The writings of America’s foremost popular music critic, Greil Marcus, never disappoint. The latest offering from the author of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Invisible Republic’, ‘Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations’, beautifully produced as a slim hardback by Harvard University Press (2015), brings together a trio of lectures given in 2013, their venue what Bob Dylan, way back on his first album in 1962, called ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’. The three talks took place under the rubric of the ‘William E. Massey Sr Lectures in the History of American Civilisation 2013’.
Of the ‘three singers’, one is, indeed, that very same Bob Dylan on whom the author has written eloquently on numerous occasions. The other two are old-time folk performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and the lesser-known woman blues singer Geeshie Wiley. The three songs are Wylie’s ‘Last Kind Words Blues’, Lunsford’s ‘I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground’ (a song Marcus has visited before) and, from the Dylan canon, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, his tale of rural despair released in 1964 on ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’.
Marcus gets inside each of the songs – the words, the singers, the historical and musical contexts – with his inimitable grace and empathy. These are the readings of one who understands American popular music from the inside, a keeper of the flame who, it is only to be hoped, will have his successors to maintain that flame alive for the future. If those who heard him at Harvard in 2013 truly listened to the speaker, and then went to the songs and listened to them too, then hope there may be!