Sunday, December 29, 2013

Garden of Song: Inside the Coen Brothers' Folk Music Movie

            "Brady, O Brady, you know you done wrong/ Bustin' in the room while the game was goin' on/ Knockin' down the windows, breakin' down the door/ Now you're lying dead on that cold barroom floor."

            The lyric from from "Duncan and Brady" that follows offers a kind of explanation: "Been on the job too long."

            Well, we've all had those days.

            That I remember these lyrics from so long ago is a sign that, one, I did hear them long ago when memory was young, and, two, no doubt I heard the same record album over and over. Possibly one of the records I found when I looked at Dave Van Ronk's discography in anticipation of seeing the new Coen Brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis," whose central figure, a hard-luck performer of "authentic" folk songs in the burgeoning folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961 is supposed to bear some relation to Van Ronk.

            Another song I remember clearly is Van Ronk's version of "The House of the Rising Sun." It's the interpretation most people remember because it helped make a name for young then-folk singer Bob Dylan when he recorded it. The Animals followed with a hit electric version of the same take on what had once been an "authentic" folksong, i.e. an enduring musical complaint by Joe Everyman or other person unknown .

            Neither of these songs appears in "Inside Llewyn Davis" -- though a spirited rendition of "House" did take place in the annual Christmas songfest at my brother's house in Smithtown, N.Y., despite the song's absolute lack of resemblance to Christmas cheer, seasonal comfort or good will to man. It's just a flat out great song.

            A number of "authentic" folk songs are performed by Oscar Isaac, the actor-singer who plays Davis, including "Hang Me, O Hang Me" and "Fare Thee Well"; and by other characters. A husband and wife act sing "Five Hundred Miles" which a lot of us heard Peter Paul & Mary (and others) sing in the early 60s. But a song performed by another character, "The Last Thing on My Mind," written by Tom Paxton in the folk music idiom, is the wave of the future.

            The "authentic" folk song defined concisely by Davis in a dark club after his affecting  performance of "Hang Me" -- “It was never new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song” -- was the meat of the genre when the folk revival began. It would be superseded by the songs written by a generation of artists who cut their teeth on this material and then took it in their own direction -- Paxton, Phil Ochs, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Buffy St. Marie, and lots and lots of others including the pre-eminent practitioner of this art, Dylan.

            The movie asks, in part, why the artistry of a Llewyn Davis -- impressively and movingly interpreting these "never new, never old" lamentations, ballads, celebrations and self-assertions -- is never enough. It isn't, at least for the forces who decide who are the artists and entertainers that can make money from the music.

            Trying to add to Davis's pithy definition, I come up with the notion that a folk song can best be performed acoustically by a single performer or a small group in a moving fashion before a live audience. The appeal requires some simplicity of presentation. It doesn't get better if you put an orchestra behind the solo performer; it gets worse. It's not the same if you add studio refinements. You might come up with something as good, but it's something different. Many of us liked the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," but we know Peter Seeger's version is truer to the song's origins.

            Then there's the vague concept of "idiom," a convenient word for "sounds a certain way." The folk idiom, the blues idiom, the Celtic idiom, the jazz idiom, etc. The songwriters mentioned above wrote songs that sounded like folk. That's what I hear when the film's clean-cut young rival to Davis performs Paxton's sad break-up song, "Last Thing on My Mind." The song relies on a sensitive man's lyrics ("I could have loved you better/ Didn't mean to be unkind/ You know that was the last thing on my mind"); it sounds college-educated.

            Folk songs are more likely to be tragic, final, murderous, fated. Hard luck, social oppression, or a fatally bad decision is their theme. They live on attitude. "Hang me," Llewyn Davis's opener, is about the sad fatalism of some deed gone terribly wrong. "I don't mind the hangin,' /it's the lying so long in the cold, cold ground."

            For the same reason, perhaps, Van Ronk's "Duncan and Brady" has stayed in my mind so long. There's no real reason why somebody snaps and kills someone else over nothing; but we know it happens, and keeps happening in the world we live in. Maybe the reason really is: "Been on the job too long." Some of us have had those kinds of jobs.

            "House of the Rising Sun" still gives us an image -- old in its particulars, but lasting its applications -- of compulsion-driven lives. The House of the Rising Sun ("It's been the ruin of many a poor boy") is whatever keeps you down: drink, drugs, gambling, obsession, infidelity, violence. This evocation of unlovely truth shares a lot with another idiom, the blues.

            According to the film's producers most of its music is "from the public domain," defined as songs of uncertain origin. This is where the bulk of the material that fed the "folk revival" of the late 50s and early 60s came from. It was the moment when singers, performers like the film's Llewyn Davis -- and the actual scene's Van Ronk -- had something that many people, most of them young, but not all, seemed to need and want and respond to.

            I don't think the film tells us much of anything about why this movement happened, where it came from, or how it ended -- though a brief last minute glance from a young Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter who would "transform" rather than interpret this material, making it his own, exploiting it ruthlessly, suggests that ending.

            But I don't think the film was trying to do these things. It was trying to give us a feeling for what "it" was like "back then," at an intriguing time and place. To do that effectively you need to tell a story, and so the film offers us Llewyn Davis, who's something like the anonymous subjects of his songs, more victim than hero. That's why he can sing their songs.