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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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