O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? – Music from a film by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2000 Universal)
Hot damn! It’s the Soggy Bottom Boys!
Even if you hated the film (have a doctor check to see if you still have taste left), you can’t deny the fun and authentic roots music on its soundtrack.
A bizarre re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the 1930’s depression-era south, O Brother was nothing if not unique. It mixes a liberal interpretation of Greek mythology, with Americana and the mythology of the blues era. Some people don’t get it, some people do but don’t like it, and others have long been swept away by its charms. Those with an allergy to George Clooney, fear not: he does not actually sing on this soundtrack, although his co-star Tim Blake Nelson certainly does (on “I’m in the Jailhouse Now”). Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss & Union Station sings for Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill on the signature hit, “Man of Constant Sorrow” though many people assume it’s George.
The soundtrack CD is a mixture of light and dark. The first two songs are the perfect example: “Po Lazarus” is a chain-gang work song, just before Ulysses Everett McGill and his two companions break free and embark on their Odyssey. It’s followed by a 1928 recording by Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, a joyful nonsense song about a hobo finding paradise on the rails.
“Where the boxcars all are empty,
And the sun shines every day,
On the birds and the bees,
And the cigarette trees,
The lemonade springs,
Where the bluebird sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
The composite of light and dark reflects the movie itself, but makes for a fairly inconsistent listen. The soundtrack follows the progress of the film, but without the story backing it up, it’s harder to go with the flow from song to song. The a capella “O Death” (Ralph Stanley) for example is squeezed between the popular songs “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “I’m in the Jailhouse Now”, so most people will typically skip it.
I look at this soundtrack CD as a great “starter kit” for exploring more genres of music. The dominant ones are folk and bluegrass, but there are also blues tracks and hymns. Norman Blake’s “You Are My Sunshine” sounds wonderful sitting in the shade on a summer day. Immediately after that, you get the velvet tones of Alison Krauss, from the baptism scene with “Down to the River to Pray”. You have never heard a more perfect version, serene, still and deep as the water. And, yes, the Soggy Bottom Boys! In the film, Ulysses Everett McGill and his companions Pete, Delmar and Tommy Johnson (loosely based on Robert) wind up cutting a record. There are four versions of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” on the album. The first is the acoustic track shown being recorded in the film. The version that became a hit single in the real world is from the climax, a fully augmented mix with fiddles and slides. That is included closer to the end of the disc. There is an instrumental version on acoustic guitar by Norman Blake, a fine take indeed. The fourth is an instrumental version on fiddle by John Hartford, barely recognisable. All four are quite different but valuable.
Blues singer and guitarist Chris Thomas King was cast in the film as Tommy Johnson, and his solo track “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is a fine example of acoustic blues. There is plenty of sunny and gleeful folk, such as “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “In the Highways” and of course “In the Jailhouse Now”. Tim Blake Nelson is certainly a multi-talented guy, but the yodelling part is not performed by John Turturro as it appears in the film. Still Pat Enright’s yodel part is one of the highlights of the entire album. It’s important to note that producer T Bone Burnett captured authetic sounding performances here. Close your eyes, mix some scratchy vinyl sounds over it, and you can imagine these are vintage recordings from the 1930’s.
Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield Four, the Cox Family and more…this CD is a great way to both enjoy an hour of music from the film, and kickstart a collection of folk, bluegrass and more. Dig in!
Final bonus: Sh*t LeBrain’s Grandma Says!
I love my grandma with all my heart, but sometimes she gets the names of movies wrong. We took her to the theater to see “There’s Mail Waiting for You” (You’ve Got Mail), and she also really enjoyed this movie, which she calls “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”