Massey Lecture Profiles Bob Dylan's Murder Ballad

“Nearly 40 years ago Greil, California-born and Berkeley-trained, changed the landscape of American music criticism,” began Werner M. Sollors, professor of English and African-American studies, as he introduced the first of Greil Marcus’s contributions to the William E. Massey Lectures. “He described in surprising and vivid metaphors the rock and roll he heard,” Sollors said.

Now, after working as a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone in its early years, as well as writing for Salon, The New York Times, Artforum, Esquire, and The Village Voice and publishing several books, Marcus has brought criticism of popular music into the academy, teaching at Berkeley and the New School in New York and delivering lectures on music.


The talk he delivered Monday in the Sackler Auditorium was part of the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in American Studies, which have been an annual tradition since 1983, endowed by an anonymous donor in honor of the former president of A.T. Massey Coal Company to bring distinguished figures in the arts and letters to speak at Harvard.

Past lecturers have included Gish Jen, Richard Rorty, Toni Morrison and Gore Vidal. Marcus was chosen in part, Sollors said, because, “he boldly consider[s] popular culture equivalent to canonical literature in shaping a national discourse.” Monday’s lecture was the first in a series of three titled, “Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations,” and each night’s lecture focused on a particular song by a particular folk singer: first was Bob Dylan, followed by the lesser-known Geeshie Wiley and Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Marcus, who sees folk songs as bedrock documents of American identity, focused the first lecture on Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and through examining the song’s history and its sound, Marcus spoke of how it has transcended its origins as a song and story invented by Dylan to become as classic as any old folk standard.

He began by vividly detailing an early performance of the song on a 1963 Westinghouse television special hosted by John Henry Faulk. In the midst of lively cartoons and performances celebrating the folk revival as a new American patriotism, Dylan’s performance of “Hollis Brown” was hauntingly minimalist, Marcus said. “As the cartoon landscape disappears into a black backdrop, you’re brought into the story: A failing farm, a starving family, and a father who kills them all.”

Marcus explained the history of the song’s conception, most broadly that it was based on the blues form of songs such as “Pretty Polly,” a traditional murder ballad. “The structure of ‘Pretty Polly’…is always the shape of the blues; that’s what the structure of ‘Hollis Brown’ is: Those first two verses and then a third verse knocking them dead,” he said.


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