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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Greil Marcus has edited an anthology about American ballads with historian Sean Wilentz, and talks to Salon about it
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"Q: About a year ago, one of your contributors, Howard Hampton, told me that he thinks there are many Americans now who no longer have a sense of the past as a real place. And reading through the book it struck me that each of these pieces, in its own way, is an affirmation of the past as a real place.

G.M.: Well, a real place that we still live in, that we carry with us whether we know it or not, that can't ever be escaped. I mean, there are lines throughout the book where this comes across to me -- they're almost dreamlike in the way that they carry you to another country, which someone once said the past is. The first line in Ann Powers' piece on "The Water Is Wide": "In this part of the story, nothing happens." What could be more alluring? You know: Tell me about the part where nothing happens, because obviously, that's where everything happens. It's an incredible invocation of suspense. And then there's David Thomas, saying just bluntly, "Thomas Alva Edison is the father of Elvis." And there, if in fact you live your life according to the notion that the past is not a real place, one simple line like that, a few words, immediately pulls the ground out from under your feet."

Every culture occupies its past in some way: one of the things that I think is an interesting contrast between Europe and America is the way that the two cultures relate to their histories. Europe's past is so toxic that a great deal of energy is spent supressing it; from time to time something happens and it comes boiling to the surface, in Serbia or places like that, or France's National Front. Our history, no less toxic, seems often to be subsumed into various alternative creation myths-- the Founding Fathers as Olympian deities, which becomes a twisted form of jurisprudence, for example; or the idea of the South as an agrarian paradise lost, as in "Gone With the Wind" (or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", for that matter). The idea of the "weird, old America" is one of Marcus' great themes, of course; in Texas last week I realized that place has never gone away, and is where a lot of people still live. I don't mean that Dallas is that place, of course, although Dallas is certainly a different country from the one I live in-- but you can see the place that Marcus is talking about from there.

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