Greil Marcus On His New Book Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations

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Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is a small book full of big ideas. It’s the slimmest volume in Greil Marcus’s large catalog, at just 167 pages, yet it encapsulates some of his most imaginative and original arguments about how folk songs are created in America and — perhaps more crucially — how they live, how they thrive, and how they mutate over time.

“In this book I am looking at three commonplace, seemingly authorless songs as bedrock, founding documents of American identity,” Marcus writes. Developed as part of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, Three Songs opens with Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which allows its famous writer to absent himself from the song, then Marcus moves on to Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues,” which blends familiar folk-lyrics elements with startlingly bleak turns of phrase.

Rounding out the triptych is “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” a song that has seemingly infinite variations yet reached perfection in Bascam Lamar Lunsford’s recording from the 1920s. “These songs can be heard as a form of speech that, with a deep foundation, is always in flux.”

Three Songs acts as a kind of punctuation on his career to date, picking up threads of thought he introduced as far back as 1975’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and 1989’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, both of which are required reading. Marcus may in fact be the most imaginative critic of the rock era, one who balances exacting analysis with flights-of-fancy metaphors, carefully crafted arguments with lengthy (and largely unannounced) passages of speculative fiction.

Marcus recently spoke to American Songwriter about these three fascinating songs and what they reveal about us as Americans and as listeners.

Why did you choose these three songs for this project? What did they allow you to do?

I’ve been fascinated for many, many years with the idea of what in this book I’m calling the commonplace song, which is not what songs without authors are usually called. But it just seemed like the right term to me. These three songs either don’t have any known authors or are partly composed of elements that just seem to be part of ordinary shared speech. They tap into the common language and the common imagination of the country.

So we have these three different kinds of songs, and I simply wanted to set up a conversation between them. The Dylan song I’ve known since it came out, but it was never a great object of fascination for me until I began to think about what kind of lectures I might give at Harvard. I just thought it fit, whereas “Last Kind Word Blues” and “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” are songs I’ve been obsessed with for thirty or forty years now. Really obsessed. I’ve listened to them thousands of times over the years, and I’ve been just as entranced by them and just as baffled the last time I heard them as I was the first time.

So those are chapters you’ve been working on, in some capacity, for many years now.

In my book Invisible Republic — which is now called The Old Weird America, which is what I always wanted to call it — there are four or five pages on “Last Kind Words Blues” near the end. Before that, I had written a piece for The Oxford American on the song. So I had already written about it. And in almost but not every one of my books, starting with Lipstick Traces, there is a page or maybe half a page about “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” These are songs that I’ve tried to write about and get a hold on. Over the years I’ve lectured about them and I’ve made them centerpieces of classes that I’ve taught, and the Massey Lectures gave me an opportunity to say to myself, “Now you can do everything to get it right and put back on the page everything that I’ve taken from these songs over the years.” Not that I’ll never think about them again or write about them again.

I had those two songs and I just thought of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which has always been powerful and unique. But on The Times They Are A-Changin’ it’s just another one of those songs about gosh, things are terrible and the world has fallen to pieces. It never seemed that distinctive to me, and then it just so happened that because of certain copyright laws, you have to issue certain songs and certain performances in one format or another in order to retain the rights. So Dylan’s management put together these various releases in editions of 500 in Belgium for one week, or something like that. They included all kinds of live performances, the kinds of things that have probably been bootlegged countless times. In one of those sets, there were maybe half a dozen different performances of “Hollis Brown” from just about the first time that Dylan ever performed it through the next few years. Suddenly I had all these different version to work with, and I could see the way the song came together, what was left out of it and what was retained — how it became a song with a writer. There was a real story that I could tell, along with describing all the ways other people have tried to get a hold of the song.

It’s interesting to start the book with the Dylan chapter, since he’s one of the most popular American songwriters. Yet, as you write, he seems to be trying to absent himself from the songwriting process.

As I hear it and it seems like as you hear it, he is becoming anonymous as he sings the song. He’s not there. It could be anybody. He doesn’t matter. We’re not interested in Bob Dylan when we listen to this song. We’re interested in Hollis Brown. We don’t care who wrote it because it doesn’t seem like anybody did. That’s a great triumph, if he’s willing to pull that off. He convinces us that he didn’t write the song, even though we know he did.

I feel like a lot of artists are trying to do that, especially in the Americana world, but they’re too mannered—too limited in their idea of the past—to pull it off.

There are so many things in the song — certain lines, certain descriptions — that I don’t think anybody else would have said or would have put the way that Dylan puts them. If you lost that, it’d be very disappointing, at least to me. It’d be disappointing if someone discovered another song with the lines from “Last Kind Word Blues”—“If I die, if I die, if I get killed, if I get killed, just bury my soul, let the buzzards eat me whole.” To me its so striking the way Geeshie Wiley can create such a setting that feels so commonplace, where you think you know what it’s about, and then just completely overthrow that setting, blow it up with a few lines that no one’s ever heard before and no one is expecting. It’s so harsh and so poetic and so overwhelming.

Then to have the song never quite settle into one specific meaning — that’s pretty powerful. These recordings are old, but we’re still trying to figure them out.

And people hear these songs very differently. When I first heard “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” and when I continued to hear the song over several decades, it always seemed primarily political to me. It had echoes of Karl Marx’s old mole: you have to be like a mole burrowing under the system, under capitalism, and eating away at the foundations. And there’s also the spycraft term — the mole, the person who is there but is really somebody else, somebody who is undermining the entire espionage apparatus. Spy agencies are always looking for the mole in their midst. “I wish I was a mole in the ground, I will bring that mountain down.” That to me is very political. It’s about demanding absolute change in power and in the relationship between government and people, between us and everything that controls our lives.

But other people hear it completely differently. They hear the verse about Kempe coming over the hill with a twenty-dollar bill, and the entire song becomes absolutely sexual. “If I was a lizard in the spring, I would hear my darlin’ sing.” Everything about it is carnal, and there’s no political dimension to it. So the song is two-faced. It’s Janus-like. Depending on where you’re standing, it gives you one face; you move over, and it gives you another. The sexual verses buttress the political verses and vice versa. You have to hold two ideas in your head at once.

There’s a Dylan web site called Expectingrain.com, and everyday there’s a series of items about Bob Dylan and related subjects, along with a section of live performances and obscure recordings. And there’s somebody who once every week or so does a running feature on Dylan’s songs, and it will be called something like, The Real Meaning of the Words and Music. To me it’s just the most philistine notion imaginable that songs like these only have a single real meaning. It kills the song, destroys its ability to make meaning and reach people — to carry messages that aren’t complete. I just marvel at the stupidity of looking at the world that way. These songs are never finished. They live many lives.

In a sense, these songs aren’t authorless so much as they have been collectively, even nationally authored over many years.

Sure. “Last Kind Word Blues” doesn’t exist before Geeshie Wiley goes into a recording studio in 1930 and records it. There have been other songs with some of these elements, but not this song and not with this title. She pretty much says, “This is it.” But when other people take up the song — whether it’s David Johansen, who I don’t write about, or the Dex Romweber Duo, who I do write about — they run roughshod over the words, maybe because they can’t quite make them out or maybe because they don’t like the way they fall. Maybe in the heat of the moment, they mean to say one thing but end up saying something else. So the song gets distorted.

But with “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” there’s a kernel that the rest of the song grows around over the years, going back to the American Revolution. Over generations people are adding new lines and new verses until it takes a form that just seems complete, that has its own gravity, that throws off any foreign element. When Bascom Lamar Lunsford records the song definitively in 1928, it’s not like nobody can add anything to it anymore or omit something from it. People clearly can. And yet, he has recorded this song in a way that makes it seem complete. The thing has a shape; if you took something out, it would unravel. There are versions, even modern versions, where people have added whole verse, some making it very explicitly anti-capitalist or very explicitly North-versus-South, and boy, they’re terrible. I didn’t write about them in these lectures because they weren’t interesting.

It’s like a cave painting. You go to a Paleolithic cave and there are etchings and drawings and paintings of animals all over the walls, and if you look very carefully or use spectrographic analysis, you find that these are not just paintings — they’re overpaintings. They’re overengravings. Over hundreds or even thousands of years, people have continued to come into these caves and add news images on top of old images or extend images, elaborate on them. So you’re not looking at the work of one particular person or even one particular group. Many people and many groups have added to this composition over time.

In the title the three songs and the three singers are all obvious, but the three nations aren’t. It felt like these songs were all pointing back to the same nation.

Sure they do. They all refer back to America. And maybe it’s a stretch to say there’s a whole nation embodied in each of these songs. I could have said it’s a different way of being in the world, but I had to be more blunt about it. I tried to spell out the scenes as plainly as possible. With “Hollis Brown,” it’s a question of inflection. American speech is so full of irony that there are trapdoors in even the plainest lines, so how something is inflected is absolutely crucial to getting meaning across, whether it’s fiction or poetry or songs.

With “Last Kind Words Blues,” there’s a theme running through all of American history this idea of disappearing, of losing yourself, of being forgotten, of never existing at all. America has a fantastic ability to forget historical incidents and even to forget itself. And with “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” the subtitle of that chapter is “World Upside Down,” which to me speaks to the American impulse to overthrow, to deny, to refuse and refute. To say, this isn’t my country. This country doesn’t speak for me. Only I speak for me. In a sense, you have the right to free speech, to say what you think, but you also have an obligation that if you’re not willing to say what you want or to say what you think is right or wrong, then you’re not an American at all. You have failed your obligations to yourself and your country, and all of that is bound up in “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”

Do you feel like that’s part of your responsibility as a critic?

No. I don’t think it’s my mission. It’s not even my goal. I was just saying that that is the burden of citizenship. As a writer and as a critic, I’m always playing around with songs. I’m trying to figure out how I can make stories out of them. What secrets can I tease out of them, what new contexts can I put them in so they speak and act differently. It’s play. It’s fun. It’s wonderful to play with a song and let the song play with you, to open yourself up to hearing it in new ways.