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Bards of America

How ballards echo the nation's multiple voices, as heard and recounted by those who love them

The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad
Edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus
Norton, 406 pp., illustrated, $26.95

When Walt Whitman wrote ''I Hear America Singing" he meant the words literally. The poem describes a nation's voices lifted in song (in America, one hears singing). Yet there's another way to parse Whitman's title; just change the emphasis from activity to country (in singing, one hears America).

Who would dispute the figurative truth of such an interpretation? It's in American music that one encounters this nation at its most American. The Statue of Liberty came from France. The truths we hold to be self-evident are meaningless unless universal. Pizza is not indigenous. But from blues to bluegrass to balladry, nothing so symbolizes and expresses America as its music.

It's the American ballad that concerns Sean Wilentz, Greil Marcus, and their fellow contributors to ''The Rose and the Briar." The title comes from the old ballad ''Barbara Allen," which ends with the image of rose and briar entwined over the graves of the title character and the lover she rejected.

Of course, ''Barbara Allen" (or ''Barbary Allen" or ''Barbry Ellen") long predates the United States and came from Britain. What's so American about that? This is precisely the point: The genius of American music lies in its power to transform. From Appalachian hollows to Delta cotton fields, an ''incontestably mulatto" culture -- to use the novelist-critic Albert Murray's matchless formulation -- created an incontestably mulatto music.

Wilentz and Marcus are connoisseurs of both that culture and music. In addition to being professor of history at Princeton, Wilentz is historian in residence at the site Marcus's books include the groundbreaking ''Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music" and ''Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession."

Above and beyond the sheer musical appeal of these songs, what draws Wilentz and Marcus to them is ''the versions and visions of America they describe." The ballads can be new as well as old: Randy Newman's ''Sail Away" and Marty Robbins's ''El Paso" as well as ''The Water Is Wide" and ''Pretty Polly." The term ''ballad," Wilentz and Marcus write, now ''connotes any narrative song, no matter its stanza structure -- a promiscuous definition we were happy to adopt." The point isn't to be traditional. It's to belong to a tradition. If anything, it's more important artistically to further a tradition -- that's what keeps it alive -- than simply curate it.

Wilentz and Marcus have recruited 22 fellow connoisseurs -- novelists, poets, singers, critics -- to pick a song (or songs) that belongs or somehow relates to the American ballad tradition. ''By setting up something like a stage," they write, ''and asking people we admire to get up and perform any ballad they liked, however they saw fit, we hoped to unlock some of the deeper mysteries of these songs and help create some new works of art." (That stage has a sonic counterpart. Sony Legacy has released a CD called ''The Rose and the Briar" with recordings of 20 songs from the book.)

The idea of a creative response to longstanding tradition finds a literary counterpart here. Essays make up much but by no means all of ''The Rose and the Briar." The poet Paul Muldoon updates ''The Streets of Laredo" with lyrics of his own. ''Little Maggie" inspires a Joyce Carol Oates short story. There's a collage by Jon Langford, of the Mekons, to accompany the lyrics of ''The Coo Coo Bird."

David Thomas, the founder of the band Pere Ubu, doesn't so much write an essay as a shadow history of American popular music in the age of sound recording, pairing the late-19th-century railroad song ''The Wreck of Old 97" and Jan and Dean's ''Dead Man's Curve." (It's not as much of a stretch as you might think -- either way, speed kills.)

R. Crumb would no doubt scratch his head over Jan and Dean. ''It's pretty much over musically, for me, by World War Two," he writes. His contribution is a comic strip that illustrates an obscure 78 called ''When You Go a Courtin.' "

Crumb, bless him, mentions in passing that ''The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is ''one of the most irritating pop hits of all time" and ''words cannot do justice to how much I hate that song." He will be relieved to know it's not included among the more recent ballads. Still, it would certainly qualify as a modern-day ballad, which is more than can be said for some other songs.

What's mariachi music doing here? Yet Paul Berman's ''Mariachi Reverie," which celebrates Vicente Fernndez's ''Volver, Volver," is a wondrous blend of autobiography, cross-cultural intellectual history, and concert review (a marathon Fernndez performance at Radio City Music Hall some 10 years ago). In so doing, Berman's essay pays moving tribute to what he calls ''the pleats and folds of the American nationality."

Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson's collaboration on Ellington's ''Come Sunday" is another unexpected choice. It boasts no outlaws or star-crossed lovers or any of the other standard elements of balladry, old or new. Yet as Stanley Crouch declares in his best pulpit manner, their ''Come Sunday" is ''one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century" and ''a pinnacle for the music of New Orleans." It begins with the cathedral tones of Ellington's piano and Jimmy Woode's bass. It ends with the word-transcending eloquence of Jackson humming the chorus. In between comes a profound, and profoundly affecting, evocation of religiosity and the African-American experience that places ''Come Sunday" very deep in the American grain.

No song lies deeper in the American grain -- or auditory system -- than ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is no more a ballad than ''Louie, Louie" is. That doesn't keep Sarah Vowell from writing about it with insight, humor, and respect. After describing the song's journey from ''Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?," a Methodist hymn, to ''John Brown's Body" to ''The Battle Hymn," she describes the lyrics' internal journey.

''The song starts off with 'mine eyes' and 'I have seen,' " Vowell writes, ''and by the end, it's 'you and me' and 'let us die,' or 'let us live' -- whatever, 'us' being the point. We're all in it together. If only for the length of the song." Which is exactly the point: As ''The Rose and the Briar" reminds us, the singularity of the America Whitman heard singing lies in its being so inherently plural.

Mark Feeney, a member of the Globe staff, is the author of ''Nixon at the Movies: A Book About Belief."

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