Massey lecturer Greil Marcus: Carrying on America

by Andrew Chow '14

Greil Marcus has been writing so steadily and brilliantly for the last 40-some years that he has become an American icon on the level of many of his subjects. He started as the very first reviews editor for Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 and has since written acclaimed books on Elvis Presley, The Doors, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, among others. He’ll present the 2013 William Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies: Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, a three-part lecture that kicks off 5:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 21 in the Sackler Auditorium, 485 Broadway, Cambridge, and continues at the same time on Tuesday and Wednesday. A reception with follow the lecture on Monday in the Thompson Room at the Barker Center. The lectures are free and open to the public. Below are Marcus’ thoughts on the upcoming lectures.

On the lecture's overarching theme:I chose three songs that seemed to embody different ideas or emotional apprehensions of what a "country" is. The country could be America specifically, but it could also be an almost mystical notion of how people relate to each other. Each singer is saying, "I live in this country. This is what this country is, this is how it sounds and feels. This is what we care about. This is what we’re afraid of. This is what we share."

Ballad of Hollis Brown, Bob Dylan (1964):Hollis Brown is about a farmer who kills his family and himself because he doesn’t want them to live the horrible life he’s been forced to live. It’s a way of saying: "The world has failed us, and death is better than life." It’s a work of philosophy.

The song certainly doesn’t sound in any particular way like 1964. It sounds like and it feels like a handed-down folk song from the 1930s or even the 1880s. So starting with this song, which is by an artist who everyone will know, is a good way into this whole theme.

Last Kind Words Blues, Geeshie Wiley (1930):Geeshie Wiley recorded five remarkable numbers in 1930 and 1931, the most extraordinary of which was the Last Kind Words Blues. There’s nothing like it: in feel, in lyrics, in melody. Wiley is speaking a mystical language, but also a language that anyone can immediately understand emotionally.

Nothing at all is known about Wiley. We don’t know her real name, what life she lived, or when she died. She is a blank, and the song reflects that. It sounds like something that was written and performed by a ghost.

I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground, Bascam Lamar Lunsford (1922):I’ve been obsessed with this song and writing about it for 25, 30 years. On one hand, it’s completely political. "I wish I was a mole in the ground" calls to mind Marx’s "old mole," burrowing under society to ruin it. You can imagine people all over the world singing this song in any situation of resistance and upheaval, whether in Tahrir Square, or Beijing or at a Tea Party rally in front of the White House. The song speaks for a society in flux, where anything can be destroyed and a mole can rule the world. And god knows we saw something like that over the last couple of weeks, when a whole lot of little moles in Congress nearly rooted the mountain.

At the same time, the song is completely about sex. So it’s a great puzzle. People have been trying to, if not solve the song, become part of it for 100 years. Recently, it was recorded as a German techno song--that recording is one of the most bizarre things you’ll ever hear.

On the continuing American folk tradition:There are all kinds of people doing this. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Crooked Still and Bruce Springsteen, in moments, come to mind. Of course, Dylan himself: His last album Tempest was a rewriting, or reliving, of old folk songs. The album says, "These songs are permanent. There’s no end to the moods they can create, the kind of vertigo they can open up."

On the other hand, the answer I just gave you is incomplete and inadequate. It could be there are heavy metal bands, country groups or hip-hop artists who are in a deeper sense carrying this tradition on, in ways that aren’t apparent to me but would be obvious to others.