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

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad