What a great film. The Cohen Brothers at their best in my opinion. It’s a wonderfully clever retelling of Homer’s Iliad in the style of a 3 Stooges movie set in an alternate universe during a time period much like Depression/Dust Bowl era America. But as this is not a film blog, I digress and transition into talking about one of the films main tools used in transporting the viewer into the past. That being music of course.
Now there is the obvious – the soundtrack is pretty damn good. A fact that is indisputably evident by its critical and commercial success; it’s a little polished for my taste but I really dig the spirit of the project. The film’s music was written/produced/selected by T-Bone Burnett, who is best known for producing a bunch of pretty successful records by artists most would recognize, but is also a folk revival focused singer/songwriter who has released a few solo records. T-Bone did a great job transporting us into the past while still keeping the sound fresh. He did this by re-recording quite a few folk classics by current artists; for example you’ve got an artist like Chris Thomas King doing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” which was originally written and recorded by Delta Blues Legend Skip James. There is a few songs that are included in their original versions on the soundtrack, most notably Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from 1939.
Personally, the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of the film is how they interweave the folklore and history that surrounds the music into the movie. Here are a few examples.
In the film real life singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King plays a character by the name of Tommy Johnson who is on the run from the law and had just sold his soul to the devil on at the crossroads. Sound familiar?.. Yes, its just the devilishly clever Cohens working in that old blues fable about the quintessential Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson into their film.
During a political event in the film there is a musical act identified as The Brightsiders, singing “Keep On The Sunny Side”. The group is made up of 2 women and 1 man and is later joined by 3 girls for the song “In The Highways”. Both tunes are songs by the Carter Family for which the film is so obviously making tribute.
Lastly, I’d like to point out the interesting amalgamation which makes up the character know in the film as Pappy O’daniel. In the film he is the host of a radio show entitled “Pappy O’daniel’s Flour Hour” which is a reference to a more recent radio program called King Biscuit Flower Hour. KBFH is based on the original old timey blues radio program called King Biscuit Time which started in 1941 and continues today on WFFA in Helena, Arkansas. In the film the character is the Governor of Mississippi, and turns out to be loosely based two different real life radio personality/politicians: Texas Governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’daniel and former Louisiana Governer Jimmie Davis.
Besides the soundtrack, for those that are interested there are a bunch of cash-in projects that came out shortly after the movie and soundtrack became such a hit. Among those is a live concert featuring the same artists called Down From The Mountain. Also there are a few compilations featuring selections from female Bluegrass musicians called O Sister! and a few budget imports CD compilations that compile the songs in their original incarnations.