- For decades I have been going along, figuring that only my wife,
some of my friends and I liked the quirky old stuff, sung by odd people
with accents and idiosyncratic voices. We have been involved for many
years in the performance of living history, and have been
croaking out old songs for anyone who would listen (actually I have
been croaking, my wife Sheila has a very nice voice) as part of public
education programs, as well as for our own amusement. I have always
been fascinated by music in its natural habitat, sung
by interesting people in a style that was unique to them.
- I knew there were a few others out there, though not enough to create
much of a selection in Tower records. To feed our craving we had to
make an annual pilgrimage to Down Home Music in Richmond, California,
where we would drop a huge wad of cash for old-time music, sea shanties,
Steeleye Span, Breton music, Scottish Border Ballads, or whatever
else struck our fancy, and hope it was enough to hold us until the
next year. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has suddenly made this
stuff more or less mainstream, letting it out of the cabin on the
lawn and in through the front door of the big house, making it noticeably
easier to find old-time music, or roots music,
or whatever it is they are calling it this week. What has not happened
however, are any more old-time music movies. O Brother, Where Art
Thou? and Songcatcher have their franchises going, and
the recording industry seems to be paying a little more attention
to the genre, but we are not riding the crest of a music revolution.
- When Songcatcher came out last year, there was never any
doubt that my wife and I would see it. We try to go to movies whose
genre we approve, even if we arent sure we will actually like
it. We figure that Hollywood money men are far too thick to tell the
difference between a good film in a particular genre and a bad one.
All they will see is that an old-time music movie pulled in a few
bucks, so maybe they will make another oneand by some happy
accident, it might be good. I went to Songcatcher with this
sense of duty to the genre, not really expecting to love it. I had
loved O Brother for its music and for its quirky Coen Brothers
sensibility, which, while it appeals to me, is not everyones
cup of tea. Unfortunately, the surprising success of O Brother
and the minor art house success of Songcatcher has not
led to a spate of copycat roots music movies. Our economic
strategy has failed to have the desired effect on the movie industry.
- This film has much to say about womens empowerment and the
preservation of disappearing traditions, making for a tolerable viewing
experience. The earnestness of Songcatcher was, to me, a bit
off-putting. The story was not gripping nor entirely engaging, but
was not painful either. Like the dialogue in a kung fu movie, it made
a bridge between the real pieces of meat in the film. In a kung fu
movie, improbable fight scenes with crude sound effects give the movie
its anchor and its charm. In Songcatcher it is musical performances.
- When the camera settles on some weathered face and the music begins,
the movie slows to a halt, and thats just fine with me. Iris
Dement sitting with her greasy hair and dirty mountain schmata on
a rocking chair on the porch of a cabin, singing Pretty
Saroan old and melancholy balladwas a high point
of the movie for me. However, the set-up to Iriss one and only
scene was a bit contrived. She and her husband had, as the scene opened,
been forced to sell their farm at a loss to the films villain,
who is acquiring land for the mining companies. However, despite having
just that instant lost everything they had in the world, they take
the time to sing a song for the heroine. The scene, though contrived,
had tremendous impact on this viewer. It was a bit of shameless emotional
manipulation, which at least on me, worked pretty well. More than
anything else in the film, this scene advanced the central premise:
in the Mountains, music was as natural and integral to life as breathing,
eating, drinking, laughing and weeping.
- I suppose, having jumped ahead to the best bits, I should say something
about the rest of the movie: it is a work of fiction inspired,
as the movie folk say, by real events. It follows the
adventures of a female musicologist (played by Janet McTeer) some
time around 1910, who leaves her university teaching job and married
lover after being passed over by her insensitive male chauvinist bosses
for a promotion (to which one might interjectits 1910,
ladywhat did you expect?).
She flees to the Appalachians of North Carolina to hide from the world
with her sister, a crusading school marm and closet lesbian who is
trying to educate the mountain people. McTeers character immediately
realizes, after hearing the girl who helps out around the school singing
that old British standard Barbara Allen, that the mountain
people are a priceless treasury of an unbroken folk tradition. She
then launches a campaign to document and record the mountain musical
tradition. This leads to various adventures, encounters with colorful
characters, love with the character played by Aidan Quinn, and (heres
the important part) a fair amount of very fine traditional music.
- There is an important difference between this movie and O Brother,
Where Art Thou? in the music. The same earnestness that infuses
Songcatchers story also leads to a very simple, authentic,
and in some ways more scholarly presentation of the music, as performed
by excellent musicians like Iris Dement, Taj Mahal, Don Pedi, Sheila
Kay Adams, Josh Goforth, including a tag-team performance of Conversation
with Death by David Patrick Kelley, Bobby McMillan and Hazel
- Much of this, though alas not all, is available on the soundtrack
CD. Being a soundtrack, it had to include the orchestral bits composed
by David Mansfield (the directors husband) and only a few of
the pieces I remembered and liked from the movie. Furthermore, to
fill it out, they added songs in the spirit of by artists
like Dolly Parton. The orchestral bits and modern songs are not bad,
but also are not what I feel like listening to when I pop an old-time
music CD in my machine.
- Worst of all, the young woman who played the-girl-who-helps-out-around-the-school,
Emmy Rossumwho has a wonderful voice for acapella musicwas
excluded from the soundtrack CD with the exception of a brief lead
in Emmy Lou Harriss modern rendition of Barbara
Allen. I had looked forward to hearing her tackle an entire
song on the CD, since she was invariably interrupted in the movie
just as she got rolling. I was disappointed. I can only suppose that
the limited budget of the Songcatcher producers or other logistical
problems made it unfeasible to pile all the traditional musicians
on screen into a studio to do full renditions of the pieces they only
did parts of in the film. I also suppose that the producers felt like
a soundtrack must document the music of the film, and since the film
included some orchestral tracks, they too must appear on the CD. One
might also conclude that with the composer being married to the director,
it would be pretty unlikely that his work would be absent from the
soundtrack CD. Then, I guess, after putting together the few complete
traditional tracks, the modern rendition of Barbara Allen,
and the orchestral tracks, they realized that they didnt have
enough to fill a CD, so they asked Dolly Parton and others to whip
up a few more pieces.
- Which brings me to the recently released Songcatcher DVD:
the DVD includes, in addition to the film itself, an interesting collection
of extras. One of them is a feature that I generally find tedious
and self-indulgent, but which was very interesting on this film. It
was the commentary section with the director Maggie Greenwald
and her composer husband David Mansfield talking while the film is
running. While I wouldnt suggest having this feature turned
on the first time you view the film, the background on the performers,
and the interesting and quite frank historical comments (like) there
were no female musicologists teaching at mens colleges in 1910
or Jean Ritchie popularized the dulcimer for American music
in the 1950s, and you wouldnt really have seen one in the mountains
were quite informative and often amusingif only for the confessions
about their deliberate bending of history for theatrical purposes.
Other special features include the extended performances by Iris Dement
singing Pretty Saro, Taj Mahal doing some fancy banjo
picking, and an extended and very chilling rendition of Conversation
with Death, with some seldom performed verses about the torments
of Hell and the fact that its too late to repent when Death
is at hand.
- To balance out these interesting and informative features, they
have included the requisite collection of useless crap DVD features.
The foremost of these is the music track only feature,
which deletes the dialogue and sound effects tracks and has nothing
but the orchestral score and instrumental backgrounds. Included in
the missing dialogue track are all the on-screen vocal performances,
so you hear nothing but silence when Emmy Rossum is singing Barbara
Allen, and all you hear is fiddle when Iris Dement is singing.
Its a bit surreal, and of probable interest to no one but the
film student who wants to see the integration of a musical score without
the distraction of dialogue. Unfortunately, while the orchestral score
is competent, it is not particularly remarkable, and a discussion
of it would not provide much grist for a graduate students dissertation
mill. After having heard the detailed commentary track, the interview
section seems a bit thin, and the interviews with Aidan Quinn and
Janet McTeer were particularly fluffy and could just as well have
been on Entertainment Tonight.
- The sum of all this, and the sum of the movie, is that it really
is about the music. The film is a vehicle to present traditional mountain
music in an approximation of its proper context, and when it focuses
on that, the film and its DVD succeed. It would have been a better
movie for me if it had crammed in a little more music, and spent a
little less time on exposition, but then that might just be my prejudices
- A logical extension of CDs that focus on modern performances of
traditional music is to produce CDs containing original recordings
of the songs that inspired the movies. Both the O Brother franchise
and the Songcatcher folks have done this, and both CDs are
worth a listen. The most recent O Brother CD is titled O
Brother: The Story Continues. The CD contains twenty-four tracks,
most of which date from the 30s to the 50s. It includes two versions
of Man of Constant Sorrow and two more of that massive
mega hit Oh Death/Conversation with Death that won Ralph
Stanley a Grammy. The exception to the original recording format for
O Brother: The Story Continues are the recent recordings of
With Death also makes an appearance on the Songcatcher
follow-up Songcatcher II: The Tradition That Inspired the Movie.
This CD contains seventeen tracks, most of which are performed by
Doc Watson or Almeda Riddle, with a few by Dock Boggs and others.
It also includes one of my favorites: Babes in the Woods,
a wonderful example of saccharine and maudlin Victorian sentimental
drivel infecting the folk tradition. [Listen
to different versions of O Death]
- One should also mention the original O Brother, Where Art Thou?
soundtrack CD, which, unlike the Songcatcher soundtrack, is
entirely uncontaminated with orchestral music. Even pieces like Go
to Sleep Little Baby, which were written for the movie, fit
in nicely with the other songs. My only gripe with the O Brother
CD is the screen saver feature that is available if you happen to
put it in your computer. It murdered my employers Windows 98
machine entirely, and took me quite some time to repair and uninstall.
- To round out the movie-related materials, one must of course include
the Down From the Mountain concert tour, CD and video
from our O Brother friends. The concert came to Southern California
early last year, and was about as good as it gets, with the Fairfield
Four, Alison Kraus, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, others too numerous
to mention, and special surprise appearances by Taj Mahal and Tim
Blake Nelson (dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Delmer from the movie). The
live CD is good too, as is the video; but all are a pale reflection
of the experience of the folk music all-star show that was the live
performance. This is a show that would never have happened were it
not for the surprising success of that goofy Coen Brothers film.
- With these films, disks, and videos coming out, there seems to be
something very interesting going on. The greater availability of music
from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia (a.k.a. World
Music) points to a growing interest in alternative musical forms,
most of which are devoid of high-tech recording techniques, audio
wizardry and sampling. This has been accompanied by a
partial rejection by the rock mainstream of the electronically overproduced
in programs like MTV Unplugged. I say partial rejection
since those same artists who appear one night with their acoustic
guitar on the same stage with a hurdy-gurdy will be in the studio
the next day, being electronically enhanced.
- The mainstream will always favor the slick and highly produced,
and will embrace every new technological gimmick. It will also tend
to favor the formulaic and annoying, presented by almost indistinguishable
performers (is it just me, or does anyone else need a score card to
distinguish between Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears?). However,
we old curmudgeons can take some solace in the greater availability
of our kind of music, and the fragmented media market of our times
makes it very easy to tune out *NSYNC and listen to something more
congenial. Something that has an unbroken connection to the entire
history of a people and something that has a human face, soul and
voice; and something I can sing along with or take a partner in my
arms and dance to.
Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene as Captured
on Classic Recordings From the 1920s and 30s. Yazoo, 1996.
Brown, Mason & Chipper Thompson. Am I Born to Die: An Appalachian
Song Book. Dorian, 2001.
Down From the Mountain: Live Concert Performances by the Artists
from O Brother Where Art Thou. Lost Highway, 2001.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mercury, 2000.
O Brother: The Story Continues
. Lost Highway, 2002.
Songcatcher: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture.
Songcatcher II: The Tradition that Inspired the Movie. Vanguard,