The Rose and the Briar

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Sean Wilentz, Greil Marcus, eds. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. viii + 406 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0.

edited from a review by Steve Waksman (Department of Music, Smith College):
The search for truth, underscored by the effort to interrogate where truth lies, drives The Rose and the Briar, the  edited collection by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus on the meaning of the American ballad. As Marcus writes in the book’s closing piece, old ballads carry “a kind of truth … that [cannot] be found anywhere else,” to which he adds, “all ballads, regardless of when they might have been made, are old”.

The strength of The Rose and the Briar lies in the fact that, for the different contributors, the truth of the ballads assumes a variety of forms. Collected in the book are the expected critical essays, but they exist alongside several works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and visual art.

Complementing the diversity of approaches in the collection is the wide range of source material covered. The Rose and the Briar puts forth a purposely broad inclusive definition of the ballad, in which the primary criterion requires that the song in question tell a story.  Several contributors dwell upon songs in which love somehow proves to be fatal.

Often it is a man who kills his female lover, but sometimes the situation is reversed (“Frankie and Albert”) and sometimes the act of murder is more allegorical than actual as in “Barbara Allen,” in which a man dies of a broken heart when his love goes unreciprocated, and then his cold-hearted lover dies of regret.

The sheer recurrence of such symbolism is treated as something of a mystery in many of the book’s essays, where the clues being sought do not concern whodunit so much as the fundamental question of why tragic love occurs with such frequency in the ballad tradition. Treating one of the murder ballads in which a woman is killed by her man, Rennie Sparks digs the deepest of the book’s authors into this mystery of culture.

However, her answer–that such songs represent the drive to extinguish the threatening power of the mythic feminine goddess–relies too strongly on ideas informed by Joseph Campbell, concerning psychological archetypes divorced from historical context.

For Dave Marsh, writing about “Barbara Allen,” the matter is more straightforward if no less mysterious, as he interprets the song to put forth a lesson about “the peril of denying the complicated mysteries that throb within our hardened hearts and the equal peril of horsing around instead of acknowledging our love for one another”. Or to put it more bluntly, love is strange and, if you are not careful, it can kill you.

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