Right at the outset of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack shatters our composure with a sharp beat of disconcertingly unmusical percussion—the blow of an ax burying itself in a pine log. The axes, several of them, belong to a Parchman Farm work gang singing into Alan Lomax’s tape machine some 40 years ago. No sooner have their last strokes sounded than congenial Haywire Mac McClintock carries us merrily away to a hobo Valhalla of lemonade springs, cigarette trees, and brakemen who tip their hats: “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
We’re in the Depression-era South. The Coens’ comic epic about three escapees from a chain gang—a charming quixotic jackass, an abused and irascible dupe, and an endearing dimwit—touches all the bases: convicts in prison stripes, famished hoboes, ruined farmers, porky politicos, corrupt populist reformers, gangsters, tommy guns, aerodynamic sedans, tumbledown panel trucks, river baptisms, sniffing bloodhounds, lynch mobs, a Klan rally, a country bluesman, a Bible salesman. But it’s old-time music, O Brother‘s secret ingredient, that has attracted string-band fans to the movie theaters and sent the soundtrack to No. 1 on the country charts.
Recorded for the nostalgia market between 1925 and 1935, “old-time music” was the invention of major-label advance men who set up studios in Atlanta, Memphis, and Bristol hotel rooms to record instrumentalists and singers coaxed out of the tobacco fields or cotton mills with a newspaper ad. Most of these were amateurs or part-timers; a few, like the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, were launched into lasting celebrity. Either way, this music was old-fashioned, untutored, and homegrown, the sound of a lost America that had not known a world war, an assembly line, or a New Deal.
Today we call all this music after its latter-day derivation, bluegrass, and look with the Coens to contemporary virtuosos like Gillian Welch, the Whites, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush to deliver it to us with all the glamour, precision, and weightlessness of the digital age. O Brother‘s sunny trios and dreamy hymns, seductive African American lullaby and mocking country song, are music transfigured, music that like a Farm Security Administration photograph or a Thomas Hart Benton canvas can render misery beautiful. Yet though the lenslike refractivity of the women’s voices, the plaintiveness of Norman Blake’s baritone, and the gravity of Isaac Freeman’s bass galvanize the soundtrack, they also throw the film morally off balance. What can the Coens have been thinking when they planted Ralph Stanley’s voice—a sound out of the hollow of an old oak tree if not the Crab Nebula in Orion—under the red satin hood of a Klan Wizard, chillingly declaiming the verses of the hard-shell dirge “Oh Death”?
From Stanley’s repertoire we have the theme of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” In the film it erupts, queerly and exhilaratingly, when our three stooges, accompanied by Chris Thomas King’s guitar-playing black hitchhiker, dub themselves Jordan Rivers and the Soggy Bottom Boys and torque it down at a crossroads radio station as if it were “That Good Old Mountain Dew.” The nickel-alloy voice and high-compression guitar come from Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss’s band, who tracks the song’s sudden dips and rises, straight lines and abrupt 90-degree turns, as if he were on a Global Positioning System. Seconding him are the voices of Harley Allen, son of the great bluegrass shouter Red Allen, and scissors-throated Pat Enright of the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” dates back to 1907, when coal miner Dick Burnett, crossing the tracks on his way home from work, met a railroad tramp who beat him over the head with an iron bar, emptied his pockets, and left him on the cinders to die. Six years later, a blind man picking banjo around eastern Kentucky and western Virginia with fiddler Leonard Rutherford, Burnett printed up a little songbook in which he included an autobiographical lament—discovered there 50 years later by folklorist Archie Green—called “Farewell Song”: “I am a man of constant sorrow/I’ve seen trouble all my days.”
O Brother‘s badgering comedy registers an anxiety about old songs that strictly control remembered suffering, loss, desire, and longing, songs whose intense affective force thus often proceeds from lack of affect. The Cox Family’s lovely “I Am Weary,” backgrounded inaudibly on-screen, was written by veteran bluegrass musician Pete Roberts in the tradition of lachrymose Victorian parlor ballads addressed to a mother by a dying child.
Kiss me mother, kiss your darlin’
Lay my head upon your breast
Throw your loving arms around me
I am weary, let me rest.
While father Willard’s deferential harmony lingers on the margins, Suzanne Cox, bravely stroking a mandolin, sings in the soft interrogative of a woman processing some deeply unwelcome news. The beat pulls heavily, as at a bell rope; on the fiddle John Hartford composes himself with a prolonged meditation on a single note. By delivering this shamelessly sentimental song in an unsentimental voice that is nevertheless suffused with maternal tenderness, Suzanne Cox anchors O Brother, Where Art Thou? in old-time music’s gospel of the heart, where access to truth is through memory and to happiness through laughter.