Listen to Music Discussed in This Article
Since he launched his career in the late '60s as part of the founding team of Rolling Stone magazine, the writer and critic Greil Marcus has been searching patiently for evidence of America's core myths--the stories of national mission that are carried across generations, America's recurring dreams, expectations, and disappointments. But Marcus is not seeking these among the usual suspects of politicians, generals, and titans of business and finance, but in the annals of popular culture instead.

Having written extensively about Bob Dylan as one of the greatest American mythologists of recent times (in books including "The Old," "Weird America," and "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads"), Marcus has also turned his attention to an eclectic field of popular mythmakers, from bluesman Robert Johnson to writer Philip Roth to filmmaker David Lynch to the ever-elusive Elvis. His newest work, "The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice," attempts to track these and other artists navigating America's challenging and compelling myth of being a "chosen people."

America's Covenant
In Marcus' retelling of the American story, the covenant between the Israelites and God, which is described by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, provides the blueprint for the New World model of America as a "City Upon a Hill," as imagined by John Winthrop, the 17th-century spiritual leader of a group of settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Company. Marcus explains that since the early days of the colonies, America has wrestled with divinely inspired promises of liberty meant to serve as an example to the rest of the world. These promises, however, are juxtaposed with betrayals of justice, embodied most tragically in the American legacy of slavery and racial oppression.

Two of Winthrop's key inheritors, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, are prime examples of figures Marcus defines as prophets who use "public speech" to force Americans to confront the expectations and failures of a national covenant promising to "let freedom ring" even when it is unable to deliver.

Marcus believes the American political sphere has lost much of its former ability to spark meaningful or inspirational dialogue about the risks and rewards of the myth of chosenness. Instead, American myth has gone underground into the realm of popular culture. Music, film, literature, and art now carry the codes of America's covenantal yearnings--or at least they do for careful listeners and readers to discover. Marcus, of course, is one such listener and reader.

Bob Dylan
Greil Marcus is one of the critics who legitimized thinking about rock and roll as an art form, and more than anyone else it was Bob Dylan--a favorite subject of Marcus'--who pioneered the idea that rock music mixes intellectual depth, a sweet beat and melody, and a critique of the American covenant with prophetic eloquence and fire.

While Dylan's cast of American wanderers and seekers are not often mentioned in "The Shape of Things to Come," the heroes of Dylan’s songs are compelling expressions and critiques of Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" and King's "I Have a Dream." Early anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," and "With God on Our Side" articulated the loneliness and anger of youth living with a sense of exile from America's promise. Dylan’s current release, "Modern Times," finds these same characters still on the road 40 years later, still "Traveling by land / Traveling through the dawn of day" through "this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain" while "beyond the horizon, behind the sun / At the end of the rainbow life has only begun."

Sufjan Stevens
While Dylan's work illustrates particularly well the pitfalls and disappointment of America’s self-perception of being a chosen nation, a relative newcomer to the mythical, musical American landscape, Sufjan Stevens demonstrates how the challenges of American promise are transformed in each generation, as well as how popular cultural today can make use of religious language and understanding to reintroduce depth to the American story.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens Sing "Amazing Grace."
Stevens is a prolific multi-instrumentalist whose eclectic projects have included beginning attempts to document each of the 50 states with an album and a five-CD collection of Christmas songs to "make him appreciate Christmas more." Fully exposed in the frozen Rust Belt and moving meticulously through trailer parks, swap meets, a friend's van, the backyard, a Bible study group, and the lazy hours after school, Stevens' characters inhabit tiny stories of isolation in contemporary American life. These are angelic klutzes living in a world spinning much too fast, and often it is a religious calling that gives meaning to their world. Even if seeking the divine produces more longing, the search for holiness fills the gaps left by the cracks they find in the American dream.

Stevens asks: "Oh God of Progress / Have you degraded or forgot us? / Where have your laws gone? / I think about it now." Similarly, the refrain for the plea, "Trouble falls in my home / Troubled man, troubled soul" is "Oh God, hold me now."

Stevens' characters pursue divine comfort and strength when earthly habits fail: "And I'm joining all my thoughts to you / And I'm preparing every part for you."

Sufjan Stevens' fusion of fragility and daring amidst American religious and mythic themes suggests an interesting turn in a long line of fellow travelers. He is much less reticent than Bob Dylan or other artists such as Philip Roth, Allen Ginsburg to use religious language to fuel his critique of a covenant staggering under the weight of its expectations.

Paul Simon once praised the secret language of wanderers seeking the promise of the American myth despite its betrayals:

And these prayers are
The constant road across the wilderness
These prayers are
These prayers are the memory of God
The memory of God Sufjan Stevens' emergence points to opportunities for other artists to remember that their prayers merit rising up from the underground in order to engage prophetic language in the public sphere. Stevens sings: "What have we become America? / Soldiers on the Great Frontier! Carpenter and Soldier, one on one / It's the battle, volunteer!"

Where adventurous creative voices call for meaningful reassessment of America's responsibilities to its promise, invigorating, deep, and unexpected expressions of the American myth will follow.

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