O Brother, What a Soundtrack

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I know that everyone’s talking about the new Coen Brothers’ film Burn After Reading. I’ve kind of been ignoring the Coens for the past seven or eight years, so if that makes me a pariah of a movie buff in your eyes, go somewhere else. I’ve gotten pretty tired of their facile take on comic and serious stories alike. Their send-up of hillbillies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, isn’t much different, but its one overwhelmingly redeeming quality is its soundtrack. I was listening to the soundtrack on my iPod this morning and remembering a review of it I did back in 2000. I’m not likely to review a Coen film on this site (though Rod has and maybe will again), so consider this my review of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In 1941, a highly successful film director named John L. Sullivan tired of making meaningless popular hit after hit. Longing to make a film of substance, he set off on an odyssey to discover and embrace the REAL America for a film with the working title of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Unfortunately, the real America was a bit more than Sullivan could handle.

Sixty years later, film makers Joel and Ethan Coen picked up where the fictional Sullivan of Preston Sturges’ classic comedy Sullivan’s Travels left off. Not only did they maketheir own version of a screwball comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but they also found the real America in the glorious music—and musicians—they chose to inhabit their film.

The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is arguably the best of 2000. It is also the film’s real star, wrapping the riotous whimsy of the story (very loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey) in the soulful, straightforward music of rural America. Indeed, the music came before the O Brother script and influenced its development.

The soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is perhaps best known for playing with Bob Dylan and producing albums by such rockers as Elvis Costello and the Counting Crows. But he began his musical life as a blues musician and has produced a number of country albums, including Revival for Gillian Welch, who performs on the soundtrack. Burnett has chosen a stellar line-up of traditional folk, country, blues, and bluegrass music, recording new tracks of established standards in the “old-timey” manner and, importantly, reviving historical recordings.

The film opens with a chain gang (which includes the travellers we follow throughout the film) singing a traditional work song, “Po Lazarus.” This is one of the remarkable historical recordings Burnett has chosen, and to great effect. The album credits the performers as James Carter and The Prisoners, but this is no variety act. The prisoners were real members of a chain gang led by Carter, most likely another prisoner. They were recorded in 1959 by renowned folk music collector Alan Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song collection of the Library of Congress as they chopped wood at the Mississippi State Prison in Lambert. “Po Lazarus” is the most direct link on the album to the African music traditions black slaves brought to America with them, from the participatory nature of the song to the practice of praising in song great heroes’ exploits.

The traditional song “Down to the River to Pray,” which the escaped travelers hear as they hide in a forest, gets a soulful interpretation from one of today’s biggest country music stars, Alison Krauss, the youngest person ever to be asked to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall of American country music. Krauss is backed reliably by members of the First Baptist Church of White House, Tennessee, and country vocalists Norman Blake, Dub Cornett, Porter McLister, David Rawlings, Tim O’Brien, Maura O’Connell, Pat Enright, Sam Phillips, and Gillian Welch.

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Krauss, Welch, and country/folk diva Emmylou Harris team up to perform the only new song on the album, sung in the film by three river nymphs to tempt the erstwhile travellers. Rather than lure the men to their deaths, as the sirens did in The Odyssey, these treacherous women lull them to sleep with the rhythmic “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” based on a traditional African-American lullaby and accompanied by the comic/hypnotic sounds of a musician plying his bow against a metal saw.

As the travelers enjoy their freedom from the chain gang, Krauss and Welch vocalize their exhilaration with the Albert E. Brumley folk hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” accompanied on mandolin and guitar by Mike Compton and Chris Sharp. Characteristic of many hymns popular during the 1930s, the period in which the film is set, “I’ll Fly Away” celebrates the joy that will come only after death, in sharp contrast with the misery many rural Americans suffered on a daily basis during the Great Depression.

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A fateful encounter of the travelers is with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for extraordinary musical ability. In many accounts of this scene, Tommy Johnson is considered to be a fictional version of Robert Johnson, one of the most famous and gifted blues musicians America has produced and one who claimed a similar encounter with the devil.

In fact, Tommy Johnson, played ably in the film and on the soundtrack (“Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”) by blues musician Chris Thomas King, was an actual bluesman who was a contemporary of Robert Johnson. It is said that he told Robert Johnson about his encounter with the devil and suggested he try the same approach. It is fitting that in the process of rehabilitating old-timey music for modern audiences, the Coens and T-Bone Burnett would similarly resurrect the name and reputation of the first sinner at the crossroads.

Tommy and the travelers team up on a record that becomes a break-out hit in the film and is the centerpiece tune of the film, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The first rendition of the song has Dan Tyminski pitching in for actor George Clooney, who, unhappily, did not inherit the singing talent of his aunt, Rosemary Clooney. Tyminski, one of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys, is a member of Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band. The other Soggy Bottom Boys on this track are Harley Allen and Pat Enright.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” is closely associated with Ralph Stanley, one of the living legends of old-time bluegrass music. Stanley and his late brother Carter, along with their band The Clinch Mountain Boys, were some of the greatest practitioners of what they called “mountain music.” The Stanley Brothers are represented on the O Brother soundtrack with their 1955 recording of “Angel Band.”

Ralph Stanley takes a solo turn in the most powerful, harrowing track of the album, an a capella wail of uncertain origin, “O Death.” This song comes as the shadow of death falls across Tommy Johnson and communicates, as few songs ever have, the bone-chilling horror of dying.

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Surprisingly, a song usually thought of as upbeat, “You Are My Sunshine,” becomes an acutely sad lament in the hands of bluegrass veteran Norman Blake. Other surprises on the soundtrack include actor Tim Blake Nelson’s pleasant imitation of the first “commercial” country performer, Jimmy Rodgers. Nelson hams through the Rodgers tune “In the Jailhouse Now”, backed by a much larger gathering of Soggy Bottom Boys. Rodgers’ signature yodel is provided by Pat Enright. A personal favorite of mine is the young Peasall sisters’ sincere performance of “In the Highway,” a song by Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family country music dynasty. Finally, singing cowboy Harry “Mac” McClintock is given a new airing with his 1926 recording of his own song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

Other delights abound on this thoroughly enjoyable, heartfelt celebration of old-timey American music. O Brother, what a wonderful soundtrack. l

  • Neil spoke:
    2nd/10/2008 to 6:17 pm

    Great commentary on a great soundtrack.
    I’ve got to say that I’m not sure is every really anything but an “acutely sad lament”. My parents used to sing it to me all the time when I was a kid and I remember being five and realizing that it has lines verses like, “The other nigt, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms. When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken, and I hung my head and cried.” even in the shortest versions, and most recorded versions include, “You told me once dear there’d be no other, that no one else could come between, but now you’ve left me to love another. You have broken all my dreams.”
    So, while many – or even most – versions may be literally upbeat, I’m not sure it accurately captures the overall theme of the song.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/10/2008 to 8:53 pm

    Yes, Neil, that’s what I meant. The lyrics are not upbeat, but the song is often sung in such a rollicking way that it’s hard to realize it. I thought this version actually made it possible to hear and understand the lyrics.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    2nd/10/2008 to 10:37 pm

    Have you seen “Down From the Mountain,” the concert film produced by the Coens and Burnett? It’s very good, and there’s an excellent DVD version (it may have been direct to DVD)
    I must say that it’s pleasant to find another old-time Bluegrass devotee, Marilyn. Although I like bluegrass, I prefer the old-time mountain variety that the Carters played and Norman Blake still ably produces.
    I saw Allison Krauss and her band in Columbus, Mississippi, at the Mississippi University for Women campus well before she hit it big. My wife and I were able to get, like, second row seats for $15.00. She was fabulous, with the purest mountain voice I’ve ever heard.
    I also got to play onstage in Seattle with Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and, but that’s another story …
    I’m sorry you don’t appreciate the Coens, but I won’t go someplace else, so there.
    By the way, sorry about the slow start on the other blog … I’ve been up to my neck in Vampires (get it? up to my neck? Ahahahaha …) and work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/10/2008 to 8:04 am

    Rick – Yes, I did see that wonderful documentary and relished seeing John Hartford’s performance shortly before he died. I was always a big fan of his. I also have the CD of that concert, but I still prefer the soundtrack for the most part.
    As for vampires, well, I’ve started viewing screeners for the CIFF, which I’m going to start writing up next Monday. The first out was a Swedish film called “Let the Right One In,” a love story of sorts between a 12-year-old boy and a “12-year-old more or less” female vampire. It’s an intriguing film.
    And thanks for sticking around even though I don’t like the Coens so much.

  • Neil spoke:
    4th/10/2008 to 10:14 am

    Well, we absolutely agree.
    I love when a new version of a song reveals further layers of meaning for me.

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