Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”
(If you have not seen the movie, be warned there are spoilers below)

The Coen Brothers’ new film,  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961 and is very loosely based on or inspired by the autobiography of the great folk singer Dave van Ronk.  I’ve been following the film closely because my band the Down Hill Strugglers has a song on the soundtrack album.  I also produce the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Washington Square Park Folk Festival and work at the Jalopy Theatre, the current home for folk music in New York City, and have always had an interest in the history of folk music in this place.

Now that the film is out in theaters and getting lots of press, people associated with the world of folk music here in New York have become very interested and are scrutinizing it because it is the first film to represent us and a seminal time in our history on the big screen.  I was born in Greenwich Village in 1982, so I certainly was not there in 1961, but everyone who I know who was there has serious criticisms of the depiction of that time and place as represented in the movie, regardless of whether they like the story and the film itself.  I think these criticisms are best made in Terri Thal’s (Dave van Ronk’s first wife, also his manager) article that was recently published in the Village Voice (at: http://www.villagevoice.com/authors/terri-thal/).

However, there are a few things going on in “Inside Llewyn Davis” that I haven’t seen discussed or really made plain anywhere so far.  One important point is that in the film the Llewyn Davis character (actor Oscar Isaac) sings nearly all traditional songs (all but one, which was written to be very traditional-like) and that even more than his dour personality and ill-luck, seems to doom his career and chances of earning a living as a musician.  The songs he sings are arranged and performed in a 60’s folk-like style but his repertoire, which in the film he tries hard not to compromise, is a meaningful and traditionally based one.  Here is a quote from Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker magazine (at: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2013/12/09/131209crci
_cinema_lane
), which I think misses the point:

“And here’s the thing, the masterstroke of the movie: Llewyn is very good, but he’s not great. The Coens could have made a film about a genius, just waiting to be dug up like a diamond. Indeed, in the closing minutes we see and hear the young Dylan at the back of a room. But Llewyn is a semiprecious stone, and that is the half-tragedy of his life.”

The character Llewyn Davis is in fact “great” by the standards of the music in the film, but he’s not a genius or not worthy because he’s not churning out his own hits and chooses to sing great old rural songs.  Llewyn’s musical style is very similar to that of his friends Jim and Jean in the film who are making it commercially, as I say the only real difference is that he does not write any of his own songs and the ones he does sing are sad morbid old songs and ballads, as so many great traditionals are.  His character sings in a way that is rather ungussied up but with the earnest and angsty quality which came out of 60’s folk music style and continues on today.  In real life there was significant difference between Dave van Ronk’s music and the real Jim and Jean’s music, although they both represented a 60’s style.  Van Ronk’s style was very individual and gritty, inspired by his interest in early Jazz and blues music, where as Jim and Jean’s was more generic “Folk” music of the time, although well played.

At one (anti-)climactic point in the film, Llewyn Davis sings a beautiful old ballad called “The Death of Queen Jane” which must be meaningful for him at that time given the context of the plot.  Davis has just found out that he has a child he didn’t know about because an ex-girlfriend carried her pregnancy to term.  He sings the song, which is about the Queen of England who dies in child-birth, but brings her baby into the world alive, as an audition for the Albert “Bud” Grossman promoter character in order to try to get a good gig or management, but Grossman replies, “I don’t see much money here.”  Is the song too sad, disturbing or hard to follow?  Is it too unoriginal?  Probably all of those things!  Llewyn Davis did not write the song, it is hundreds of years old and comes from a different place, but it strikes me as the viewer that the song must be very meaningful to him at that time in the film.  We are left wishing Llewyn had sung something more up, less sad, maybe original so that he could have gotten the gig, but instead he sang something that was pretty out there and maybe truer to where he was at than some song he could have tried to write…

Llewyn Davis’ repertoire as taken partly from the repertoire of Dave van Ronk and presented in the movie is very interesting and with further examination into its sources shows in a nutshell many of the strands that came together to make the folk music world of that time and place.  Davis’ music is related to my own field of “Old Time” music not so much in terms of his style in the film, but definitely in terms of several of his songs; “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (also known as “Been All Around This World) is a great banjo song originally field recorded by folklorists who located traditional banjo players Rufus Crisp and Justis Begley in Kentucky, and also recorded in a popular version by Kentucky banjoist Grandpa Jones.  How did it get to the Village?  Which was Dave van Ronk’s source?  I don’t know.  Rufus Crisp, a possible source for “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was also one of our sources for the song “The Roving Gambler” which my band recorded for the film’s soundtrack album.  Crisp was one of the very first Southern traditional banjo players to inform the playing and repertoire of New York musicians through his Library of Congress field recordings and visits by Pete Seeger, Stu Jamieson and others.  “The Death of Queen Jane” is a medieval English ballad collected by venerated folklorist Francis James Child and published in his seminal books of balladry.  The film gives scant coverage to rural folk songs in a rural “old time” style, and no coverage to blues music that was being learned and played in the Village at that time.   Only the woman who plays autoharp and sings a Carter Family song badly gives any nod to the presence of old time music, which was being played by a number of people at the time, including the New Lost City Ramblers.

“The Shoals of Herring” was written in a traditional style for a BBC radio play by Ewan MacColl, the great British folk singer and folk song collector about the life of a fisherman/singer who MacColl knew and collected songs from.  Dink’s Song was collected by the great American folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink along the Brazos river in Texas in 1904 and published in his 1934 book, “American Ballads and Folk Songs.”  It was first recorded as “Fare Thee Well” by Libby Holman and then most influentially by Josh White, both in the mid 40’s and perhaps with some personal direction from Alan Lomax who helped them find material.  This song really encapsulates much of the folk song movement of that early period through the 60’s as it was subsequently recorded by an impressive and informative list of folksingers leading up to van Ronk’s version.  Here are some:
Josh White 1944
Burl Ives 1951
Cisco Houston 1954
Guy Carawan 1957
Jack Elliott 1958
Pete Seeger 1959
Barbara Dane 1959
Dave Van Ronk 1961

As for “Green, Green Rocky Road,”African American poet Bob Kauffman learned it as a child in Louisiana and sang that version to Len Chandler, a now lesser known Village folksinger with a background in Classical music, they are credited as co-composers (thanks to Elijah Wald for that good information).  I am told Len Chandler did a lot to shape the sound of Greenwich Village “Folk” music in the 1960’s, meaning the arrangements and style of performance of traditional folk songs used by most city based musicians.  This arrangement of “Green, Green Rocky Road” is a good example of how a city folksinger could take a song, which in this case may not have had chords and been a simple children’s ring-shout song, and give it a whole new feeling and style as a more inwardly directed soft finger-picking guitar song.

I don’t know if this emphasis on traditional material (if not style) was any kind of a grand point the Coen’s were trying to make, but they’re right, as the “Bud” Grossman character says, there’s not much money there, and it doesn’t just have to do with Llewyn Davis’ unattractive personality or his musical style – it has to do in this case with his repertoire.  I once heard the great old time string band musician Mike Seeger say something like, “you can make a living playing old-time music, depending on your definition of old-time music and your definition of a living.”  This is an important insight into the value system of the music industry, and a reason why for better and worse “old time music” or non-“original” folk songs seem immune from the industry side of the music world and separate from the saleable “Folk” music genre/category.  That idea is one of the major things that I think the film did hit head on, even if it has not been really explicitly discussed.

Another and related point is that, as I understand it a change was coming to the Village around the time that “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set, may a bit later; a change which deserves some explanation.  The obvious point made at the end of the movie is that Bob Dylan has arrived, Llewyn’s getting older, his day is over and a new era is coming in.  Richard Brody touches on this in a perfunctory, but still meaningful way in his blog post on the New Yorker magazine’s website (at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2013/12/deeper-inside-llewyn-davis.html) when he says of the end of the movie, “That’s the miracle: Bob Dylan’s arrival, and, with him, the rise of the singer-songwriter, the repudiation of pure folk.”

What does he mean by “pure folk”? That sounds bad and complicated, but regardless… Through the 50’s and early 60’s the folk music scene in the Village was an insular crowd, many of whom were from New York and lived in or came down to the Village to meet, hangout and play their concept of traditional or “folk” music, people maybe something like the character of Llewyn Davis, but hopefully less depressed and with a place to stay. These people were playing music often without the expectation of considerable money or fame, and but instead were doing it for fun and because they found it meaningful.  This group of people who came of age in the late 1940’s and 50’s also weren’t writing many original songs – Dave van Ronk, who did make a living playing music, is a good and very talented example of this group of people.

Of course since the Weavers’ breakthrough in 1949 and all through the 50’s there had been popular “Folk” groups, but coming into the 60’s it was moving more towards the modern world of singer-songwriters and Rock music.  At the end of the film Carey Mulligan’s character tells Llewyn Davis that he should play again at the Gaslight and that the New York Times was going to be there.  Until that point there weren’t promoters, A&R men or reporters from the New York Times hanging around to make people’s careers.  However, that day was coming, and they were looking for music that was “news worthy” for the reporters and saleable for the promoters and A&R men.  Also, as a caveat to all this I should mention that people like Joan Baez and maybe a few others did have success in that era and did sing songs like Llewyn Davis sings in a comparable style, so in fact that style can be saleable, and continues to be to a certain extent.

Davis is a very ambivalent character that lives in an ambivalent time that’s no longer the 50’s but not quite the 60’s.  He is singing wonderful songs that are from a different time and place again, but not in anything like their traditional style.  He doesn’t write new songs in his new style but doesn’t want to compromise his style or repertoire in a way that might advance his career, and he can’t seem to go back to a “straight” job.

Llewyn Davis is forced to assess the choices and possibilities for compromise that are presented to him in the course of the film.  He struggles with some of the real anxieties of his time and place as a musician, and I can’t help but identify that as having reality and weight. The film itself feels dreamlike and the music has a dreamlike or unreal quality to it (not in a bad way), but when the actual voice of Bob Dylan comes in at the end or the actual voice of Dave van Ronk plays over the credits it brings it all home.

Although the film was not what I expected, whatever that was, I did find it deeply affecting, thought provoking and unique.  I, like many, did not think that it represented the real, full and varied folk music world of Greenwich Village at that time, but that’s not what the story, focus and feeling that they went for really allowed.  I understand that the characters in the story presented the scene at that time as being depressing and seemingly pretty nihilistic with out much love, politics or cultural background (the only small political reference in the film is when Llewyn Davis is briefly accused of being a Shachtmanite!).  In fact the folk music scene was populated by many people who were really interesting, smart people who were more open and loving than most in a time when post-war American society could be pretty stiff and cold.   These folks made a great underground music movement and built something really fun, meaningful and important together.

*Thanks to John Cohen and Peter K. Siegel for their help in preparing this article.

3 Responses to “Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis””

  1. Stephen Policoff Says:

    Thanks for this piece. I have been somewhat perplexed by the negative reponses to this film which I have read (mostly on FB). Although some of the points made are interesting & valid (e.g. the issue of abortion at that time), a lot of comments seem to miss the main thrust of the film. This is a Journey tale, and like most of the Coen Brothers’ films it is a dark and ambiguous journey. Llewyn Davis may or may not deserve more success and less of a miserable life but it is the journey he has chosen and he stays true to it. Some critic pointed out that it is only when he sings that he seems to come alive and takes himself out of the darkness his journey/life has thrust him into. I found that aspect of the film very moving and think that the film as a whole is a remarkable piece of film art, even if it does not completely represent what many seem to wish it represented, a paean to that time and place. I am a fan of all of your various doings, especially the Brooklyn and Wash. Sq. Park Festivals. Happy 2014.

  2. Cary Fagan Says:

    A very good article. You probably know this, but the woman who was singing and playing autoharp was, of course, Nancy Blake. That makes Davis’ drunken rudeness towards her seem somehow worse. And the reference to the NYT reporter is a nod to a real event–the New York Times review of Dylan that began his rise to fame beyond the Village. (I guess the Coen brothers’ sly idea is that the reviewer saw Dylan and Davis both, but chose to write about only one.)

    The memory of this film lingers long past viewing for me.

  3. Llewyn Davis Comments Says:

    Great commentary on Inside Llewyn Davis. I like your inclusion of the Brody quote about Bob Dylan as the arrival of the “singer-songwriter.” Llewyn just replays old songs, but Dylan used old songs as a framework for new songs.

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