SoundTreks | O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I think this one blindsided everyone.
The Coen Bros. are known for their excellent soundtrack records, a reputation they cemented in 2000 with the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film that has has longer-lasting repercussions in the film world than most people could have expected. It wasn’t an enormous awards darling (although it was nominated for two Oscars, and won one Golden Globe), and was only a modest hit, yet it lingers pleasantly in the pop consciousness like a childhood memory. It’s a warm and enjoyable film from expert filmmakers who were clearly just having a good time.
The film itself might serve as a tribute to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a movie about a film director seeking to shed his reputation for making frothy comedies with a serious social message picture called O Brother, Where Are Thou?. Although, in the credits, Homer is the more direct influence, as the screenplay is loosely based on The Odyssey. The Coens, meanwhile, made something as light and as tasty as a cool glass of lemonade on a hot afternoon.
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But it’s the soundtrack record that has allowed O Brother to endure. The Coens, with a seeming ease, managed to select the most impeccable collection of mountain bluegrass and country folk tunes imaginable, allowing the soundtrack to transcend the movie, and become something of a mainstream hit. People who previously had no interest in bluegrass and country folk were suddenly fans, and people began talking about these old-timey blues panegyrics in the same breath as their favorite pop tunes. The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became the most important OST record until the release of Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 nearly 15 years later.
It was inevitable that SoundTreks eventually come to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, so let us make the time now. On its 15th anniversary, we look at this awesome record, and run down why it’s so good.
Track 1. “Po Lazarus” – J. Carter & Prisoners
The opening track is also the first song heard in the movie, and, indeed, the O Brother soundtrack is one of those rare instances where the songs appears on the record in the order they are played in the movie. You’d be surprised how cohesive a record that makes for. The track is a real prison work song sung by real Mississippi prison inmate James Carter. The vocals were 40 years old, and Carter was reportedly paid $20,000 for it.
Right off the bat, we see – I think – why people reacted so passionately to this soundtrack. Country, bluegrass, blues, and especially prison work songs, are all notable for their authenticity. They sound honest and true, free of exploitation and commercialism. There is an underlying purity to the pain and death and joy and celebration intrinsic to the songs within these genres. A real prison work song sounds like a real prison work song. And I think we can all tell this is a real prison work song.
Track 2. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” – Harry McLintock
This was a song we learned in elementary school. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is the best-known hobo song about drifting through this big old country, riding the rails, and assigning a freedom and romance to being a homeless tramp. This Harry McLintock version (which he claims to have written back in 1895) was recorded in 1928, and is the earliest known recording of the song.
The song itself is silly, almost whimsical. It’s a childlike fantasy of what the world would look like if a hobo got his every wish. He would climb mountains made of rock candy, free booze would flow from the earth, prisons let you out as soon as you get in, the hens lay soft-boiled eggs, and you never have to change your socks. It has a lilting, catchy, almost lullaby quality that settles deep into your brain. It’s an earworm you can cuddle with. It was wise of the Coens to include this version of it. Better to have a song with dust on it. It makes the film more real. This is the song that plays over the film’s opening credits, so the tone is pretty much set.
Track 3. “You Are My Sunshine” – Norman Blake
Another one from elementary school. I think most people learned this one in school, as it’s a sweet and innocuous song about affection and missing your beloved. In most cases, however, “You Are My Sunshine” tends to plays as silly and/or corny, thanks to its strong association with childhood music classes. The Coens managed to find a recording, however (made by an experienced Tennessee folk musician), that brings the authenticity back. For the first time, we’re invited to hear “You Are My Sunshine” as the aw-shucks love song that it is. Like most songs on this soundtrack, it’s gentle, and it’s most certainly sweet.
Track 4. “Down In The River To Pray” – Alison Krauss
“Down in the River to Pray” is a very old Christian folk hymn, author unknown, recorded by modern country chanteuse Alison Krauss for this soundtrack. The song is about being baptized, of course, and within the context of the film, Tim Blake Nelson’s character hears it and is so moved, he seeks to be purified in the Holy Spirit with a roving band of Baptists. A lot of old Christian folk hymns are pretty moving and, given the full choral arrangement, can be downright spectacular. One doesn’t need to be a Baptist to be moved by this one.
Track 5. “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys featuring Dan Tyminski
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” is the centerpiece song of the movie, and the thematic center of this entire record. Within the movie, George Clooney’s character and his three traveling companions, in order to make a few extra dollars, whip out this old folk tune in a radio station under the hastily-invented name The Soggy Bottom Boys. The song becomes an unexpected hit without our heroes really noticing. The song was originally written back in 1913, but this version was recorded new for the soundtrack.
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” demonstrates the perfect juxtapositions within a lot of blues and bluegrass. In its darker moments, the blues can be lonely, plaintive, and sad. But much of the blues and bluegrass deals features depressing lyrics paired with catchy and upbeat music. The song is about being a stranger, about being full of constant sorrow. But it’s an uplifting song. This is a song that transforms tragedy into optimism. And the same can be said of the movie. It’s a slapstick farce full of poverty and missed opportunities. It’s a great song, its paired perfectly with the movie it’s in, and it now lives on indefinitely.
Track 6. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” – Chris Thomas King
This is a wonderful rendition, although I think I prefer the Skip James version from 1901. This version was new for the film.
Track 7. “Man Of Constant Sorrow (Instrumental)” – Norman Blake
Blues, bluegrass (and, additionally, jazz), are gloriously versatile forms of music that can take familiar melodies and reinterpret them into whatever selected tone the musician is fond of that day. It took me several listenings to even recognize this mellow banjo riff as “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And all it really did was slow the tempo and add some flourishes. What a mood.
Track 8. “Keep On The Sunny Side” – The Whites
Yet a third song from my halcyon elementary school days. I realize that many of the songs we learn as kids are about being happy and keeping your chin up. Yet I know so many neurotic adults. Is happiness seen as a childish thing? But I digress.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” is a Christian folk tune from 1899, but wasn’t popular until the late ’20s when it was recorded by The Carter Family. This version by The Whites (and please, make no racial jokes here) is a new recording. I am repeatedly surprised to learn how many of these songs are new recordings, as they all have such a timeless quality, I assumed most of them were of an earlier vintage.
Track 9. “I’ll Fly Away” – Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss
From 1929, re-recorded in 2000. This is another Christian folk song that was perhaps based on a secular ballad, but it has made its way into many Christian liturgies and hymnals, not to mention the playlist of the Christian rock band Jars of Clay. I wonder if the song would be as sweet and wistful if it had different vocalists. This is a song too gentle to be made hard.
Track 10. “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” – Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss & Emmylou Harris
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was not intended, during the writing process, to be an adaptation of The Odyssey, but The Coens discovered their story had many similarities, so they figured they’d push it all the way. From what I understand, the scene to feature “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” was one of the tipping points. Our three heroes come upon three seductive, wet women, washing their clothes in a river, singing this song. They get our heroes drunk and steal their belongings. These three are clearly the Odyssean Sirens. Which means this lullaby has a sinister undercurrent in the context of the film.
Without context, the song is a great lullaby, again, with some dust on it. In the context of the film, though, it borders on the terrifying.
Track 11. “In The Highways” – The Peasall Sisters
Taken from Luke 14:23. Within O Brother, Where Are Thou?, this song is presented as a public performance, and you can hear the church pageant sound on it. The girls are talented, however, so we can cut through the uncomfortable stage mom subtext.
Track 12. “I Am Weary” – The Cox Family
Given the number of Christian numbers on this soundtrack, you’d be forgiven for thinking O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a Christian film. This is not, perhaps, a film with any sort of overt Christian message (although a character is saved by baptism), but the Coens clearly found a good deal of joy, love, and downright sincerity from the religious hymns of the time and place. It adds an emotional, spiritual backdrop to what is, really, a farce.
The Coen Bros., in case you couldn’t intuit, are Jewish.
Track 13. “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow (Instrumental)” – John Hartford
Ditto track 7, but times a million.
Track 14. “O Death” – Ralph Stanley
In the context of the movie, “O Death” – another folk song first recorded in the late ’20s and rerecorded for this album – was used as the call to arms during a KKK rally, sung by the Grand Dragon. On its own, it’s a lamentation; a cry into the heavens to keep on living, despite being near to death. Classic blues stuff. But when placed into the mouth of a Klansman, it – like the Sirens’ song – takes on a much darker, scarier edge. “O Death” now becomes a threat. But an alluring, hypnotic threat.
Track 15. “In The Jailhouse Now” – The Soggy Bottom Boys featuring Tim Blake Nelson
Yes, actor Tim Blake Nelson did his own singing. This is the one track on this record that – both with and without its context – is included just for the fun of it. This is a jaunty little comedy song (about, you guessed it, going to jail) that our characters sing as part of a concert. The film takes a brief intermission while they sing, and the record returns to its jauntier mood after the heft of “O Death.”
Track 16. “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow (with band)” – The Soggy Bottom Boys featuring Dan Tyminski
A more elaborate reprise. This is, then, the fourth version of this song to appear on the record. Ordinarily, this is one of the cardinal sins one can commit when making a mix; don’t repeat songs ever, and try not to repeat artists too frequently. The four versions, however, are different enough from one another, that it becomes a calculation rather than an indulgence. Also, the song is important to the plot, so it makes sense that we hear it several times in the movie, and on the soundtrack. Also, it’s been nine tracks since the last vocal version, so we’re good.
Track 17. “Indian War Whoop (Instrumental)” – John Hartford
A good track for a chase scene.
Track 18. “Lonesome Valley” – The Fairfield Four
In the movie, this is what three gravediggers sing to our main characters as they are about to be executed. Once again, the scenario lets us feel the depth of the fear and pain in the song. The Coens are filmmakers who are interested in misery and death, but they are comedians at heart. They are savvy about texturing most of their films with an equal mixture of comedy and tragedy. This is not the most tragic song on the record, but it’s a dark moment, and we’re going to have to take things seriously. “Lonesome Valley” is an appropriate dirge.
Track 19. “Angel Band” – The Stanley Brothers
My race is nearly run. This is perhaps the oldest song on the record, dated to about 1860. It’s found in old hymnals from the era. This recording is also one of the oldies, taken from 1955. Did you know that The Monkees once sang this one? It’s a song about the afterlife, and it ends quietly and hopefully. A great way to close out the record.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or The Movie?
The soundtrack is better. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is pretty great. It’s funny, the lead three actors are wonderful, and the slapstick is dead on. What’s more, it’s gorgeous to look at, featuring wheat-colored photography by the legendary Roger Deakins. Plus, I love the classical allusions. This is a more accurate version of The Odyssey than some other more direct film and TV adaptations.
But, at the end of the day, the film is a wistful, soulful trifle. It feels nice, but its substance slips away from your grasp. When you begin to dissect what the film is really about, and why it feels so wonderful, you keep coming back to the music. All of the soul of the movie comes from this record. The film is good. The soundtrack record, however, will live on for many years beyond. It’s not just a great comment on a fine film, but it’s perhaps one of the finest bluegrass collections imaginable. To be fair, I know little about bluegrass, but I know it’s authentic in the best of cases, and this whole record feels honest and true.
But when you have good taste in music, and you hire the legendary producer T-Bone Burnett to make the soundtrack, you’re pretty much guaranteed to make more than a movie soundtrack. You’re making an album for the ages.