Fare Thee Well: Folk Music in the Films of the Coen Brothers

Eric Eisner - February 23, 2016

The Coen Brothers, more than many directors, use the soundtrack to advance the themes of their film. Folk music, in both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis is essential to understanding the movie. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in transporting The Odyssey to the American South seeks to create an American mythology. The main characters inadvertently form a band they dub the Soggy Bottom Boys (an allusion to the mid-20th century American bluegrass band, the Foggy Mountain Boys). They consciously evoke the contemporary popular culture of the Depression Era South and unconsciously, through the Coen Brothers' structuring of the film, Ancient Greek Mythology. In Inside Llewyn Davis, folk singers adjust the wording and intonation of traditional songs to create new expressions. Llewyn Davis and the other artists performing in the film evoke the mythology of 1930s America the Coen Brothers recreate in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but to reflect their own personal struggles and the climate of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. In both films, the Coen Brothers make the strong metafictional statement that art is intrinsically altered in the process of attempting to understand or recreate it, and that this is as artistically valuable as the original act of creation.

O Brother Where Art Thou? is a comedy of imitation. From George Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill, based on Odysseus, a fake lawyer who imitates a master thief to his neighbors in the chain gang to convince them to help him escape; to John Goodman's Daniel Teague, based on Polyphemus, who imitates a bible salesman; to the film itself which imitates Homer's Odyssey, everything in the film is a recreation. The title comes from a movie a director wants to make in Preston Sturge's 1941 film, Sullivan's Travels. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was digitally color corrected after filming to recreate the sepia tone of old film and the dusty look of 1930s Mississippi in the shared imagination. Most prominently, most of the songs in the film are recreations of popular music from the Great Depression. "Man of Constant Sorrow" effectively illustrates the complex way that the Coen Brothers use music in their films. It is a traditional American folk song, first published by Richard Burnett around 1913 and popular through the mid-20th century. The Soggy Bottom Boys play the song for Stephen Root's Mr. Lund, a blind radio station manager who corresponds to Homer. When McGill sings "Man of Constant Sorrow", he connects himself both to the story of the United States and to the story of Odysseus, many the woes he suffered in his heart on the deep.

Inside Llewyn Davis, then, is a drama of imitation, and a film in which folk music is even more central. The title closely imitates the name of an album by Dave Von Ronk, Inside Dave Von Ronk, and the film is loosely structured around his life. T Bone Burnett, who produced the music for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, oversaw the music for Inside Llewyn Davis. Neither entirely here nor there, Davis's friends, the Gorfeins, own a cat named Ulysses in the film. The soundtrack for the film expresses the nature of folk music as a genre in miniature, singers taking traditional music and lyrics and adapting them as personal expression. "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)", which was first recorded by John Lomax in 1909 and sung by an African American woman identified as Dink, appears twice in Inside Llewyn Davis: first on a recording of Davis and Timlin near the begin of the film and again live by only Davis near the end. The lyrics change in small and large ways. "Pouring rain" becomes "drizzling rain". Whole verses disappear and are added. The lines:

Muddy river runs muddy and wild

You can't give a bloody for my unborn child

Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Just as sure as the birds flying high above

Life ain't worth living without the one you love

Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

become,

When I wore my apron low

Couldn't keep you from my do'

Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Now I wear my apron high

Scarcely ever see you passing by

Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Now my apron's up to my chin

You pass my door and you won't come in

Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

If I had listened to what my mama said

I'd be at home in my mama's bed

Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well.

The song, sung by an African American woman in 1909 and Davis in a fictional 1961 Greenwich Village both inflect the traditional lyrics with their understanding of the song. The shift in the songs lyrics and tone, which become significantly more melancholy, reflects Davis's deep sadness in his solo singing of the song, as all of the folk singers in the film are adapting music from the 1930s to express a dissatisfaction with the insincerity of popular culture.

Inside Llewyn Davis ends with Bob Dylan's "Farewell" or "Fare Thee Well", which despite the similarity in name to "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)", is actually based on the British traditional ballad "Leaving of Liverpool." Llewyn Davis, unlike many of the singers who surround him, uses traditional songs as sincere self-expression, but unlike Dylan, he's not quite talented enough to leave Greenwich Village. Coen Brothers dramas almost all follow the formula of a small crime and unpreventable, overwhelming punishment. There are some variations, like A Serious Man, which places both the crime and punishment at the end of the film, but none depart so far as Inside Llewyn Davis. His crime, essentially, is a generalized lack of sensitivity to his friends, and his punishment is a life of mediocrity. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, like most Coen Brothers comedies, has a slightly softer theme. The music of the Soggy Bottom Boys literally saves them, while Inside Llewyn Davis has a daring and rare metafictional theme: art can be sincere and good, but still not quite good enough.

Eric Eisner

Eric Eisner is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. He is from Bethesda, Maryland and writes for The Moviegoer. His favorite directors include the Coen brothers, Akira Kurosawa, Wes Anderson, and Hayao Miyazaki.