A devastatingly original work that plunges into the emotional heart of the American psyche.
In books like “Invisible Republic” and “Lipstick Traces,” the rock critic Greil Marcus developed an ability to discern an art movement, or an entire country, lurking inside a song. This is no longer a singular approach; it has become a critical style, as the current volume demonstrates. Many of the writers strain to match Marcus’s insights, and eighty poetic pages go by before Sarah Vowell’s excellent essay about the transformation of “John Brown’s Body” into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” From there, things pick up steam. Luc Sante shadows the ghost of the New Orleans musician Buddy Bolden, and Paul Berman does a meticulous job of tracking the mariachi ballad “Volver, Volver” from Mexico to the counter of the Fast & Fresh deli in Brooklyn.