Various artists December 23 2004

Throughout music history, ballads have served multiple functions. They’ve ranged from simple morality tales to incredibly complex stories with dozens of verses. Ballads have also been utilized to preserve oral histories for future generations when other modes of communication were limited. In the recently released compilation The Rose & the Briar, a cross-section of historical and contemporary ballads are presented in loosely chronological order. It starts with songs from the 1500s and ends with recent works by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman.

The interesting thing about the album, which is a companion piece to an illustrated collection of essays, is that in spite of the musical and structural differences one hears across the many generations of songs, the principles and techniques of powerful storytelling remain the same. Also notable is how similar themes permeate the songs. Romantic pain and longing mark both Jean Ritchie’s “Barbary Allen,” where the hearts of two deceased lovers grow into a single rose bush, and Dolly Parton’s stunning “Down from Dover,” in which an unwed mother-to-be waits for the return of the man she loves.

While the sequencing is a bit unsettling at times (imagine going from Mahalia Jackson’s beautiful “Come Sunday” to Marty Robbins’ cowboy epic “El Paso”), The Rose & the Briar is an enriching listening experience. A great gift for a true lover of song.