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Sit Down Beside Me and Hear My Sad Story

Lost love. Fate. Tragedy. The American folk ballad carries the sting of death.

January 10, 2005|Greil Marcus | Greil Marcus is the co-author, with Sean Wilentz, of "The Rose & The Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad" (Norton, 2004), from which this essay is adapted.

Folk music was a terrible embarrassment at the progressive, Quaker-founded grade school I attended in the 1950s. Square dancing! A teacher dressed in floppy jeans and a Pendleton shirt standing on a box calling out "Swing your partner!" and "Dosey-doh!" Then the sing-alongs! The sententious, larded, corpse-like ballads about cowboys and laborers and fair maidens, mines and dungeons, sylvan glades and faraway shores! But only one person in our class had the nerve to force her parents to take her to the Auditorium Arena in Oakland to see Elvis Presley. It was 1956. Soon her parents would be dead on the highway.

"Dead on the highway" -- so much more romantic, more fated, than "killed in an auto accident." It's not language anyone used at the time to tell what had happened; it's the language of the American ballad, which seeks to make death into a story. For it to be a story, the song must make you want to listen. Thus, it calls upon metaphors from all across the land, reaching back across the Atlantic, across hundreds of years and uncounted generations, to catch your ear. "Dead on the highway": Those words could call back the English highwaymen whom President Theodore Roosevelt heard when he read John A. Lomax's "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads."

"There is something very curious in the reproduction here on our this new continent," Roosevelt wrote Lomax in 1910, "of essentially the conditions of ballad-growth which obtained in medaeval England; including, by the way, sympathy for the outlaw, Jesse James taking the place of Robin Hood."

"Dead on the highway": To say that, to make these two deaths into a ballad, or to weave them into a ballad about someone else -- a trucker in the night, a thief on the run, a killer fleeing the police or looking for his next victim, Pretty Boy Floyd or James Dean -- would be to do many things. It would make them heroic, dramatizing their whole lives as an attempt to escape from enemies too powerful even to name. It would seek to mark their deaths as an event, at once singular and part of a tradition -- to raise these people out of the crowd of the anonymous and at the same time join them to a community, even if a community of the dead.

So many American ballads emerged immediately out of death. "Omie Wise," murdered in 1807. "Tom Dooley" (if you believe the story so often printed as fact, composed by Tom Dula himself in 1868, in his cell, the day before he was hanged for the murder of Laura Foster two years before). "John Henry," dying in his race with the steam drill perhaps a decade after the end of the Civil War. "Stag" Lee Shelton shooting Billy Lyons on Christmas night, 1895, and hearing "Stag-o-lee" again and again even before he went on trial. Frankie Baker shooting her lover Allen Britt on Oct. 15, 1899, and, supposedly, pianist Bill Dooley composing "Frankie and Albert," which would travel the world as "Frankie and Johnny," the very next night. ("They say there really was a Frankie and Johnny," said a patron during intermission at the Broadway play "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" in 2002, "sometime in the 1930s, I think.") Charles Starkweather finding his place in Theodore Roosevelt's gallery long before Bruce Springsteen came along to write a song that, in its way, had already been sung.

We didn't sing about our friend's dead parents -- but their deaths, I think, passed into the first folk song I ever heard that carried the sting of death. I'll say it was one night in 1957. Whenever it was, it was on "The Big Surprise," one of the quiz shows that sprang up in the wake of the runaway success of "The $64,000 Question" and "Twenty One." "The Big Surprise" had the big prize -- $100,000 -- and this was the big night, when a woman referred to as "a grandmother" would go for it all. Her category was "American Folk Songs." She was a schoolteacher, I think. Probably she knew that, sometime in the 18th century, perhaps as part of the great Irish migrations following the potato famine of the late 1840s, a song about a syphilitic, most often known as "The Unfortunate Rake," made it across the Atlantic and began to travel the United States. One version, from before the trip, began with the singer passing "St. James' Hospital"; another is called "Locke Hospital."

As I was a-walking out by the

Locke Hospital

Cold was the morning and

dark was the day

I spied a young squaddie

wrapped up in old linen

Wrapped up in old linen and cold as the day

The singer calls for a proper funeral ("Over his coffin throw a bunch of white laurels / For he's a young soldier cut down in his prime"), and then the dead man begins to speak, writing his will after the fact, correcting the man who has begun the song ("Get six of me comrades to carry my coffin / Get six of me comrades to carry me on high / And let everyone hold a bunch of white roses / So no one will notice as we pass them by").

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