In 1963, Bob Dylan recorded “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a ballad about a wealthy white farmer who caused the death of a black barmaid in Baltimore and received a six-month sentence for his crime. In a profile of Dylan, published in 1999, Alex Ross describes the powerful way in which the song unravels the sad tale. “It produces a feeling of helplessness, the way each line ends in a weak beat, and this seems to be the point: cry all you want, the gentle suffer,” he writes. Race is never mentioned, yet we feel the full weight of the narrative as the song moves through its loping rhythm. Some of America’s greatest musicians have been the ones who, like Dylan, are able to expertly tell the story of the country—in all of its beauty and ugliness.
This week, we’ve chosen a selection of pieces about American singers and songwriters who are master storytellers. In “Folk Hero,” David Hajdu chronicles the life of the plainspoken musical legend Woody Guthrie. Doreen St. Félix explores the meaning behind Childish Gambino’s moving and violent music video for his song “This Is America.” In “A Raised Voice,” Claudia Roth Pierpont examines how Nina Simone’s music reflected—and also helped to inspire—the expanding civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties. Kelefa Sanneh profiles Paul Simon and recounts the musician’s early years, as part of the folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, and late-career comeback. Finally, in “Reality Hunger,” Hua Hsu considers the legacy of the rap group N.W.A. and explores its outspoken position on issues like police brutality. We hope that you enjoy these glimpses into the artistic minds of legendary American musicians.
“Like the defiant, vaguely socialistic original words to his best-known song, ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ much of what Woody Guthrie was and did during his lifetime has been forgotten, supplanted by the stuff of nostalgic sentiment.”
“The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ ”
“Donald Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance.”
“Bob Dylan has a curious, sub-rosa place in pop culture, seeming to be everywhere and nowhere at once. He is historical enough to be the subject of university seminars, yet he wanders the land playing to beery crowds.”
“A Raised Voice”
“ ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is a song about a movement nearly out of patience by a woman who never had very much to begin with, and who had little hope for the American future.”
“Well before anyone with an iPhone could document police brutality, the frustrations of young black people went viral by way of abrasively funky anthems like ‘Fuck the Police’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ ”
“Paul Simon’s Hot Streak”
“Simon has earned plenty of gravitas over the years, but he seems too restless to spend it, embarking instead on a series of experiments in rhythm and texture, and honing in his lyrics a shrugging acceptance of an imperfect world.”
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