Trace a folk song back far enough, and chances are a true story inspired it, though that story has likely been distorted through repetition and artistic license. America is a young enough country that sometimes the sources can be dug up in old newspapers. There really was a Delia and a Stagger Lee. Frankie did kill her man Johnny (even though his name was Albert). In 1903, the Old 97 went flying off the tracks. The original stories all confirm the same truth: The songs have become bigger than their inspirations. Frankie Baker spent a good portion of her later life pursuing litigation against those profiting from her story, but by then it was too late. Her tale had already spent decades on the lips of people who had no idea who she was. Why shouldn't white actress Helen Morgan play the part in the film adaptation? After all, "Frankie And Johnny" is just a song.
Except, as the new essay collection The Rose & The Briar repeatedly argues, a song is never just a song, particularly once it takes on a life of its own. Edited by Princeton professor Sean Wilentz and critic Greil Marcus, the anthology (released in conjunction with a CD by the same name) lets 24 authors, critics, musicians, and cartoonists loose on the ballad of their choice. Many opt, as novelist Cecil Brown does with "Frankie And Johnny," to trace the song's history and reflect on the strange relations between life and verse. It's one thing to note that a Delia Green inspired "Delia's Gone," but another to parse out, as Wilentz does in his own contribution, the significance of what gets left in, what gets left out, and what gets changed in the various retellings of her death.
Others take a less history-minded approach. Robert Crumb contributes a cartoon and a pair of hilariously cranky letters. Working with a song with no clear source, songwriter Rennie Sparks (of The Handsome Family) digs into the words of "Pretty Polly" and produces an insightful examination of the fear of female sexuality that touches on everything from Madame Blavatsky to Richard Speck. The closing installments choose, with mixed success, to look at how the tradition continues in the current age. The focus on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen makes sense, but, though his essay rambles, Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas provides a better look at the bigger picture when he connects the dots between "The Wreck Of The Old 97" and Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve," songs that couple the forward momentum of the adventurous American spirit with that momentum's tendency to carry its passengers off a cliff. "What the ballad wants, the ballad gets," Thomas observes, in describing how the details change over time. The story, however, remains big enough to survive any re-telling, in one form or another.