As hard as it might be to create a poignant folk song that stands the test of time, it’s also pretty daunting to figure out the best way to suitably interpret these semi-fictional and fictional tunes. When Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus gathered 22 writers to document the stories behind legendary 20th-century ballads, all of them confronted this dilemma, coming up with no consensus but finding an assortment of strategies, from R. Crumb illustrations (for “When You Go A Courtin’ “) to Sharyn McCrumb’s brilliant postmodern take on the revolving settings and characters in “Pretty Peggy-O.”
Since the music usually lacks straightforward genealogies, the writers inherit the demands of probing elegant though unreliable reports heard in the lyrics. As old tales spin off into different accounts, so do versions of the same song—Wilentz’s examination of “Delia’s Gone” and Cecil Brown’s analysis of “Frankie and Albert” studiously explore how the actual stories differ from the sung versions. Sometimes, reveling in a song’s vague mystery is sufficient, as Ann Powers reveals in her take on the alternately sentimental and empowering “The Water Is Wide.” Elsewhere, the writers attempt to inhabit the characters: Anna Domino channels the soon-to-be-drowned “Omie Wise,” Joyce Carol Oates ghostwrites a letter by the daughter of a fictitious singer who popularizes “Little Maggie.” Though the rock era rounds out the period covered here (highlights include Wendy Lesser on Dylan’s surreal western “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and Howard Hampton the serial killer legends in Springsteen’s “Nebraska”), one hopes that rap and alt-country will make appearances in a follow-up volume.
These varied essays share a theme: History is put in the service of a good tune and fuels a realistic story—artfully created from scratch.