From Soggy Bottom to Greenwich Village: American Music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Music is a key ingredient in American film in general—though it is used more centrally and more effectively by the Coen Brothers than by most other filmmakers. Music is important in all of their films, though certainly more important in some than others. In No Country for Old Men, for example, the music is barely noticeable. In two of the brothers’ films, though, music is particularly central, though for different reasons. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), music is the central tool used by the brothers to evoke the cultural context of the American South in the 1930s. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), on the other hand, is literally about music, featuring an eponymous protagonist who is struggling to make a name for himself amid the burgeoning folk revival of the early 1960s.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Going Home to the Roots of American Music

By the time of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers’ particular bag of tricks was well known to American film audiences and critics. After all, each of the previous seven films that had been written, directed, and produced by the brothers involved many of the same elements, even if each of the films was a unique piece of cinematic art with a character very much of its own. O Brother, in that sense, was simply a continuation of what the Coens had been doing all along. It had some of the zany comedy of Raising Arizona, a period setting like Miller’s Crossing, and faux social commentary like The Hudsucker Proxy. It even featured several actors—such as John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning—who had already successfully collaborated with the Coens. In addition, one of the things audiences had come to expect from the Coens was a particularly effective and original use of music, with Carter Burwell producing impressive soundtracks for all of the first seven films, and O Brother doesn’t disappoint. With this film, however, the brothers went in a different musical direction, employing T Bone Burnett to write the score and (perhaps more importantly) to compile a collection of traditional American music to serve as the soundtrack. The result was some of the most striking and memorable music in movie history. Burnett himself has described the music of the film thusly:

We were tapping into a beautiful and powerful musical stream. What is often called Bluegrass may have been in the middle of this stream, but it’s all part of a long history that includes everyone from Duke Ellington to Lefty Frizzell, from Billie Holiday to Elvis Presley, and maybe most of all, to Louis Armstrong. This stream we explored is the extraordinary music of the last century — an incredible treasure that comes to us directly from an age when music was made by everyone. It was analogue. It was made before the rise of the machines.[1]

Shockingly, O Brother received no Oscar nominations for its music, but the film’s soundtrack has been widely credited with spurring renewed interest in vintage country, bluegrass, and roots music nationwide. For its own part, the soundtrack album became a runaway hit in 2001 and—with approximately 8 million sales—has now likely grossed more than the film itself originally grossed at the box office. Among numerous other awards, the album ultimately won the Grammy award for Album of the Year, as well as both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music awards for Album of the Year, so the film’s music certainly did not go unnoticed on the awards circuit, despite the Oscar snub.

One way in which O Brother resembles earlier Coen Brothers films is that it gets off to such a rich start, evoking a wide range of cultural contexts and predecessors within its first few minutes. O Brother begins with an on-screen epigraph taken from the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey, in which the poet asks the Muse to help him tell the story of his protagonist, Odysseus:

O Muse!

Sing in me, and through me tell the story

Of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

A wanderer, harried for years on end …

We then shift from the world of classical Greek epic poetry to a scene from the Depression-era South, as we see a chain gang breaking rocks with picks and sledgehammers, recalling films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which helped to call attention to the brutal conditions that often held sway in the Southern penal system of that era. The prisoners swing their heavy tools in unison, with the help of the rhythm supplied as they apparently sing a surprisingly well-done version of the traditional work song “Po Lazarus” to help them get through the day. The opening credits are then presented via a series of retro-looking title cards, reminiscent of the silent film era, intercut with scenes of three prisoners escaping from the chain gang, running across a field accompanied by the music of Harry McClintock’s original 1928 recording of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which recounts a hobo’s vision of a perfect, utopian world, a “land that’s fair and bright,” “where the box cars all are empty, and the sun shines every day.” Perhaps more importantly, in this mythical land of plenty, “all the cops have wooden legs, and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth,” thus relieving hoboes of some of the dangers they face daily in the real world. The change in the music thus perfectly reflects the sudden change in status of the three running men, as they go from prisoner to escapee. Meanwhile, the evocation of an alternate reality in “Big Rock Candy Mountain” provides a clue that, as always with the Coens, this film will take place in a reality that is different from our own. Or, as Nathan puts it, the film is set in “an imaginary South.”[2]

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – The Movie Screen Scene

Even those opening title cards contain layers of richness. For one thing, the clear reference to the silent-film era is overtly anachronistic, as the film is clearly set in the 1930s, perhaps providing a subtle hint that the 1930s of the film are not quite the same as the 1930s of our own history. Moreover, each of the title cards contains an icon in each of its four corners, inviting viewers to try to understand their meaning. In the first card (which contains the title of the film itself), the four icons include a human ear and a musical note, both of which perhaps suggest the unusual importance of music in the film we are about to see. The other two icons are a crossed hammer and wrench and a storm cloud with a lightning bolt coming out the bottom. These two images perhaps suggest the world of work and the turbulence of storms, two phenomena that would be absent in the world of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The next card, which announces George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as the film’s top-billed stars, also perhaps references the song, with a key (perhaps to a jail cell) and a piece of cake in opposite corners, suggesting freedom and plenty. The other two diagonally opposed images on this card—a Christian cross and a Star of David—are a bit more enigmatic, though they could be taken to link the paradise of the song with the heaven envisioned in Judaeo-Christian theology. The rest of the main cast is then identified on a card that features a stack of books, a pair of sunglasses, a slice of pie, and an old-style gramophone as its corner icons. The books might (or might not) suggest the richly intertextual nature of O Brother, the pie again suggests the pleasures of the song’s utopia, and the gramophone again suggests the importance of music in the film. The sunglasses are more problematic: perhaps they refer to the sunny weather on the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but perhaps they more ominously foreshadow the sinister (and Satanic) sunglass-wearing prison guard who tracks the protagonists through the film.And so on, with some images requiring more unpacking than others and some even hard to identify. The next-to-last card informs us that the film is “based on ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer,” linking back to the epigraph. After the last card, identifying Joel Coen as the film’s director, we see one last sequence in which the three escapees, still chained together, attempt to board a moving train by climbing into a boxcar, but fail miserably in a moment that recalls the cartoonish comedy of Raising Arizona. (Luckily, their violent fall from the train does them no damage, as in the tradition of Looney Tunes cartoons.) Had there ever been any doubt, considering that this is a Coen Brothers film, this scene announces the fact that O Brother is going to be a far different film than grim social problem dramas of the 1930s such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Of course, anyone who knows film history—and knows the typical fixations of the Coens—will have already discerned this last fact from title of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which just happens to be the title of the Depression-era social problem drama that director John L. Sullivan hopes to make in Sullivan’s Travels, from which the brothers had already drawn considerable inspiration in their earlier films. Sullivan (after various travels, including by jumping boxcars and including imprisonment and work on a chain gang) ultimately decides the poor and downtrodden will be better served by films that make them laugh than by films that make them angry. The Coens, we have every right to expect at this point, will be making their film in the same comic spirit—and we won’t be disappointed.

By now, we have been introduced to the three main characters of O Brother: Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). We have also learned that the filmwill have a rich variety of intertextual referents, ranging from ancient Greek poetry to modern American film; that it is a period comedy set in the Depression-era South; and that music will be crucial to the workings of the film, including the establishment of its period atmosphere. We have been presented with a series of symbols to decode in relation to the film. We have been teased with the possibility that this film might be a serious examination of important social problems from the historical past, then informed that it is instead going to be more of a slapstick comedy. All of this, and we are 5 ½ minutes into the film.

If one begins to track down the allusions that have already been included in this brief sequence, one finds that they are surprisingly rich in significance. For example, one might expect (knowing the Coens) that the identification of the Odyssey as the basis of the film is spurious—and it surely is, in a literal sense, especially as the Coens claim never to have read Homer’s masterpiece. On the other hand, numerous episodes in the film (and it is a highly episodic film, just as the Odyssey is highly episodic) can be linked directly to corresponding episodes of Homer’s epic. For example, soon after the opening sequence described above, the three escapees hitch a ride on the railroad track on a handcar being pumped by an old, blind black man. The man, who says he has “no name” can nevertheless be linked directly to the blind seer Tiresias, who figures prominently in ancient Greek myth and literature, including the Odyssey. That the old man has Tiresias’s powers of clairvoyance can be seen in the way he prophesies a future for his three passengers that is eventually realized in the course of the film.[3] In another episode, the three fugitives come upon a one-eyed Bible salesman, Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), who attacks them with extreme violence, thus playing the role of Polyphemus, the Cyclops who sets upon Odysseus and his men. Perhaps the most memorable Homeric moment in O Brother occurs when the three travelers are overcome by the haunting singing of three seductive young women who are washing clothes in a pond, thus recalling the Sirens episode of The Odyssey. Finally, the very plot of the film is highly reminiscent of the Odyssey, as McGill employs every trick at his command to try to get home to Ithaka, Mississippi, and his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) before she marries someone else, though it is certainly the case that Penny seems considerably less devoted to her spouse than does Homer’s Penelope.

Many aspects of McGill’s character correspond to those of Odysseus, including the fact that Odysseus is a rather vain figure, just as McGill shows an almost epic concern with keeping his hair perfectly pomaded in place. Moreover, both Odysseus and McGill are fast-talkers who are not necessarily always honest. As Janice Siegel puts it, McGill “fancies himself a trickster and a wordsmith in the style of Odysseus.” She does, however, question the validity of this comparison when she goes on to note that “far from having achieved the success of an Odysseus, Everett is just a run-of-the-mill con man, and not a very good one at that.”[4] Indeed, the connection with the Odyssey in O Brother is extensive, but ironic throughout.[5] Then again, McGill’s middle name is not Odysseus, but Ulysses, the Romanized version of the name of Homer’s hero, thus perhaps reminding us that the most famous work of modern culture to draw extensively upon Homer, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), also employs the Roman version of the name. And Irish Everyman Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s novel, is similarly an ironic reinscription of his epic predecessor. I myself have argued elsewhere that Joyce’s use of Homer is primarily parodic and subversive, meant to undermine the authority of the epic past rather than as an appeal to it.[6] That McGill has an Irish name might suggest an additional connection to Ulysses Of course, it is worth remembering that parodic renditions of the Odyssey are almost as old as the Odyssey itself. Thus, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has noted that the figure of the “comic Odysseus” is a classic one in the parodic tradition.[7]

In some ways, then, O Brother has more in common with Joyce’s masterpiece than with Homer’s, the point being not that O Brother is actually based on Ulysses, rather than the Odyssey, but that—as is typically the case with the Coens—it is based on a wide variety of sources and participates in a number of genres and traditions from both literature and film. Again, however, music—particularly traditional Southern folk and bluegrass music—is what stands out as the cultural background most crucial to the texture of O Brother, something that can already be seen in the first few minutes of the film. The rendition of “Po Lazarus” used to open the film, for example, was initially recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in 1959 at the Mississippi state prison, as part of a trip he made through the South making recordings of authentic Southern folk and blues music soon after he had returned from spending most of the 1950s in Europe to escape the anti-communist witchhunts that ravaged America in the 1950s. This particular recording features inmate James Carter as the lead singer, backed by a group of his fellow prisoners. It therefore certainly seems to fulfill Lomax’s quest for authenticity, as well as providing perfect musical accompaniment for the chain-gang sequence in O Brother.  

“Po Lazarus” exists in various versions (and probably dates back to slave days), but it is roughly about a big black man who is unjustly hunted down and killed by a white sheriff. It is, in a sense, a tragic tale, which would seem to place it in stark contrast with the utopian “Big Rock Candy Mountain” that follows immediately after it. However, as a prison work song, “Po Lazarus” contains certain subversive energies. Not only does the song subtly portray Lazarus as a sort of folk hero (and the sheriff as a villain), but it also (in the tradition of the spirituals adopted by American slaves) becomes a source of strength to the prisoners who sing it, helping them to survive any and all hardships that are thrust upon them. Moreover, the very name of Lazarus suggests a potential resurrection, and some versions of the song make him an obvious figure of Christ, thus suggesting resurrection even more strongly.

“Big Rock Candy Mountain” also carries strong political intonations, both in its lyrics and in its background. McClintock claimed to have written the song in 1895, though it has roots that go back even further. It first became a hit when it topped Billboard magazine’s country chart in 1939 but reached its maximum popularity in a bowdlerized version recorded by Burl Ives and marketed as a children’s song in 1949. It has since come to be regarded as a classic of American children’s music, despite its rough origins. Identified (as was Lomax) as a communist sympathizer in the 1950 pamphlet Red Channels, Ives cooperated with HUAC in 1952 and was thus able to continue his career as an entertainer, ultimately achieving mainstream success as both a singer and an actor. His cooperation with HUAC, however, led to a bitter feud with other leftist folksingers who had been blacklisted, including Pete Seeger, a performer who had also been listed in Red Channels and who himself recorded a version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” in 1957. Both Ives and Seeger, meanwhile, were among the performers whose work was collected by Lomax over the course of his long career of collecting American folk music, dating back to the 1930s context of O Brother. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was among the songs included by Lomax in his collection The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs (1964); it also supplied the title for Lomax’s 1955 ballad opera.

Thus, these first two songs not only already suggest to us the kind of music that will be so crucial to the overall impact of O Brother but also suggest the richness of the web of intertextual connections evoked by the film’s music. Because of the Lomax involvement, the two songs have an extensive connection with each other, while both are also connected to the McCarthyite anti-communist crusades of the 1950s, linking them to important parts of the backgrounds of both Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!, as well asAmerican cultural history in general. By placing the action of O Brother in the 1930s, before the anti-communist witchhunts, and by never explicitly linking anything in the film to anti-communist repression, the Coens, as usual, avoid any overt engagement with serious political issues—recall that even Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar! omit any reference to the anti-communist campaigns that rocked Hollywood in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the ways in which the legacy of anti-communist repression in American history past keeps cropping up in the margins of their films suggests that the Coens are very well aware of this legacy and that they regard it as an important element of the cultural background of their careers as filmmakers.

This initial chain-gang escape sets in motion the plot of the film, which is basically a trying-to-get-home story—the kind of story for which the Odyssey is the most important prototype in Western culture, but of which there are many other important examples as well, including many from American film. It Happened One Night (1934) is one such story, for example, and it is worth noting that Clooney as McGill comes off essentially as a cartoonish version of Clark Gable, the male lead of It Happened One Night. Sullivan’s Travels itself is such a film, though perhaps the central example of a trying-to-get-home film from roughly the same time period as the action of O Brother would have to be The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film that Joel Coen has suggested was more fundamental as a model for the basic plot structure of the film than was the Odyssey.[8]

Then again, O Brother is a film in which the plot is largely beside the point. Instead, it is a film in which a collection of colorful characters and a series of striking scenes (almost all of which are built around music) provide a framework through which to present the cultural milieu of (an alternate reality) 1930s Mississippi. Many of these scenes, in fact, have little or nothing to do with the actual plot of the film. For example, having barely escaped capture when ratted on to the authorities after they take refuge on the farm of one of Pete’s relatives, Everett, Pete, and Delmar find themselves on the fringe of a strange scene in which a white-clad congregation of seemingly mesmerized devotees marches in formation to a nearby river, where a preacher waits to baptize them in the muddy water. As they walk, they appear to be singing the traditional gospel hymn “Down to the River to Pray,” a song that was first published in 1867 but that was recorded especially for O Brother by contemporary bluegrass star Alison Krauss. The scene is one of several haunting, surreal moments that punctuate the film, as realism is thrown to the wind in the interest of creating a perfect fusion of music and theater. Both Pete and Delmar are caught up in the moment, rushing into the river to be “saved.” For his part, the non-believing Everett merely scoffs at their foolishness. They then continue on their travels, which seem little affected by the supposed conversion of two of the three members of the group.

Nathan suggests that the entranced congregation can be related to the lotus eaters from The Odyssey, a race of people who live their lives in a drugged-out state thanks to a diet that consists mainly of narcotics. They threaten to seduce Odysseus’s men into joining them, until the hero manages to usher his men back aboard their ship to get on with their journey.[9] Odysseus men soon recover from the narcotics, just as Pete and Delmar ultimately seem little affected by their baptisms. In fact, about all these baptisms do in the film is set up the punch line for what is probably Everett’s funniest line in the film. Soon after the baptism scene, the three stop to pick up a young, guitar-toting black man who is standing at a crossroads. The black man, Tommy Johnson (blues singer Chris Thomas King), quickly announces that he has just sold his soul to the devil in return for being given the ability to play the guitar “real good,” thus recalling the famous legend that Mississippi blue legend Robert Johnson might have gained his talents in a similar fashion. Everett informs the new arrival that Pete and Delmar have just been baptized and saved, then delivers the punch line: “I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.” It’s a funny moment, but Everett’s irreverence, combined with the later moment in the film in which Everett and Delmar are viciously set upon and robbed by a supposed Bible salesman, this moment casts doubt on the efficacy of Christianity as a framework within which to deal with reality—or at least this particular reality. As Nathan puts it, Christianity is not treated particularly seriously in the film, but is just part of the “mythical brew” involving the Homeric references.[10]

Everett, in fact, is a consistent skeptic who fancies himself a voice of reason and rationality and a strong proponent of scientific modernization who stands in stark opposition to the reactionary intransigence with which the South has so often been associated. In one late speech (he loves to speechify), he welcomes the coming of electrification and envisions it as the beginning of a new day:

The South is gonna change. Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin’ basis. Out with old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitious and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to the grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason like the one they had in France—and not a moment too soon.

Everett delivers the speech with his customary enthusasiam, but the particular wording tends to nullify his position, given that phrases such as “hook us all up to th grid” have clearly dystopian intonations, made more emphatic by the embedded reference to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World, which takes its title from a phrase uttered by a naif in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who believes wonderful things are afoot when in fact they are not.

Soon after picking up Johnson, the group gets an opportunity to snag some quick cash by recording a song for one Mr. Lund (Stephen Root), a blind radio-station owner who is looking for material to broadcast over his station. What follows is not particularly impressive in a visual sense, but it does involve some Hollywood magic, as the new quartet (calling themselves the “Soggy Bottom Boys”) delivers an amazingly effective performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that is one of the musical highlights of the film—so much so that it is repeated in a slightly different form later in the film. Everett turns out to be a brilliant vocalist, and the group—despite never having performed before and having had not rehearsal whatsoever—is perfectly in sync. It’s a moment reminiscent of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where everything always works out in an ideal manner. Of course, Everett’s rousing lead vocals on the song were actually performed by Dan Tyminski, a member of Krauss’s bluegrass band Union Station, backed by Nashville songwriter Harley Allen and Pat Enright of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. This trio of real singers won a Country Music Association Award for Single of the Year for their soundtrack recording of the song, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. For its own part, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a version of a traditional folk song originally published in 1913 (under the title “Farewell Song”) by Dick Burnett[11], a partly blind fiddler from Kentucky, though its roots go back much earlier. Various versions of the song have been recorded by such luminaries as Bob Dylan and the Stanley Brothers, the latter’s version (from the 1950s) being the most direct basis for the one in the film.

In any case, the initial performance of this song plunges us into a world of pure music, the plot of the film having been suspended for the performance of the song. Soon afterward, we experience another moment in which time is simply suspended in O Brother as the three main characters encounter the sirens. Enthralled by the voices and bodies of these seemingly supernatural women, Everett, Pete, and Delmar forget about their quest for material wealth and are seemingly transported into another world of pure sensuality and pure bliss. Or pure cinema, as I have suggested elsewhere, given that the scene involves such a perfect combination of the visual and auditory resources of film.[12] What is important for my argument here, though, is how central music is to this scene. Of course, the sirens were always about music, but the rendition in this scene of the song “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” by a country/bluegrass supertrio composed of Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch is almost as entrancing as Homer reported his original sirens to be. Meanwhile, that this song—updated with additional lyrics by Burnett and Welch—is based on the traditional Mississippi lullaby “Go to Sleep, You Little Baby,” discovered and documented by (of course) Alan Lomax, only adds to the complex intertextual richness of O Brother.

The sirens scene serves as a sort of counterpoint to the earlier baptism scene, both involving musical moments of transcendence (and water). At first glance, the two scenes stand as diametrically opposed moments of sacred vs. profane bliss, but a closer look shows that the relationship between the two scenes is far more complex. In point of fact, what the two scenes really reveal is the similarity between the spiritual pleasures of religion (which can have a strong sensual component) and the sensual pleasures of sex (which can have a strong spiritual component). The Coens, of course, are not attempting here to make any profound statement about such matters, preferring simply to put their emphasis on the music and on the fact that music itself can have both spiritual and sensual impacts and that it is, in fact, the combination of the two that gives music its special power.

This power is also central to the final mesmerizing moment of pure cinema in O Brother, which occurs at the unlikely scene of a Ku Klux Klan rally, which the three protagonists happen upon just as the Klansmen are preparing to lynch Tommy Johnson. First, however, the Confederate-flag-toting Klansmen execute an elaborately-choreographed musical production number that, among other things, makes them look comically ridiculous—which is, of course, a delicate matter, given that there is nothing funny about real-world Klan, whose members might also be ridiculous but which a sinister and deadly past. However, the musical production number actually captures this doubleness quite nicely as the silliness of the chanting and dancing Klansmen is punctuated by a genuinely haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian dirge “O Death,” sung by their leader—and Imperial Wizard who turns out to be none other than politician Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), a “reform” candidate for governor. This stunning vocal performance (actually delivered by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, who won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his recording of the song for the film) adds an extra layer of richness to this key moment in the film, which comes as close as anything in the Coens’ film to overt political commentary. For example, when Stokes exhorts his charges to protect their white women “from Darkies, from Jews, from Papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys,” the implication—that racism, fundamentalist Christianity, and hostility to the theory of evolution go hand in hand as manifestations of hatred and ignorance—is pretty clear.

This scene is rife with cultural resonances as well. For one thing, the Klansmen feature Big Dan Teague among their number, and his status as a figure of Homer’s Cyclops is reinforced by the fact that his Klan hood has only one eye hole. Meanwhile, the Klan itself has played an important role in American film history via the central role played by the Klan in D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film whose racial politics very much match those of Homer Stokes, making its status as a founding text of American cinema highly problematic. The central cinematic referent of this scene, however, is clearly The Wizard of Oz, which is echoed more clearly here than in any other scene of O Brother. In particular, the entire scene is an almost direct replication (at times almost shot-for-shot) of the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which the Winkie minions of the Wicked Witch of the West perform a synchronized musical routine very similar to that performed here by the Klansmen, while the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion approach, ultimately rescuing Dorothy (and killing the Witch), just as Everett, Pete, and Delmar here manage successfully to rescue Johnson (killing Teague in the process).

The protagonists reunited with Johnson, the reconstituted Soggy Bottom Boys ultimately play a key role in taking down Homer Stokes as well. Within the world of O Brother “Man of Constant Sorrow” becomes a runaway hit all over Mississippi. A live performance of the song sends Stokes into a racist tirade, but in this alternate reality Mississippi town of Ithaka such tirades are not favorably looked upon, leading the white townspeople to ride Stokes out of town on a rail. Meanwhile, Stokes’s opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial election, incumbent Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (Charles Durning) makes the Soggy Bottom Boys a key part of his successful re-election campaign, promising to make them his “brain trust” in his next administration.[13] O’Daniel (who is also the magnate of a local flour empire) takes his given name from the Greek king who led the assault on Troy from which Odysseus is trying to get home in the Odyssey. But the governor also has a real-world source in the person of one W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a one-time singer, radio personality, and flour entrepreneur (as founder of the Hillbilly Flour Company) who was the governor of Texas from 1939 to 1941 and then served in the U.S. Senate until 1949.[14] The rotund, white-suited O’Daniel of O Brother comes off as a version of the stereotypical Southern demagogue (Huey P. Long comes to mind as a predecessor, as does the Longesque Willie Stark, from Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men), except that, in this alternate reality, O’Daniel is ultimately a benevolent figure.

One last brush with death is averted by a deus ex machina flood (with the emphasis on the machina, given that the flood is caused not by nature but by a dam project of the kind that the federal-sponsored Tennessee Valley Authority built in much of the South during the Depression, bringing about the electrification that McGill is so enthused by). After that, it is clear that O’Daniel is headed for another term, McGill is headed for a reunion with Penelope, and all is right with the world—as should be the case in a comedy. “All’s well that ends well,” says McGill, as the film approaches its end. O Brother, though, is an unconventional comedy in which happy endings can come in various forms. For example, gangster George “Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who makes a brief appearance in the film, seems quite gleeful at his fate, which is to be hauled off for execution in the electric chair (even though all executions in the real Mississippi were carried out by hanging until 1940 and even though the real Nelson was killed in a gun battle with FBI agents just outside Chicago in 1934). As with everything else in the film, though, the ending is summed up in the final music—the end credits roll to the sound of the Stanley Brothers’ version of the popular nineteenth-century gospel song “Angel Band.” The hymn suggests the approach of heaven, which seems apt for a happy ending, but it also announces the coming of death (rather than the expected marriage), which makes the ending a bit macabre. It’s an appropriately odd ending for the film we have just seen—though it is also immediately corrected by a shift midway through the credits to the upbeat “Keep on the Sunny Side” (a different version of which had also appeared within the film itself), which perhaps provides a less troubling ending.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Inside the Folk Revival

Among other things, the various kinds of American roots music featured in O Brother formed an important part of the background of the early-1960s folk revival that would come to play such a crucial role in American popular music in the coming decades. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next Coen Brothers film to place music at its center instead of in the background—Inside Llewyn Davis—would focus on the folk revival. On the other hand, despite this direct musical link between the two films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis could not, in many ways, be more different. The first is flamboyant, over-the-top, rural, and avowedly comic; the second is muted, understated, urban, and existentially serious—almost to the point of gloominess, though it does have its occasional moments of low-key comedy. Gone in the later film is the typical ensemble cast of Coen regulars (though John Goodman does make a notable appearance), replaced instead by rising star Oscar Isaac and top-line box-office stars such as Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. Most of the music in O Brother is performed by stars, or even legends, in the field, drifting into the film almost as if from another reality; most of the songs in Llewyn Davis are performed by the actors themselves, live in front of the camera, though none of them (including Timberlake) have credentials as folk singers. But the music is still the heart-and-soul of the film, and (if nothing else) the fact that the music of such different films could be so directly linked provides a reminder of just how varied such music can be.

Ian Nathan has made an interesting argument about why it was entirely appropriate for the Coens to make a film about folk music. Folk songs, he notes, tend to be reworked in each generation to meet the requirements of changing times. Meanwhile, the Coens do very much the same thing in their films, reworking “old films, books and whole genres.”[15] Isaac plays the eponymous Davis, the son of a merchant seaman who has himself spent time at sea but is now trying to carve out a niche in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. Davis (Isaac does his own singing in the role) is a sort of generic figure, though he is based most directly on Brooklyn-born folk singer Dave Van Ronk. However, the gregarious and expansive Van Ronk differs from Davis in that he was certainly more politically engaged and more centrally located as a leader among the many folk artists who congregated in and around Greenwich Village at the time. Indeed, the film is anything but a biopic, and the Coens (not surprisingly) do not strive in the film for documentary realism of this important time and place in American cultural history. Instead, they seek to capture the essence of the music and to explore some of the cultural energies that informed it, including the Bohemian lifestyles of the participants. Timberlake and Mulligan play Jim and Jean Berkey, a husband-and-wife folk singing duo who are among those on whose couches Davis crashes, having no abode of his own. Jean has also had a dalliance with Davis that she bitterly regrets, now finding herself pregnant with a child that might have been fathered by Davis—much to her displeasure, to say the least.

One of the most direct nods to O Brother in Llewyn Davis resides in the fact that the latter filmfeatures a ginger cat named “Ulysses” that becomes lost and has to make its way back home, in the mode of Homer’s epic hero (or of the not-so-epic Ulysses Everett McGill). The role of the cat as a Ulysses figure is further emphasized when we see, within the film, a poster for the early-1960s film The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat who must make their way through 250 miles of Canadian wilderness in order to get back to their home.The film poster not only reinforces the thematic role of the film’s cat as a Ulysses/Odysseus figure but also adds to the period feel of the film, even though it is slightly anachronistic, given that the film was released in 1963, two years after the action of the film. The cat also plays an important role in the film, as Davis is humanized via his attempts (inept and unsuccessful though they may be) to get it back home safely, mitigating to some extent his portrayal in much of the film as a self-centered asshole. Finally, the cat even cleverly links Llewyn Davis to its sources in the Greenwich Village folk scene. After all, the cover of Van Ronk’s 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk (the album that presumably gave Inside Llweyn Davis its title) shows the folk singer being shadowed by a cat. And, more famously, the cover of the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home shows Bob Dylan holding a somewhat alarmed-looking cat as well.[16]

Inside Llewyn Davis: What does the cat mean?

That the music of Llewyn Davis is directly connected with the music of O Brother is indicated in the former film in a number of ways—including the fact that T Bone Burnett helmed the music for both films. Perhaps the most direct indication of the complex connection between the music featured in the two films occurs in a sequence that occurs in the beginning of the film but is not entirely elucidated until it is repeated in expanded form at the end. Here, an Arkansas folk singer by the name of Elizabeth Hobby (played by real-world Ozark folk singer Nancy Blake) makes an appearance in the Gaslight Club, the real-life Greenwich Village club that is featured prominently in the film and where Davis frequently performs as well. Hobby, playing an autoharp, performs a down-home version of the old-time country classic “The Storms Are on the Ocean.” Hobby might have stepped straight out of O Brother, and she can be taken as a figure of authenticity in the film, as a performer who is still connected to the roots from which the folk revival has grown but away from which it has already begun to move.Davis is in a foul mood from the never-ending stream of setbacks he has suffered throughout the rest of the film, and he is an angry man to begin with, though the anger is often repressed. In any case, something about Hobby’s performance triggers a bout of viciousness; he heckles the woman mercilessly, though some of the bile is obvious self-directed. “I hate fuckin’ folk music!” he yells. Davis then pays for his outburst the next night when Hobby’s husband (played by Stephen Payne) calls him into the back alley behind the club and kicks the shit out of him, expressing his disgust at the New York city slickers and their corruption of his culture in their own cultural “cesspool.”

This scene thus dramatizes both the connection and the conflict between the authentic blues-country-folk traditions (especially in the South) and the new, much more commercialized folk music that was beginning to emanate from New York, reaching a zenith of inauthenticity in the heavily-produced pop-folk hits of the manufactured trio Peter, Paul, and Mary—who are obliquely referred to in Llewyn Davis when music producerBud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) suggests that Davis might join a trio he is putting together.[17] One of the models for Bud Grossman is real-world manager/producer Albert Grossman, who put together the real-world version of Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1961, but who is best known as the manager who helped Bob Dylan rise to fame.[18] Dylan, of course, is a key figure here; as the greatest mainstream success to arise from the Greenwich-Village folk scene, he is also the key figure in the commercialization of folk music that Llewyn Davis implicitly (though half-heartedly) critiques.

That Dylan plays such a role can be seen in the closing of the film. After Davis finishes his set at the Gaslight Club (after which he will go out behind the club to be beaten up by Mr. Hobby), we see, from a distance, the scrawny, scruffy figure who follows him on the stage. We can’t see the figure well, but the voice we hear is unmistakably Dylan’s, in an originally unreleased studio recording of the song “Farewell,” which continues to play as the ending credits begin to roll.[19] The song is very much what its title implies, as the singer bids farewell to his lover as he prepares to set out on a journey for parts unknown. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the end of the film, which leaves Davis’s future very much in doubt. It’s also the perfect followup to the two songs Davis has just played (both of which, incidentally, had been recorded back in the 1960s by Van Ronk). One of these is the traditional “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” about a man about to be hanged who doesn’t mind the hanging itself but just the idea of lying dead in his grave for so long afterward. In “Farewell,” Dylan similarly declares that he doesn’t mind the leaving itself, just the leaving behind of his loved one. Davis’s other song, “Fare Thee Well” (aka “Dink’s Song”) is even more directly linked with Dylan’s, as the title perhaps indicates. Indeed, “Dink’s Song” (first published in 1934 in a volume co-edited by Alan Lomax) was itself recorded by Dylan shortly before he wrote and recorded “Farewell,” suggesting a potential direct influence.

This sudden appearance by Dylan (the only “real” singer to figure in the film) further complicates the particularly complex relationship with reality that informs Llewyn Davis throughout. It complicates, in fact, the entire texture and meaning of the film. The simple interpretation would be that Dylan, about to become a big commercial star (and then soon to go electric, a move that some saw as a betrayal of his folk roots), represents the beginning of the end of the authentic folk revival that Davis and others have been pursuing in the film. Read this way, this last scene would seem to be a criticism of Dylan. But it is equally possible to see Dylan as a sort of alter ego of Davis throughout the film, making him a figure of the kind of success Davis might have had if he had only made a few better decisions and perhaps had a bit more integrity—and luck. One could even argue, in fact, that Davis is in many ways based more on Dylan than on Van Ronk, and that the apparent link to Van Ronk is just another bit of Coen chicanery.[20]

In between the opening scene and the final scene (which are essentially the same scene), Davis stumbles through a gloomy winter landscape without an overcoat, a condition that pretty much sums up his existence. His former singing partner has committed suicide, and Davis’s first solo album isn’t selling. Davis’s one shot at commercial success comes when he joins Jim Berkey and a singer who calls himself Al Cody (Adam Driver) to record a novelty song (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) that promises to become a big hit—but Davis has to sign away his right to royalties in return for a quick payment of $200 to pay for Jean’s abortion.[21] This missed opportunity seems typical of his entire existence, in keeping with the mood of loss that permeates the film, whose colors are mostly blues and grays, so muted that the film often feels like it is in black and white. Almost everyone is in a bad mood, and no one has the energy and exuberance of a Ulysses Everett McGill.

In most ways, Llewyn Davis comes very close to a realistic depiction of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s and, as such, seems less like it is set in an alternate reality than probably any other Coen Brothers film. Eileen Jones, however, has argued that the focus on characters (especially the title character) who are losers makes the film a sort of “alternate vision of America,” given that it focuses on failure in an era when prosperity and success reigned supreme. For Jones, “The Coens have made a movie about failure in an era when, the standard pop-histories tell us, nobody really failed. They continue to look at the struggle of those on the margins, at failure among bungling strivers with grandiose dreams.”[22]

Moreover, even this film has its peculiar moments when it seems to veer off into another reality. For example, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is so ridiculous that one is tempted to see it as an intrusion of Coenesque whimsy into the generally realistic texture of the film. Indeed, the song received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song, with the Coens and Burnett listed as composers, along with Timberlake, Ed Rush, and George Cromarty. The problem is that Rush and Cromarty originally wrote and recorded (as “The Goldcoast Singers”) a version of the song back in 1961, making it appropriate to the period setting of Llewyn Davis, though making it questionable for categorization as a song original to the movie. What is perhaps even more interesting, though, is that the original song was an appeal to the new President Kennedy not to draft the singers into the military, with the ramp-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam just beginning. In Llewyn Davis, however, the song has been completely retooled as a plea not to conscript the singers into the space program and launch them into outer space. The change makes the song considerably stranger (and funnier), considering that this sort of conscription would clearly never happen in the first place. The result is one of the few points at which Llewyn Davis genuinely feels that it is taking place in an alternate reality. For one thing, the original “Please Mr. Kennedy” was not a huge hit: it is only within the alternate reality of the film that the song’s commercial success seems assured. More importantly, in this reality, Vietnam and other political issues do not even seem to exist, and the whole (extremely important) political dimension of the folk revival has been elided completely. The folk singers of the film do not seem all that devoted even to folk singing—at one point Llewyn tries (but fails, of course) to return to the sea, and all Jean really seems to want is to settle down in suburbia and raise kids with Jim. But they are definitely not devoted to employing their music in the interest of causes like peace and social justice, just as the Coens similarly do not see the furthering of such causes as the purpose of their art, wherever their personal sympathies might lie.

Another moment when the realism of Llewyn Davis seems to flicker involves the two-day road trip to Chicago that Davis takes in the middle of the film, hitching a ride there in return for sharing the driving and the cost of gas. Though this trip is based partly on a real trip once undertaken by Van Ronk, Llewyn’s companions on the trip—the strange and surly jazz man Roland Turner (Goodman) and Turner’s “valet,” one “Johnny Five” (Garrett Hedlund)—give the trip a sort of surreal quality. Turner and Johnny Five are like mythological figures who have stepped into the film from another reality—and from different cultural universes. The massive Turner is a literally larger-than-life figure who makes quite clear his contempt for folk music as an art form, clearly feeling that jazz is far superior. However, that he also apparently dabbles in the “black arts” and seems blanked out on heroin much of the time calls the reliability of his critical judgments into question. For his part, Johnny Five looks and talks like a refugee from the Beat poetry scene. He even reads aloud from the work of Beat poet Peter Orlovsky, a longtime lover and associate of Allen Ginsberg, the most famous of all the Beats.[23] Meanwhile, in a bit of clever casting, the Coens found an actor who could give Johnny Five the Beat look by casting Hedlund, who just the year before had starred as Dean Moriarty (a fictionalized version of Beat writer Neal Cassady) in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 Beat novel On the Road.

The mythological resonance of this trip is enhanced by the fact that Davis travels to Chicago in order to try to convince Grossman to represent him, his current management not exactly breaking down doors to further Davis’s career. Grossman manages a club called the “Gate of Horn,” which did, in fact, exist in Chicago between 1956 and 1971—and which had been managed by Albert Grossman in its earliest years. Davis gets nowhere when he meets with Grossman inside the club, but the club itself adds a mythological touch because its name comes from Greek mythology, in which the gates of horn and ivory are associated with true and false dreams, respectively. The name of the club thus suggests that performing there might help aspiring acts to fulfill their dreams as entertainers. Importantly, though, the best-known reference to these gates occurs in the Odyssey, linking Llewyn Davis to Homer (and to O Brother).

When we last see Johnny Five he is being carted roughly away by the police,[24] while Turner is abandoned by Davis, unconscious in the back of the car, along with a stray cat that Davis had earlier picked up, mistakenly thinking it was Ulysses. Thus, while Davis does not exactly come off well for abandoning a stray animal and an unconscious man (it is possible that he later runs over and kills the cat, though that scene is left ambiguous), neither Beat poetry nor jazz comes off particularly well as a rival to folk music as a contender for the title of most authentic American cultural form. To make Turner and Johnny Five even less authentic, the former is actually based on bluesman “Doc” Pomus, rather than any jazzman, while Johnny Five is not really a poet but just an unsuccessful actor who reads other people’s poetry, rather than writing his own. The poetry, incidentally, sounds silly, as if the author thought he could reach some deep and shocking truths simply by using words like “fuck” and “asshole” in his poems.

Davis also meets denizens of other cultural worlds, including the academics who hang out in the apartment of the Gorfeins, Davis’s couch-holders of last resort and the owners of the cat Ulysses. Almost stereotypically, these academics seem effete, pretentious, and disengaged from reality, including one who is a musician and scholar of “early” music.[25] They certainly seem no more authentic than Davis and his folkie colleagues or than Turner and Johnny Five. Llewyn Davis is, in fact, gently critical of the whole notion of authenticity, suspicious that the quest for authenticity that has driven so much American cultural production is simply a pretense, simply a style.  

One useful explanatory referent here is again Sullivan’s Travels, in which (among other things) filmmaker John L. Sullivan feels that the serious social problem drama he hopes to make will be more authentic than the formulaic comedies on which he has hitherto built his career. In the end, however, Sullivan concludes that his comedies provide precisely the sort of artificial release from reality that his audiences need and desire. Llewyn Davis differs from all previous Coen Brothers films (with the possible exception of A Serious Man) in the extent to which it seems ambivalent about endorsing Sullivan’s conclusion.[26] Despite its grimly humorous moments, Llewyn Davis is a serious film, indeed, one that has been compared, for example, to the work of Kafka in its exploration of the absurdities of the human condition.[27] Jonathan Romney captures the film’s seriousness when he calls Llewyn Davis “a bleak but tender story with the direct, timeless honesty of a folk ballad,” ultimately “the most moving film the Coens have ever made, the compassion leavened by calm detachment and by the cruel irony directed at its hero.”[28]

Llewyn Davis is not, however, too serious, and it makes no claims with regard to its own authenticity as a document of an important moment in American cultural history. The oddly dispassionate tone of the film (and its protagonist) is one sign of this lack of any such claim. Some of the film’s potentially most emotionally intense scenes come off, in fact, as darkly comic. Jean’s confrontation with Davis about her pregnancy might, for example, have been an emotionally powerful moment, but the strange mismatch in the scene between Jean’s overwrought emotion and Davis’s almost complete lack of emotion defuses the intensity and makes one simply start to wonder how many times she can call him an “asshole” in one scene. Similarly, potentially poignant scenes such as Davis’s visit with his father in a rest home are muted by the fact that they seem to have little emotional impact on Davis himself. We’ve seen Davis’s odd emotional emptiness before in the Coens’s work—in characters such as Ed Crane. A more telling referent, however, is probably Barton Fink, because Fink’s emptiness is both personal and political. Leftist screenwriters and socially committed folk singers are among the central figures of the political artist in American cultural history. Through their portrayal of the falsely political Fink and the apolitical Davis, the Coens make clear their belief, however problematic, that the true role of art is not to help us take arms against a sea of troubles, but simply to help us bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Notes


[1] See Burnett.

[2] Nathan, p. 97.

[3] That this particular version of Tiresias is black makes him another version of the “magical Negro” who figures so prominently in The Hudsucker Proxy.

[4] Siegel, p. 218.

[5] In addition to Siegel’s article, see Toscano and Flensted-Jensen for discussions of the extensive points of connection between the Odyssey and O Brother.

[6] Booker, Joyce, p. 17-43.

[7] Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, p. 54.

[8] See Sharf. The Wizard of Oz, in fact, is one of the central influences on the work of the Coens. In an interview with Frank Lidz, Joel noted this importance: “All we’ve been doing for the last twenty-five years is remaking The Wizard of Oz. It’s true. Sometimes consciously, and sometimes we don’t realize until after we’ve made the movie. Consciously in O Brother. Oz is the only film we just rip off right and left.” On the other hand, both Coens characteristically followed this note of tribute by claiming that they’re not really that impressed with The wizard of Oz as a film, but that they simply saw it on TV lots of times as kids.

[9] Nathan, p. 101.

[10] Nathan, p. 101.

[11] Dick Burnett is likely no relation to T Bone Burnett, though the latter has stated that he likes to imagine that they are related. See Burnett.

[12] Booker, Postmodern Hollywood, p. 79.

[13] Bergan identifies the mayoral campaign featured in Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) as an important part of the background to this gubernatorial campaign (p. 197).

[14] Flensted-Jensen evinces the Coens’ use of the real-world O’Daniel as an example of the way they supplemented elements taken from the Odyssey with elements taken from elsewhere, including the real world.

[15] Nathan, p. 161.

[16] There may be at least one other moment of potential dialogue with Dylan album covers in Llewyn Davis. In one scene, we see Davis trudging down a snow-covered street, drawing closed the light jacket that is clearly insufficient to protect him from the cold. The scene is highly reminiscent of the photo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), perhaps the most famous of all of Dylan’s album covers. However, whereas Dylan walks arm-in-arm with girlfriend Suze Rotolo (in one of the central couples moments in American pop cultural history), Davis walks alone, emphasizing his existential loneliness.

[17] Llewyn Davis also includes a scene in which another singer joins Jim and Jean on stage at the Gaslight to constitute a trio that performs the traditional folk song “500 Miles,” which is best known in the version recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary and included on their bestselling self-titled debut album in 1962.

[18] Van Ronk had been briefly considered by Grossman to be a member of the trio that became Peter, Paul, and Mary, but his rough-hewn voice was judged unsuitable for such a commercial project.

[19] As with O Brother, however, the music changes midway through the credits, continuing with Van Ronk’s recording of “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song of which Davis had played a brief except earlier in the film, providing the most overt link between the music of Davis and that of Van Ronk, though Davis in fact plays several songs during the film that had once been recorded by Van Ronk.

[20] One blogger, “Brian,” has not only overtly declared that “Llewyn Davis is Bob Dylan” but has further suggested that the Coens have been “chasing the shadow” of Dylan throughout their careers.

[21] The song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” is so ridiculous that one is tempted to see it as an intrusion of Coenesque whimsy into the generally realistic texture of the film.

[22] See Jones.

[23] Ironically, Ginsberg went on to become a devoted fan of Bob Dylan.

[24] It might be noted that “Johnny 5” is also the name of the loveable robot featured in the 1986 film Short Circuit; that robot is also treated roughly by the authorities, though it outsmarts them and w=escapes.

[25] Chopin appropriately plays in the background at the Gorfeins’ apartment. In fact, Llewyn Davis expands its coverage beyond American culture by including several snippets of classical music (by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler, in addition to Chopin) in its score. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the bit of Mozart’s Requiem that plays in the beginning, which potentially carries atmospheric resonances, while also setting up the appearance later in the film of F. Murray Abraham, who had played Salieri in Amadeus (1984), a film that is a cousin to Llewyn Davis in many ways. In the world of folk music, for example, one could see Van Ronk as a sort of Amadeus to Dylan’s Mozart.

[26] Even the ultra-serious No Country for Old Men is essentially an entertainment-oriented genre film.

[27] See Lewit for an extensive exploration of the Kafkaesque elements of both Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man.

[28] Romney, p. 20.