of Mexican pop music for most Anglo readers, is as good, and rants by Rennie Sparks (intemperate, p.c.) and Pere Ubu's David Thomas (over-the-top, incoherent) are as bad as the collection gets. The accompanying CD of 20 of the chosen songs often suggests that a good writer is hung up on trash (there are better Bob Dylan ballads than Wendy Lesser's choice).Generally, the newer the song, the paltrier it is. But even the least of the essays makes good, if irritating, reading. The best are terrific. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved