Ordinary Life: Greil Marcus’ New Books and Extended Thoughts

I was fortunate enough to review Greil Marcus’ two new books, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations and Real Life Rock, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The review is now up. Please consider checking out the many fantastic writers and thinkers at LARB, which has quickly become one of my favorite sites.




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I don’t have much in the way of extended thoughts, but here’s a bit more….

To expand on the argument about sociology and aesthetics would take more time and patience than I have right now. One of the pleasures of Real Life Rock is debating Marcus’ opinions, but it’s also wonderful to read about unheard of artists and musicians. Like Snakefarm.

But here’s an outtake from the portion of the review about Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, revised a bit. I cut it mainly for the sake of length and some redundancy:

As I was writing the review I thought about John Edwards’ “two Americas” 2004 presidential campaign slogan, which came out limp and was immediately swallowed up by typical political speech, even if it was on target. I can’t help but think of these three nations in Marcus’ book as three within the “have-not” America that Edwards described. The central figures in Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations—Bob Dylan, Geeshie Wiley and Bascom Lamar Lunsford—weren’t exactly flush and secure at the time of the performances Marcus documents. They were working musicians, on the move, seeking and hoping to be found. In their songs, as Marcus suggests, they stand on the edge of disappearing. Isn’t that part of what’s terrifying about being poor in America, that you could be erased? That it’s already happened?

Wiley did disappear. Lunsford, too, though to a lesser degree. Dylan did not, but he didn’t know that as he sang “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Even in 1963 he was not yet the Bob Dylan. It’s unlikely he would have been forgotten like Wiley, but maybe he would have become a symbol of protest music and nothing more. Imagine it. Another album or two, without the infamous turn to rock ‘n’ roll, and Dylan might have drifted into serious obscurity. Can you imagine The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan going out of print? The British songwriter Bill Fay, whose two albums Bill Fay (1970) and Time of the Last Persecution (1971) slipped into the ether until they were reissued in 1998, described what this felt like to him: “I was gone, deleted.”

There’s an undeniable link between the commonplace song and deletion—how such songs document what happened to the people who performed them and how they express the fear and uncertainty of the poor and working-class, then and today. It’s not very hard to disappear.

Maybe in these songs you can hear that sense of singing from the blank territories of America: a voice, a person looking for a way out of nowhere, or resigned to the fading, or claiming her place wherever and however possible.

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