Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Just before Christmas A. was listing to something on CBC in the car when the host mentioned that he had a tattoo of Burl Ives on his arm. It seems that he was very close to Ives-- like a father to him, he said, and when Ives died(in 1995),he got the tat as a memorial. At least, I assume he got it after Ives died-- I can't think of too many things that would be creepier than meeting an old friend and finding a likeness of my face-- the size of a man's fist, he said it was-- on his arm.

I mention it because I just finished John Rockwell's essay on Ives and "The Foggy, Foggy Dew" in Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz' collection, "The Rose and The Briar: Death Love and Liberty in the American Ballad". You could drive a truck about what I don't know about Ives-- folk song popularizer, kiddie record artist, and the snowman from Rankin-Bass' "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" was probably the extent of it (and wouldn't that snowman make a peculiar tattoo, now that I think of it?). Turns out there is a lot mere to Ives, and "The Foggy, Foggy Dew", than I knew-- he named names back in the '50s, for one thing, blowing in Pete Seeger. He spent a night in jail somewhere in Utah because "The Foggy, Foggy Dew" was considered salacious by the Mormons he was performing in front of. Interesting stuff, and the sort of thing I love in collections like this. (Rockwell gives out with the filth, which is tame by any reasonable standard. Apparently the narrator and his girl friend have sex, but "Roll Me Over In The Clover" it ain't.)

One of the treats about this sort of book is that the pieces I don't have any expectations for can turn out to be the essays that I like best. I had high hopes for Sarah Vowell on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", but it has a somewhat tossed off feel. I am, g-d knows, neither a musicologist nor a folklorist, but I knew the history of that particular song, and it I was disappointed, a little, in her account of it. If I know it, it must be pretty widely known, and she could have spent her time developing something less commonplace. Vowell also has a tendency to be cute for the cheap laugh, and this trait shows up here as well. On the other hand, her conclusion is stunning: "When we sing "The Battle Hymn-- and I say "we" because that is how the song is traditionally performed at public events, as a sing-along in which a group of citizens become a choir- we sing about taking action, about marching on, about doing something. And-- this is the best part about singing "The Battle Hymn"-- you are not standing there alone doing something. You're a part of something. The song starts off with "mine eyes" and "I have seen," 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 this together. If only for the length of the song."

Wendy Lesser gets a lot right in her piece on "Lilly, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts," but it is not exemplary Dylanology in the end-- Wendy, if you want to hear the ommitted verse, Joan Baez sings it on "From Every Stage"-- one of only two covers of the somg that I am aware of. It scans, but it doesn't add much.

On the other hand, I had no expections about Luc Sante on "Buddy Bolden's Blues", but it is a hilarious and meticulously reseached historical piece on a song about a fart.

Elsewhere there are discussions about the effect of technology on the folk song tradition, and scholarly inquiries into the historical basis for songs that had become worn smooth like stones and now seem fresh to me again. There are a couple of short stories somewhat in the manner of Lester Bangs' great story about "Maggie May", including one by Joyce Carol Oates that's as good as anything I've read of hers. I'd say that it was parsimonious of W.W. Norton and Sony Music to package book and CD separately, because of course you'd want them both-- there is some overlap inevitable in anyone's music collection, but there are also songs discussed, or versions of songs, that were unfamiliar to me.

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