In a new work on old songs, Greil Marcus traces three classically American compositions on their paths to authorlessness. He calls them “founding documents of American identity,” and shows them taking shape over time as they draw on historic melodies and motifs until they find firm shape in the hands of one particular artist. In Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, Marcus’s chosen works—Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was A Mole In the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”—give us three different ways of being America.
The book starts with Dylan and the only song of the three to have actually been written by the performer with whom it’s most associated. For a young Bob Dylan yearning to embody a faceless tradition of American folk there’d be a certain triumph in penning a song that’d leave him behind, and after a career of nearly sixty years he represents for Marcus a form of speech in constant flux, “a language anyone can speak, as if it were a common coin, no one holding more right to it than anyone else.”
There is a language in the American folk song that, as people speak the same phrases as everyone else, seduces or compels them to add their own shadings, their own cues, elisions, emphases, stresses, images, twists, highlights, effacings, so that any statement can appear at once as commonplace and individual, something anyone might say in a way that no one else would ever say it—a language that allows people to find their own voices, and then disappear into the crowd. A language in which there is, at the source, no original—and if there is no original, there is no copy. Each statement is a thing in itself, and not a thing at all.
There is, too, a language in American cultural criticism with its own shadings and cues, elisions and emphases, such that any statement can appear only as that of Greil Marcus. Three Songs was born as lectures, a form of address that only emphasizes the always-felt sense that Marcus is giving straight to you these stories that merge our shared past with his own sharp ear, as if our whole history is a common map but the route all his own—until it’s yours, too. Listen to it travel along to authorlessness through the playlist below.