Music and Space
Bernard Herrmann: "Psycho"
Ennio Morricone: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
There are a few films in which the soundtrack (or score)
intertwines so completely with the visual images that it becomes
an indelible part of the entire cinematic experience. Such
soundtracks not only play a role as significant as any actor's
or director's, they literally redefine the boundaries of audience
reception for film and its attendant genres. Two of the preeminent
composers of film music, Bernard Hermann and Ennio Morricone
(whose Psycho and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
scores, respectively, set the benchmarks for horror and western
soundtracks after the 1960s) created compositions that fit
this profile, though less exalted examples are worth noting
as well. Sometimes these are not a "score" at all; in Quentin
Tarantino's films, seventies soul and sixties surf music,
though pop songs, are used just as effectively as Morricone's
desolate soundscapes. Though according to some of the early
theorists of film, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, film music
was intended to serve as a counterpoint to the action on screen,
a more general assessment of the usage of music in film would
be that it possesses the capability to create the space in
which the action takes place, whether underlined or contrapuntal.
In a film like Psycho, this space is largely an emotional
one. The emotional response of the audience to what is being
projected on screen is heightened and defined by the music,
or (as with the song "Stuck in the Middle With You" in Tarantino's
Reservoir Dogs) it is ironized by the dissonance between
sound and image. In Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad,
and the Ugly, however, Morricone's score moves beyond
emotional space and into a synthetic relationship with physical
space being represented on screen. The reverb-laden guitars
and minimalist approach echo the stark, spare landscape of
the Western film. It is this approach that serves as the intersect
with my discussion of the role of music in O Brother, Where
The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is complicated for a number of reasons. First and foremost among these complications is the fact that the film's soundtrack (as a separate, purchasable object) enjoyed a popularity that nearly supercedes that of the film itself. Not only did the soundtrack, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett, win a Grammy, it also spawned a documentary (Down From the Mountain) capturing a live performance by some of the musicians on the soundtrack, as well as numerous other compilation albums-including one from the aforementioned documentary-as well as a general resurgence in interest in "bluegrass" or American "roots" music. In this, the film's soundtrack joins a handful of other films (Saturday Night Fever for disco, and The Harder They Come for reggae) whose soundtracks not only eclipsed the original movie in popularity, but also served as an entry point for the culture at large into a specific style or genre of music. However, just what that style of music is, or what it means is open to argument.
One of the first films to make widespread use of "bluegrass" music was Arthur Penn's 1967 Bonnie & Clyde. A highly fictionalized account of the Depression-era bank robbers, it was set in Texas and Oklahoma. Most of the music used in the film was composed by Lester Flatt, and performed by Flatt and his musical partner Earl Scruggs. This includes the song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which since the film was released has also come to be known as the "Theme from Bonnie and Clyde." Flatt and Scruggs first achieved prominence as members of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the late 1940s. Monroe, it is generally acknowledged, is the primary architect of "bluegrass" music. That this music conceivably has an architect at all lies the heart of the problem of just what "bluegrass" is.
In his book, Bluegrass Breakdown, Robert Cantwell
points out that "bluegrass" is not, strictly speaking, a traditional
music at all. After moving to Chicago in the late 1930s-along
with the innumerable other Southerners, both black and white,
who comprised the Great Migration north to the booming industrial
cities of the era-Monroe began playing with his brother and
other Southern exiles a type of music that drew off of the
popular string-based dance bands of the South, but infused
them with sensibilities owing much to the jazz and pop tunes
available to radio listeners at the time. Though his brother
shortly left the group, Monroe continued playing through the
1940s, and after he had returned to the South. The most important
musical contribution to "bluegrass" as a distinctive style
came from the addition of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt in
the latter part of that decade. Particularly, Scruggs introduced
the three-finger, high-speed banjo picking style that remains
the hallmark of bluegrass. Specifically, this style of banjo
playing was added to the already extant mandolin, upright
bass, acoustic guitar, fiddle (or violin), and occasionally
the "dobro," a kind of guitar with a steel resonating plate
affixed below the strings and sometimes known as simply a
"steel guitar." Though not necessarily a vocal music, bluegrass
also features singing in two, three, or four part harmony,
with an emphasis on the voice in the highest range, lending
it a quality that has been called the "high lonesome sound,"
or less charitably a nasally "whine." The term "bluegrass"
is misleading here as well, since that vocal characteristic
(as well as lyrical subject matter) are more closely associated
with the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee,
and North Carolina than the flatter part of Monroe's native
Kentucky. As writers and musicologists at least as far back
as the Harvard English Professor James Francis Child
noted, the musical traditions of that region owe much to the
English, Irish, and Scottish balladry, even as they were hybridized
by African American styles, the introduction of foreign instruments
(the African banjo and the Spanish/Hawaiian guitar), and indigenous
subject matter. Near constant, however, are the recurrent
"sentimental" themes. "Sentimentalism" in this sense is quite
specific: whether religious or secular, a "sentimental" theme
is one-quite common to the South-that emphasizes loss. This
loss is characterized by separation, whether from god or home.
It seems fitting, then, that bluegrass would generate itself
as a hybrid of these forms at precisely the moment when its
most significant practitioner was separated from the space
that was being sung about; bluegrass is then, after Cantwell's
definition, a "representational" music-one meant to call up
in its listeners a specific, idealized place and time.
Although bluegrass came into its own as a distinctive style by the 1940s, it is significant that it makes its major cinematic appearance in Bonnie & Clyde in 1967. In her review of the film for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael voiced the widely held opinion that the film brought little to bear on the historical Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but instead spoke metaphorically to the ideologies of the emergent youth counterculture of the 1960s. That youth counterculture owed much of it impetus to the slightly earlier urban folk revival, whose most revered practitioner, Bob Dylan, spanned the gap between the acoustic folk movement and the electrified rock music after 1964. Though an endless debate has gone on about Dylan's switch to rock music at the Newport Folk Festival has gone on since, the urban folk revival and the controversy surrounding Dylan brings up two important issues. The first is that the folk movement drew endlessly on the Depression era for its source material, particularly influenced by Harry Smith's 1952 compilation, The Anthology of American Folk Music. Culled from his own enormous collection of obscure and semi-obscure 78 rpm records of performers of various
(though always Southern in origin) styles of music, the Anthology was the introduction that many nascent folkies had to the music of pre-war rural America. From this collection, many branched out to other performers of Southern music, and this inevitably led to an interest in bluegrass. The second key issue, intrinsically linked to the first, is the perception of this music as somehow more "authentic" than contemporary pop music. This constituted a kind of poverty-chic, in which anything associated with the Southern poor was elevated to a value-laden symbol in contrast to the materialistic consumer culture of mainstream America, which doubtlessly contained more than a bit of sentimental nostalgia for a place that many folk performers and fans had no tangible connection to.
Bluegrass had been a staple of country music for nearly twenty years by the time of Bonnie & Clyde, and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and Flatt and Scrugg's Foggy Mountain Boys were regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, but they had never enjoyed quite the commercial success of the less "old-timey" sounding country musicians from Hank Williams to the "countrypolitan" sounds of the early sixties. This limited commercial viability made the style all the more appealing to the folk movement, seeing in bluegrass's ties to the string band music of Harry Smith's Anthology a powerful mode of "authentic" expression. As a film so closely tied to the ideologies of the counterculture, the choice of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as the primary performers on Bonnie & Clyde could not have been a happenstance decision. The filmmakers chose to use two icons of the Depression to illustrate something about the 1960s; Flatt and Scrugg's soundtrack helped define the boundaries of the imagined space of the South in the film in a way that only a music intentionally created to call up such a place and time-lost though it may be-could do.
Discussion of the role of Depression era Southern musical
forms and their filtration through the ideologies of the 1960s
counterculture is, I believe, central to discussion of the
role of music in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As music
used in a film (I am avoiding discussing much of the audio-only
soundtrack album) the role of bluegrass and other pre-war
styles in defining the time and space of the movie's action
is seminal in highlighting two divergent responses to the
film generally. On the one hand, there is the kind of earnest,
even if constructed, sentimentalism of bluegrass as originally
practiced by Monroe, Flatt, and Scruggs. On the other side
is the conscientious usage of particular sounds (fiddle, banjo,
slide guitar) in producing a highly politicized image of Southern
poverty. Of course, Monroe's in the general sense does not
lack a kind of politics, nor do the urban folk revivalist
lack earnestness. But they are separate at some level, and
that separation is something that could only be referred to
in a text (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) that resides
at some distance from either of their specific perspectives,
a position of dialectical synthesis that that this film is
historically well-suited for.
The choices of material and performers for the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? reflect this dialectic in some very interesting ways. Essentially, the soundtrack can be divided into three groups of performers, though the material being performed is rooted in the 1930s. That material could and often is traditional, meaning that its authorship is unknown and that it predates the Depression, but it is nevertheless material that would have been played during the period. First, there are the musicians who are tied to the era and time that the film is depicting. This includes Ralph Stanley, whose contemporary recording of the traditional "O Death" and early 1950s recording of "Angel Band" with his brother Carter are used in the film. Ralph and Carter Stanley recorded as the Stanley Brothers for Columbia in the 1950s, and though Ralph's banjo style is more traditional (and maybe less sophisticated) than Earl Scruggs's, the Stanley Brothers rank amongst the most significant bluegrass performers of the music's early period. Also included in the film is an Alan Lomax field recording for the Library of Congress of James Carter and the Prisoners, a group of African American men working on a prison chain gang. Lomax was commissioned by Library of Congress-and later, the Smithsonian Folk Institute-to collect and record "folk" music throughout the South in the 1930s and 1940s, which was to have a significant impact on the later urban folk revival. Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock also makes an appearance, and his " Big Rock Candy Mountain" is appropriate ode to the hobo life from a man closely associated with the Industrial Workers of the World (or the "Wobblies") labor movement. John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, and Norman Blake (the lead guitar player on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline album) are all associated with the 1960s, and the remaining performers (Alison Krause, Gillian Welch, Chris Thomas King, the fictional "Soggy Bottom Boys," etc.) all began performing long after the urban folk revival. Chris Thomas King, who plays "Tommy Johnson" in the film, performs Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," and whose own recordings have attempted to meld the blues and other African American musical traditions onto hip hop is a particularly interesting choice, though as with all the performances his song is down fairly straight. The role of the blues singer in the film is discussed here.
Though O Brother, Where Art Thou? can in no real sense be considered a "musical" in the tradition of American musical film (like say, Singing in the Rain or State Fair) the film does contain a number of performances interwoven into the plot that are indispensable to the movie as a whole. In fact, the very first scene of the film, the Alan Lomax field recordings of a chain gang is lip-synced by the prisoners being depicted on screen. The usage of a field recording as the intro the film is quite interesting in itself, given that the idea of "field recording" stands in contrast to commercial recordings-whose own process is seminal to the rest of the film. The recordings of "Po' Lazarus" is joined by a stark, Farm Securities Administration-type black and white image that finally shifts into sepia and then into the digitally processed coloration that dominates the entire film.
After this intro sequence-which sets up the familiar tropes of the chain gang film, i.e. ,i>I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Sullivan's Travels-the film seques into the title sequence, which employs the distinctive design of silent film inter-titles. This is analyzed here. Accompanying the title sequence is Harry McClintock's hobo-ballad, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." This song is interesting in that it is the only piece of commercially recorded music in the film that is actually from the period being depicted.
These two pieces of music are significant in that they serve as a set-up to all the subsequent action and attendant music that comprises the rest of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. When read in conjunction with the images being projected, these songs act as alerts to within the film to the period being represented (the Depression-era generally, but the chain gang film is a specifically Southern phenomena) in a very culturally determinate way. Significantly, after these two pieces, the film moves toward approximations or recreations of the period styles-a move away from the "documentary" style and towards the more (implicitly and explicitly) artificial modes of mechanical reproduction and media-in this case radio-broadcasting.
The first hint of this move comes after the trio (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from the prison farm and make their way to Pete's (John Turturro) cousin's house. After having their chains removed, they settle into the cabin for the evening. Though "Wash" Hogwaller (Pete's cousin) has been hit hard by the Depression, the family still owns a radio and are listening to the "Pappy O'Daniel Flour Hour." O'Daniel shows up later in the film again, and will be discussed here. However, a clip of the sequence in which the men are sitting around listening to the radio:
Perhaps the single most significant usage of music in the film comes a few scenes later. The trio have picked up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be "Tommy Johnson," a blues singer who has sold his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar. The blues singer is discussed in this section. Under Tommy's advice, the four men make their way to a radio station (unrealistically set out away from any town, but whose lone signal tower makes an iconic image) in order to get money from a man "who pays you to sing into his can." A video clip from this scene is available below:
Though other than Tommy none of them are musicians, they record a song called "Man of Constant Sorrow," which garners them ten dollars apiece. Excited by this windfall, they bolt from the radio/recording studio and bump into none other than Pappy O'Daniel outside. O'Daniel, as we now learn, is the governor of Mississippi. He eschews his sons advice to "press the flesh" with the foursome because, as he says, "We ain't one at a timin' here…We're mass-communicatin'." Unbeknownst to the boys, their record has become an enormous hit record all through out the state and even into Alabama-people just can't seem to get enough of this "old-timey" music. The phenomena being depicted on screen is oddly prophetic of the run-away popularity of the soundtrack for the film and the recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow" particularly. This network of radio play and record distribution was all but non-existent before 1927, when record companies began recording and marketing in earnest what (at the time) where know as "race" and "hillbilly" music, or rural black and white popular forms. A scene depicting the the record label executive and the radio owner/recording engineer follows below:
There is much evidence to suggest that this music-particularly the "old-timey" string band forms of white musicians-anachronistic even at the time of its recording. Indeed, the marketing strategy that deemed such music "old-timey" in the 1930s would seem to support such an interpretation. If this music was indeed anomalous at the time of its first recording, it lends an even more complicated element to the understanding of bluegrass as a "representational" music. Just when (if ever) was this music popular as a contemporary form? Since documentation of the music of rural white and black America is extremely sketchy before the mid 1920s, this may in fact be an impossible question to answer. What is apparent, however, is that the "sentimental" nature accorded to the reception of "old-timey" music from the very onset of its mass dissemination via radio and mechanical recordings indicates a "lost" place or time which the 1930s-because it serves as the site of preservation of these forms-has come to represent henceforth. Retrospectively, audiences have attached this style of music to that decade because there is no clear answer to when or where else it could have come from. Only by virtue of the field recordings and commercial records does any document exist. Because of this, a disjunction appears between what the historical facts of that decade and the multi-faceted perceptions that linger and are revised again and again, right up to O Brother, Where Art Thou?.