Meet the folks: The Coen brothers’ musical odyssey continues, on stage and on film

To coincide with the release of "Inside Llewyn Davis", the Coen brothers held a glitzy tribute to American folk - where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan were joined on stage by Joan Collins and Jack White.

You know you’re in for a certain kind of gig when the microphones are ranged upon an Ottoman carpet. A roadie in braces and a trilby with a foot-long beard that’s taken months of topiary scuttles across the stage at the Town Hall in New York, and John Goodman steps up to relate a brief history of American folk music. “Emerging from the primordial sludge,” he says, “the earliest human beings banged gourds, then they hollowed the gourds out and strung them with wire. And Pete Townshend came along and smashed the gourds, and Jimi Hendrix set them on fire . . .”

In the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman plays the fictional jazz legend Rowland Turner, a creation that’s two parts Dr John and one part Doc Pomus with the Caesar haircut of the sax great Gerry Mulligan. Turner has nothing but contempt for the Greenwich Village folk scene in which the movie is set, its “cowboy chords” a moronic contrast to the cosmic possibilities of his 12-note scale.

Inside Llewyn Davis centres on an almost-forgotten period in the folk revival, before Peter, Paul and Mary, before Paul Simon and Bob Dylan – just –when the idea of faithfully reproducing old-time songs was starting to merge with the revolutionary notion of making them your own. Its hero is based (only loosely, if you believe the Coens) on Dave Van Ronk, otherwise known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street, a talented guitarist and singer credited with bringing the blues to Greenwich Village, whose Inside Dave Van Ronk was released in 1963. He’d been briefly considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow but was deemed too idiosyncratic, and the part went to Paul Stookey instead (in the group that became Peter, Paul and Mary).

If O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coens’ musical odyssey, an American journey signposted by the country’s oldest songs, then this is a story of missed connections. Throughout the film, folk songs are performed in exquisite close-up (and, unusually for the movies, in full) but just as you’re experiencing the warm rush of a communal cinematic thrill, someone bursts the bubble – such as when a Texas soldier, Troy Nelson (played by Stark Sands), gives a spellbinding rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and our hero asks, “Does he have a higher function?”

In the early 1960s, American folk and country music was filled with Private Nelsons – pretty mockingbirds who’d ship back to Galveston for duty after a gig at the Gaslight and wait for a call from Capitol Records. Llewyn Davis is an angry young man – “I am not a performing monkey, I do this for a living” – but he wants fame and a record deal like anyone else. From the guys in Aran sweaters singing “The Auld Triangle” (read: the Clancy Brothers) to “sell-outs” such as Davis’s pal Jim Berkey (played by Justin Timberlake), whose novelty song “Please, Mr Kennedy” is a number-one hit in the making, the film is an encyclopaedic examination of the notion of “keeping it real”.

At an exclusive gig on Sixth Avenue attended by half the cast of Girls, where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan perform along with Joan Baez and Jack White, the idea of authenticity seems particularly relevant.

There are 37 songs – three hours of “cowboy chords” – to celebrate the film and raise funds for the National Recording Preservation Foundation. The film’s music producer, T-Bone Burnett, who made bluegrass sexy again with his soundtracks to Cold Mountain, O Brother . . . and HBO’s Nashville, says Inside Llewyn Davis is more relevant now than it would have been 20 years ago: the internet has left musicians such as Llewyn with little chance of a paying career, and – though not literally stuck in a car in a snowstorm with an abusive jazzer, on the way to an audition where a man in a polo neck tells you he “can’t see any money it” – our young musicians are figuratively out on their arses.

The stage is thronged with two or three bands (the Punch Brothers, the Avett Brothers, components of Mumford & Sons), all chosen for their antique sensibilities, all wearing the 1930s-era regulation uniform of braces and shirt, and performing old songs such as “Five Hundred Miles” and Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; Willie Watson, from Rawlings’s band, looks like a younger Tom Waits or a featherweight Desperate Dan, with his simian eyes, his voice as strange as an old radio on a cover of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” (“I hear soldiers quit their dyin’ one and all”). Jack White, who sings Sweet Papa Stovepipe’s “Mama’s Angel Child”, is more a caricaturist than an imitator – his loving portraits of Americana always seem to come out more colourful and rubbery than the songs they’re based on.

There’s a strange Gaelic interlude that gets a standing ovation, and occasionally a very important-looking, old, blind blues musician is brought on stage and sits at the back tapping on a tambourine. Someone pays tribute to Florence Reece, the activist, singer and inspiration to Dylan who wrote “Which Side Are You On?” for the Harlan miners in 1931 – and there’s a version of the endlessly adaptable “This Land Is Your Land”, with a few new verses appropriate to the government shutdown that’s threatening to overtake Manhattan the week I’m there.

In general, any mention of unions is guaranteed to get a whoop from the crowd of New York celebrities. In the Coens’ film, the Upper West Side’s relationship with the Greenwich scene is explored in a carousel of well-meaning intellectuals, all of them wearing two-tone specs, for whom having a “folk music friend” is a dinner-party talking point. Carey Mulligan plays the angry singer/exgirlfriend Jean, who appears to be modelled physically on Dylan’s Suze Rotolo, with her black sweater and fringe. Rotolo was one of the reasons the young Dylan, infatuated, started writing protest songs in the first place – well, she and Joan Baez, who’s here tonight, singing about the great union organiser Joe Hill (“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,/They shot you, Joe . . .”).

Baez always seems so normal – she’s first at the after-show buffet, piling her plate – but it doesn’t half sound funny when she says her coolness rating has “gone up by 70 per cent” because she’s sharing a stage with Marcus Mumford. His accent has become rather stylised since he started spending more and more time in America – he says “rascals” and “fella”, like someone playing a cockney in an American film. Then again no one here cares, as they would do in England, whether it’s appropriate for a boy from Hammersmith (although he was born in California) to be singing about cornbread; the question is academic, when no one else here eats it, either.

Mumford performs Dylan’s “Farewell” alongside the new young star of the movie, Oscar Isaac, and for a split second you allow yourself to wonder whether Bob, too, might not have been slightly overbearing on stage the first time anyone saw him – with his strange, grating voice and hobo get-up, acting like he owned the show.

“I fucking hate folk music,” says Llewyn Davis, watching an old lady with a harp performing in reverential silence to an audience of chin-stroking beatniks. On the way to the gig tonight, I waited in the subway next to a busker with a topknot who gave us a rough, mountain-man version of “The House of the Rising Sun”, as his kaftan-wearing girlfriend swayed next to him, singing harmonies you couldn’t actually hear.

Folk music will always attract as much pretension as it does authenticity and that seems to be what the Coens are going for. Patti Smith steps forward for “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, announcing that “for the disenfranchised mavericks of 1963, Joan Baez was our humble, undisputed and fierce queen”. Is Smith the result of Baez’s labours or a creation from another time? She seems to know the dif ference. “My dear husband Fred [“Sonic” Smith] would’ve loved to see all these people on stage,” she says. “I don’t even know who they are but I’m glad to see them, too!”

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is released in January

Patti Smith (right) and Joan Baez share a mic on stage at the Coens' concert. Photograph: Rahav Segev.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain