Critical anthologies about popular music are risky ventures. Which is one reason that The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad is such a fitting title for a new tome, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. At the risk of paraphrasing an old Suzanne Sommers poem, most of the book's 23 pieces about this crucial American art form are inviting, and unfold new layers within the source material. But a few are prickly, saddling simple songs with so much baggage their visceral joys (or sorrows) are obliterated.

Fortunately, The Rose & the Briar (published by W. W. Norton & Company) boasts two assets many similar compendiums do not. First, its contributors are not exclusively music critics. The participants include visual artists (cartoonist R. Crumb), poets, musicians, and authors (like Joyce Carol Oates). Some of the most interesting selections are born from points of intersection between disciplines: Jon Langford (the Mekons, Waco Brothers) submits five original paintings, loosely based on "The Coo Coo Bird," Clarence Ashley's 1929 recording of a ditty estimated to date back 1,000 years.

This diversity was part of what attracted local writer and EMP curator Ann Powers (who ruminates movingly about "The Water Is Wide") to this project. "I love the structure of the book because it allowed for writing that was both personal and expansive, like folk music itself in its best form," she says, citing her excitement at sharing space with participants including Langford, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, and mystery novelist Sharyn McCrumb. "Each writer's take on his or her favorite song teaches me something new."

One stellar example is an investigation by Rennie Sparks, of the Handsome Family, into the origins of "Pretty Polly," a song recorded by everyone from bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley to Kristin Hersh. Enlivened by her earthy tone, Spark's analysis embraces parapsychology, goddess mythology, murderer Richard Speck, and the 40-pound cabbages raised in Findhorn, Scotland. "I started thinking that these old ballads are almost like spells, and that's part of what's powerful about them," says Sparks. "They conjure some spirit."

The other thing The Rose & The Briar has going for it is a companion CD (on Sony Legacy), a 20-track set that features most of the songs in the book (including Bobby Patterson's soul rarity "The Trial of Mary McGuire," and "Come Sunday," a sublime collaboration between Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson), plus new recordings by John Mellencamp, Snakefarm, and the Handsome Family. Keep the CD handy while reading, as it offers a more immediate point of entry into the denser essays; if one feels bogged down by Paul Berman's discourse on "Volver, Volver," a quick listen to the fiery rendition by Vicente Fernández will help reconnect with the material. This trick isn't foolproof--not even the apple-cheeked harmonies of Jan & Dean can save Thomas' ponderous comparison of "Wreck of the Old 97" with "Dead Man's Curve"--but it definitely slashes through most of the brambles.

kurt@thestranger.com

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