Posted: February 11, 2014
Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen.
"What bothers me is that the movie doesn't show those days, those people, that world."
—Terri Thal, married to Dave Van Ronk between 1961 and 1968
Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen's mood piece about a talented but mopey musician trying to make it as a folksinger in Greenwich Village in 1961, does three things well. First, it painstakingly re-creates the physical appearance of that legendary time and place, shortly before it became legendary. Second, it casts in the title role the Latin American actor Oscar Isaac, who manages to be appealing in spite of the many unappealing things the script has him say and do. And third, it allows Isaac, a competent guitarist and singer, to perform several songs from the traditional repertory of the mid-20th-century "folk revival."
Are these virtues enough to explain why Inside Llewyn Davis has attracted over-the-top critical raves, grossed more than $22 million (double its production costs), and won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival? Not in my view, especially given how this drab, timid film runs scared from nearly everything that mattered in that milieu. This is not nostalgia speaking. Your kindly reviewer is much too young, not to mention bourgeois, to have been part of the Village folk scene. But as someone who esteems the achievements of the mid-20th-century folk revival, I can't help cringing at the disservice the Coens have done it.
For a sense of "those days, those people, that world," I refer the reader to The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005), a wry, pungent memoir by long-time folk music guru Dave Van Ronk. The Coens have been widely quoted saying that Inside Llewyn Davis is "inspired" by Van Ronk's book. But this claim is even less justified than their previous boasts that O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is based on Homer's Odyssey, and A Serious Man (2009) on the Book of Job. Beware of Coens citing books as inspiration. To borrow a phrase from Van Ronk, their main goal in using written sources is "to avoid the migraines brought on by serious thought."
The most conspicuous avoidance in the film is of politics. It might be argued that it does address the incipient politics of abortion. The plot (if you can call it that) revolves around Llewyn having casually knocked up a fellow folkie named Jean (Carey Mulligan). With no love lost between the two, Jean demands that he pay for an abortion. This being twelve years before Roe v. Wade, one expects a politically correct message about the difficulty of obtaining an abortion. But the only obstacle suggested is money: when Llewyn earns $200 recording a "novelty song," the rest is easy. Indeed, at that stage the only problem is that we no longer care about Jean, whose emotional range extends from A (for attitude) to B (for the attitude that begins with "B").
You would never suspect from this movie that 1961 was when the Freedom Riders rode an integrated bus through Alabama, only to be firebombed and beaten while the local authorities looked the other way; or when President John F. Kennedy sent 18,000 "military advisors" into South Vietnam. These events, part of the air breathed by Village folkies, have been airbrushed out.
This is very odd, because beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the early '60s, America's most prominent folk musicians were middle-class leftists who felt intense solidarity with the poor and oppressed, from immigrant factory workers to poor whites in Appalachia to Negroes living in the segregated South. It is easy to be cynical about such solidarity, and this history does not lack for ridiculous moments, as is usually the case when educated idealists go about identifying with "the people." But this history is also an admirable one, in which a handful of educated idealists helped to save a rich musical legacy from extinction.
Some trace the American folk music movement further back, to the first decades of the 20th century, and to Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant who became the martyred hero of the Industrial Workers of the World (founded in 1905). But for Hill, the music was less important than the politics. Indeed, he made his name adding political lyrics to a grab-bag of well-known tunes, from Broadway hits to popular ballads, even hymns. Thus, "Everybody's Doing It" became "Everybody's Joining It," "Down by the Old Mill Stream" became "Down in the Old Dark Mills," and "Nearer My God to Thee" became "Nearer My Job to Thee."
This grab-bag approach changed in 1932, with Stalin's injunction to create a whole new "proletarian culture." It was never clear what this meant, but to quote the Daily Worker, it did not allow the use of "Broadway, or commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine." To some on the Left, notably the modernist composers Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, the new Party line meant combining high-modernist musical techniques with "militant protest lyrics." So they formed a composers' collective modeled on the Soviet organization Prokol (Composers' Protective Association) and began producing catchy numbers like "Lenin! Who's that Guy," "Mount the Barricades," and "Song of the Builders."
This approach would likely have been short-lived even if the Party line hadn't shifted back in 1935, making it once again permissible to use any music that might further a Popular Front against Nazi Germany. Unintentionally, the Popular Front turned out to have a salutary effect on American music, including several strains of commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine. Instrumental in this development were two family dynasties, one named Lomax and the other named Seeger.
In 1935 one of the New Deal's many projects was to have experts go into the field and record what was left of first-growth American folk music. These experts included the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax, and the Seegers, fresh from the composers' collective, along with their children Peggy, Michael, and Pete. Neither family was from the folk. Indeed, they came from relatively privileged backgrounds. But like their turn-of-the-century predecessors, people like the British folklorist Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) and the Hungarian collector and composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the Lomaxes and Seegers respected the artistry of people for whom folk music wasn't folk music but simply music.
According to scholars like Sharp and Bartók, genuine folk music has the following characteristics: 1) it is rural and slow to change, not urban and dynamic; 2) songs are continually varied, with no definitive version; 3) the style is simple, straightforward, and plain; 4) the music is transmitted orally, not through formal training or writing; and 5) the focus is on group sharing not individual expression.
Although never hard and fast, these criteria shaped the way subsequent generations understood folk music. But here we encounter a complication: America has never had folk music in this Old World sense. How could it, when its people are descended from Indians, settlers, slaves, and diverse immigrant groups, rather than from peasants who have tilled the same soil, spoken the same language, and sung the same songs for generations?
The best American folklorists have long understood this fact, so their definitions of folk music have tended to include a broad amalgam of material reflective of the country's dynamic blend of ethnic traditions, not to mention its wide-open market for commercialized entertainment. One such folklorist, the late Gene Bluestein, coined a useful term to describe this amalgam: poplore. Unfortunately the term did not catch on. But it is useful to keep in mind when tracing the history of the Lomax and Seeger dynasties.
What is most impressive about those dynasties is their refusal, in countless ways over many years, to subordinate the music to politics. The Lomaxes and the Seegers were all consistently leftist in their views, and whenever they got the chance they would repeat the sentiment expressed by Alan Lomax in the preface to the 1941 edition of Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads: "Most of these singers are poor people, farmers, laborers, convicts, old-age pensioners, relief workers, housewives, wandering guitar pickers."
But Lomax, who started collecting folk songs with his father at age 18, respected his singers too much to even think of forcing their music into an ideological mold. Indeed, if Alan Lomax had a fault, it was that he was too purist about the music itself. Without his efforts, the mid-20th-century folk revival would never have occurred. But when untutored audiences failed to appreciate the rough-hewn style of Lomax's sources, people like Van Ronk began to re-interpret the material. To Lomax, this was a violation: "when a so-called folksinger, with no respect for or knowledge of the style or the original emotional content of the song, acquires the shell of the song merely and leaves its subtle vocal interior behind, there is a definite expressive loss."
Embodiment of Poplore
Far less purist was Pete Seeger, who died in January of this year. In 1936, when he was about to enter Harvard, Pete traveled with his father Charles and his stepmother Ruth to Bascom Lunsford's Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. In her biography of Ruth Crawford Seeger, musicologist Judith Tick writes that for Pete this was "like visiting a foreign country." And when he and Ruth first heard the five-string banjo, they vowed to start "learning this idiom." Needless to say, no authentic folk musician would have said such a thing.
Pete Seeger's inauthenticity extended even further, as he acquired his stepmother's knack for making even obscure folk material palatable to a general audience. Quite apart from his deplorable politics (he remained far more loyal to Stalin than Van Ronk ever was), Seeger deserves admiration not only for preserving the American musical legacy, but also for making it popular—and profitable.
How did Seeger reconcile the contradiction between his politics and his willingness, over the years, to allow his cherished music to be bought and sold by commercial record companies, which even in the case of his beloved Folkways label were tied to the Capitalist economic machine? It wasn't that difficult. His most treasured sources had resolved the same contradiction long before. Indeed, some had never seen it as a contradiction.
One such source was Woody Guthrie, who left his native Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years and spent the 1930s in California, writing songs about the struggles of working people. But Guthrie also worked as a commercial entertainer: between 1937 and 1939, he performed "hillbilly" music on the Los Angeles station KFVD, accompanied first by his cousin Leon "Oklahoma Jack" Guthrie and later by Maxine "Lefty Lou" Chrissman. At one point The Woody and Lefty Lou Show was the most popular on the station. Throughout his career, Guthrie combined benefit concerts and proud disregard for copyright with steady employment as a professional recording artist.
Another example would be the "country" blues musicians tirelessly celebrated by Alan Lomax. Before the 1940s, Americans who enjoyed listening to "race" records tended to regard the blues as low entertainment. (This was true of blacks as well as whites.) But during the folk revival, the Left embraced the blues as a pure, unsullied folk music comparable to the British ballads still being sung in Appalachia.
The only problem with this view was that country blues, played by solo performers on acoustic guitar and focusing on hard times, had long since evolved into a highly commercial form of popular music, ranging from the big-band Kansas City "shouting" of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner to the hard-driving Chicago blues played by people like Sonny Boy Williamson, or the elegant small-combo style of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker.
The tale takes a comic turn in the career of Big Bill Broonzy, a Mississippi native who grew up playing country blues but then went on to record small-combo jazz for the Bluebird label in Chicago. According to music historian Robert Palmer, Broonzy sized up the growing audience for the early 1960s folk revival and changed his act, with the result that "a left-wing and generally naïve young audience accepted him, along with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee as true folk artists. Broonzy's dozens of Bluebird records with bass, drums, and jazz-band backing were conveniently forgotten, and he played the role of the folk bluesman fresh from the cotton fields to the hilt." When asked about his authenticity, Broonzy's standard reply was: "I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing ‘em."
Pete Seeger learned the idioms of Guthrie, Broonzy, and many other folk musicians who were authentic in the sense of coming from hardscrabble backgrounds and singing traditional material, but inauthentic (from a leftist point of view) in having achieved commercial success. The same was true of the Carter Family, Jean Ritchie, Dave Van Ronk, and many other leading lights of the mid-20th-century folk revival. As free spirits who freely adapted traditional material, wrote their own material, and achieved solid recording careers, these people are the embodiment of poplore.
Contempt for Folk
All of this is missing from Inside Llewyn Davis. To be sure, the title character sings mostly traditional material while scrambling for a modicum of commercial success. But his situation is depicted as sad, even pathetic—the problem of an isolated individual rather than the shared struggle of a whole generation. To people who remember that scene or bother to read Van Ronk's memoir all the way through, it is clear that the Village was a village, with no lack of rivalry and one-upmanship but also with a great deal of sharing, camaraderie, and endless jam sessions devoted to the sheer cultivation of musical chops.
Therein lies the most depressing difference between then and now. The majority of Village folkies were amateurs; many lacked musical talent. But rather than celebrate the lack of talent, as the punk generation did, or marginalize it in favor of exhibitionism, as today's popular musicians feel compelled to do, the folk scene maintained high standards. Village elders like Seeger, Van Ronk, and Odetta (the African-American folksinger who encouraged the young Van Ronk), did not hesitate to judge each up-and-comer by a strict standard of musical excellence derived both from the older tradition and from their own best efforts.
Why are the Coen brothers so blind to all this? My best guess is that their campy, ironic, arrogant distance from the millions of ordinary Americans who inhabit this vast country makes it impossible for them to understand, much less share, the connection that once existed between the folk musician and the folk. It is clear from Van Ronk's memoir that he was a worldly, widely read character, whose anarchist politics were pretty disconnected from the rest of America. But because he and his fellow Village elders were so steeped in what had once been the everyday music of "poor people, farmers, laborers, convicts, old-age pensioners, relief workers, housewives, wandering guitar pickers," their artistic and cultural sensibilities were deeply connected to the American past.
This connection no longer exists, as poor and working-class Americans listen to the same commercial music as everyone else, and the folk music scene gives pride of place to the "singer-songwriters" performing their own compositions. The folk revival nurtured the rise of the singer-songwriter, to be sure. But people like Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, and Bob Dylan were so steeped in the tradition, their best work sounds as though it has been around forever. This is less true today, when most "folk songs" are just as melodically and lyrically impoverished as most pop songs. Come to think of it, this may be the best explanation for Inside Llewyn Davis's success: the majority of moviegoers have never heard a decent acoustic performance of gems such as "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," "Fare Thee Well," "The Death of Queen Jane," "The Roving Gambler," "The Shoals of Herring," "The Auld Triangle," or "The Storms Are on the Ocean." As a final concession to T-Bone Burnett, the Coen Brothers' long-time "musical archivist," I recommend downloading the soundtrack, and if you like it, seeking out the originals, every one of them a poplore classic.