Various Artists

The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in American Ballads

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Assembled by Sean Wilents and Greil Marcus to accompany the book of the same title, The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in American Ballads is organized around the central question, "What does the American ballad say about America?" Well, judging from the selections collected, it would appear that America (no surprise here) is most obsessed with love and death and the attendant subplots of murder and betrayal, with an occasional train or car wreck tossed in for metaphorical value (if you move too fast you'll pay dearly....). The selections range from vintage 1920s and 1930s 78s, including Clarence Ashley's mysterious riddle of gambling and false-hearted love, "The Cuckoo," and two chilly Appalachian murder ballads, "Ommie Wise" (its melody, sped-up, later morphed into "Wabash Cannonball") by fiddler G.B. Grayson and "Pretty Polly" by the Coon Creek Girls, to more recent fare by Randy Newman ("Sail Away"), Bruce Springsteen ("Nebraska"), and Bob Dylan ("Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"). Also worth noting are Jean Ritchie's unaccompanied "Barbary Allen" from 1961, the Handsome Family's restructuring of Paul Muldoon's "Blackwatertown" (in turn based on the melody of "Streets of Laredo"), and Jan & Dean's classic tale of speed beyond reason, "Dead Man's Curve." Toss in Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" and a rock remake of "Wreck of the Old 97" by John Mellencamp, and the result is an odd, disjointed sequence that is more of an academic conception than it is a musical one. But that is actually the strength of The Rose and the Briar, since it forces listeners to make large leaps to connect the dots, and reminds everyone that tradition (or in its extreme form, obsession) carries its DNA forward in surprising ways.

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