- When Alan Lomax died in July, 2002 at the age of 87, nearly every
obituary mentioned the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack,
which includes both a recording by Lomax and a song he arranged. I
find it fitting that Lomaxs epitaphs tie him directly to this
platinum-selling package of roots music. Both Lomaxs work and
the O Brother soundtrack have exposed time-tested music to
contemporary audiences. Both have inspired a horde of imitators. And
both inspire my simultaneous respect and resentment.
- Lomaxs noble impulse to preserve and present vernacular music
was long intertwined with his desire to popularize and profit from
it. Alan Lomax and his father, John, co-wrote several books aimed
at popular rather than academic audiences, combining the lyrics they
compiled from their field recordings and the capsule histories of
the songs and performers. Those books, and the Library of Congress-published
field recording series overseen and edited by Alan Lomax, by then
the Assistant in Charge of its Archive of American Folk Song, are
important milestones in the study of American folk music. At the same
time, the Lomaxes copyrighted arrangements of traditional songs,
their not-always-adequate compensation to performers (yes, I know
they recently paid royalties to James Carter, leader of a group of
Mississippi prisoners singing Po
Lazarus but why did it take over forty years to find
him?), and their tendency toward condescension of the very traditions
they documented (Leadbelly made to perform in striped prison garb),
can be viewed as exploitative.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for those who have missed the
hoopla of the past two years or so, is a musical comedy and adaptation
of The Odyssey, set in the Depression-era South against a soundscape
of old-time music. The Coen Brothers film pays clever homage
to Preston Sturgess Sullivans Travels, borrowing
its title from Sturgess unrealized film-within-the-film. The
Lomaxes journeyed in search of authentic music; Sullivan traveled
as a hobo to experience suffering; Ulysses Everett McGills odyssey
turned toward home and family. The O Brother soundtrack, readily
available at your local record store, offers one-stop shopping for
ballads, blues, gospel, and country music, although its often
referred to as a bluegrass album (perhaps because some
of its performances feature bluegrass musicians).
- In the soundtracks liner notes, Ethan Coen refers to the music
as harking back to a time when music was a part of everyday
life and not something performed by celebrities. That folk aspect
of the music both accounts for its vitality and makes it fold naturally
into our story without feeling forced or theatrical. Hes
right about the vitality partO Brothers sales figures
and Grammy awards prove that an audience is hungry for this musicbut
I wonder if he regrets that line about celebrities. The soundtracks
surprising success has made household names of its performers, and
the new fans, proud to have discovered this music without the
benefit of radio play (it has, however, received ample coverage
on public radio), nonetheless miss the point by being brand-loyal
to the O Brother package.
- My own voyage of discovery into old-time music occurred long after
the era of the Lomax type of songcatcher and a folk revival
or two. In the mid1990s, I found myself interning in the Archive
of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. along
with a group of like-minded teen- and twenty-something American Studies
and History majors, helping to preserve, file, and produce reference
aids for the sound recordings and associated documentation created
by the Lomaxes and others throughout a century of field recording.
We worked under the direction of Joe Hickerson, a guitarist, singer,
and figure of the 1950s-60s folk boom, who had worked
in the Archive since 1963 and had an uncanny memory for all things
associated with traditional music and its popularized forms. The director
of the American Folklife Center (which includes the Archive of Folk
Culture), Alan Jabbour, had recorded a number of Appalachian fiddlers
in the 1960s and 1970s and had been prominent in that eras resurgence
of old-time string band music as a fiddler in the North Carolina-based
Hollow Rock String Band.
- I was a recent college graduate with broad-ranging musical tastes,
a family background in West Virginia instrumental and vocal musical
traditions, and a historians urge to trace things back to their
roots. Many other interns were still in school, getting college credit
for the internship while scratching similar cultural and historical
itches. One, Sara Zoë Patterson of Hudson, New York, was a died-in-the-wool
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie fan who, like Pete, had dropped out
of college after one semester and, like Woody, began traveling the
country gathering life experiences: she was a canoeing instructor,
organic farmer, and Division III college football manager in the years
following her archival internship.
- The internship was unpaid, so most of us had service industry jobs
to sustain us while spending normal office hours working in the Archive.
This made it difficult to coordinate schedules for after-hours socializing,
but somehow it worked out that we were all free on Tuesday nights.
Sara Zoë rented a room in a centrally-located house shared with
students and interns of various other Washington non-profits, at 1628
15th Street Northwest, to which she invited the crew from the Archive.
She planned a main course and asked that guests bring something else
to eat or drink. And dont forget your instruments!
Thus was born the Tuesday 1628 tradition.
- The low-key, participatory nature of the gathering soon attracted
a larger following. Joe Hickerson and Alan Jabbour, eager to pass
on tunes and tales to the next generation, made appearances, as did
other Folklife Center employees, volunteers, and their respective
friends. The college students invited others from their American Studies
classes. The other residents of 1628, rather than fleeing their home
at the first squeak of a fiddle, stuck around on Tuesday nights and
even invited their friendsYoung Republicans, environmental activists,
and skateboarders among them. Reflecting on her housemates reactions
to the gatherings, Sara Zoë recalls, It struck me how universal
making music live can bea lot of that music wouldve turned
them off in recorded form, but not only did they participate, they
invited their friends. Months later, en route to the Appalachian
String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, a Cuban-American
Florida native who lived at 1628 admitted that hed never been
camping, never seen mountains, and never hung out with so many
Anglosyet he was drawn there by something about the music,
and the coziness of the scene that developed around it.
- Each participant contributed something to the mix, in addition
to the requisite 6-pack or side dish, because even those unable to
play an instrument joined in the sing-along, tossed out requests,
or banged a spoon against a bottle for what became
our rousing finale, There
Aint No Grave. There was no audience, which meant
that there could be no star performers. The songs were the stars.
- Building on the lessons of our internship, we began recording the
gatherings. There is as much, if not more, conversation on the tapes
as there is music. Conversations tended to kick off with the stories
surrounding the songs: where and from whom they were learned, leading
off onto tangents about musical influences and variant lyrics, tunes
or titles, and emotional reactions upon first hearings of the piece.
The next time that a song was played, we could add our shared experience
to its historiography. We copied the tapes and passed them on to friends
who had moved out of town, further disseminating the groups
evolving understanding of traditional music and strengthening our
ties to one another.
- In the 1930s, the Lomaxes thought they had to capture the old songs
and tunes before they were gone, smothered by popular culture. In
the years following the 1952 Folkways release of Harry Smiths
Anthology of American Folk Music, fans sought out the performers
featured in its decades-old recordings and brought them into the spotlight,
some making a living playing music for the first time just before
they died. In the 1990s, American folk music was again at a crossroads,
turning up more and more often in unexpected places. We were not averse
to the mass-mediated representations. In fact, we wished for more
of them. We delighted in the re-release of the Anthology, the
unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco,
and the mentions of fiddle tunes in Charles Fraziers best-selling
novel Cold Mountain. (Although after the release of the books
companion CD, a fiddle-playing friend noted the crowds at Tim OBrien
and Dirk Powells performance at the Mt. Airy, North Carolina
music festival, and sighed, Were rock stars now.)
- The shared homemade food and music created a social space that
included discussion and dissection of books, films, and other cultural
events. We swapped recordings, sharing discoveries old and new. Gillian
Welchs first release, presciently named Revival, contributed
a new set of staples to our Tuesday night repertory, such as By
the Mark. We bought techno composer and musician Mobys
Play album for the sampled Lomax field recordings. We went
to the theater to see Wag the Dog for its archival recording
sub-plot and The Apostle for its gospel soundtrack and cameo
by June Carter Cash. We screened the video of John Sayless Matewan
to pick out West Virginia musicians now known to us from the festival
scene. When we read that a new Coen Brothers film would feature the
music of Ralph Stanley and others we revered, we were thrilled.
- There was a delicate balance between finding our interests increasingly
reflected in pop culture, and finding it down by the old mainstream,
to quote alternative country supergroup Golden Smog. O Brother
tipped those scales. The film itself posed problems. Other Coen Brothers
films tackle a given cultural milieu (earnest Midwesterners in Fargo;
L.A. slackers in The Big Lebowski) with humor and ingenuity,
or so I thought, as a cultural outsider. It was harder for me to laugh
at stereotyped Southerners. Having grinned and borne countless mocking
references to West Virginia (where I was born) and Kentucky (where
I also have roots) over my lifetime, the 1628 experience had refashioned
that region as a wellspring of musical heritage, and a source of pride.
I didnt like seeing the same old caricatures of yokels and Klansmen
played out against banjos and fiddles.
- For us, the music had been a collective experience, which made
it meaningful. O Brother and its offshoots are a collective
experience in that theyve sold millions of copies, but the sense
of traditional music as being organica living, breathing, force
drawing people togetherseems to get a bit lost in the O Brother
packaging. Though the films soundtrack features expertly produced,
exquisite performances by some of my favorite interpreters of the
old-time singing styles, its ubiquity had made it too iconic, too
set in its ways. Ill admit, I attended one of the Down from
the Mountain concerts, but it seemed scripted and rote. The performers
mostly play the songs in the same order in which they appear on the
soundtrack. When the audience was asked to join in, on Amazing
Grace, lined out by Ralph Stanley, the crowd didnt seem
to understand at first what was being asked of itmaybe because
that song isnt on the CD. But at the moment when, finally, thousands
of voices echoed Ralphs frail tenor, I finally felt that sense
of communal musical space that had been lacking throughout the concert.
I can only hope that someone in the crowd somewhere felt the power
of that moment and decided to hold a dinner party, with instruments.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York: Atlantic Monthly
Oermann, Robert K. Liner notes. O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mercury,
Billy Bragg and Wilco. Mermaid Avenue. Elektra, 1998.
---. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. Elektra, 2000.
Golden Smog. Down by the Old Mainstream. Rykodisc, 1995.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mercury, 2000.
Moby. Play. Rave New World, 1999.
Powell, Dirk, Tim O'Brien, and John Herrmann. Songs from the
Mountain. Howdy Skies Records, 1998.
Smith, Harry. Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian
Welch, Gillian. Revival. Almo Sounds, 1996.