FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hampshire College Condemns War

by David Vest Oh, Brother, Here We Go Again.

Oh, brother, here we go again.

I finally broke down and rented “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” against my better judgment. I found found it both mildly entertaining and oddly embarrassing. It felt like watching old movies that portray African-Americans as shuffling people-pleasers who are comic by their very nature. This time it is poor white pre-Depression-era Southerners offered for our amusement. “How can anyone look at these people and not laugh,” I can imagine one Coen brother saying to the other, grabbing the point that had eluded such observers as James Agee.

The Coen project was to take people deemed ludicrous in their very existence and lend them the dignity of myth by using the unwitting yokels to retell the Odyssey.

One might as well argue that “The Beverly Hillbillies” was a retelling of The Grapes of Wrath.

Which brings me to my main concern, the film’s use not of myth but of music. The brothers have done for Ralph Stanley and a handful of artists what “The Beverly Hillbillies” did for Flatt and Scruggs: made them famous by ridiculing their art and its origins, with the willing participation of the objects of ridicule, now on tour cashing in.

The principal difference between the film and the series is that “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is done with a hipster flick of the wrist, whereas “The Beverly Hillbillies” was ham-fisted.

After watching all these fake beards, squinched faces and chicken wing moves, I wonder whether Bill Monroe’s reaction to the film would have been very different from his take on the TV series. The father of bluegrass music was famously upset with Flatt and Scruggs for allowing the genre to be stripped of its essential dignity in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” While Monroe’s sense of humor was legendary, he never perceived himself as a clown. He was no “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.”

It’s one thing to have a sense of humor about yourself. It’s quite another to help people mock you.

And so what if Monroe’s reaction was mixed with jealousy of the greater name recognition and commercial success enjoyed by his former employees? Why shouldn’t he have felt a little bitter? He’d been on the road for decades, struggling to stay in business and keep a band together, while never making or permitting the slightest compromise in his vision of the music. This was a man, remember, who declined to participate in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s hugely popular “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” projects.

What do you suppose Monroe would have thought of the scene in which the Ku Klux Klan entertains itself by lip-synching Stanley’s acapella version of “O Death”? If he were still alive, can you imagine having the nerve to ask him? How does Ralph Stanley himself feel about it?

If watching this film with Bill Monroe would have been unthinkable, can you imagine what Bill Faulkner would have thought of it? If the Coen brothers were half as hip as we’d like to think they are, they’d have left some clue that they’d ever read Faulkner’s “Old Man.”

Maybe they have read it and just couldn’t afford to call attention to it. The thought of one of these rustic clowns writing a literary masterpiece would be damned inconvenient. It might spoil the mood.

Similarly, the use of any actual blues music (such as, Heaven forbid, John Lee Hooker’s great flood song, “Tupelo”) would have spoiled the tired old “crossroads” joke that the film’s one Black character was inserted to tell. (And hey, if we got a Black guy, we need some Klan guys, right? said one anti-establishment Coen brother to the other, as hiply as you please.)

That the music from the film is apparently more popular than the film itself may represent a kind of subversive triumph. Is it useful to imagine Gillian Welch infiltrating this project, as opposed to being exploited by it? If people like sorrowful music because they think it’s funny, should the artist really care? Does the dollar make you holler? Will it bother Welch if we snicker the next time we hear “Orphan Girl,” after seeing her in this movie? (I won’t.) Is this the final revenge of Louis Armstrong, seen as a comic figure by generations deaf to his music?

Whatever, it is telling that the hit song from the movie, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” is heard not in Ralph Stanley’s classic original version (or in any serious bluegrass legend’s version) but as performed by what amounts to a third-generation studio pick-up band. Not that they don’t do a good job on the song, but the implication is that the real thing wouldn’t quite satisfy the need.

Here’s my real problem with the Coen Brothers Circus. As Bob Dylan (and as Flatt and Scruggs themselves, in a stunning cover version) once said, “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns/When they all did tricks for you.”

David Vest is a writer, poet and piano player for the Cannonballs. A native of Alabama, he now lives in Portland, Oregon. Visit his webpage for samples of the Cannonballs’ brand of take no prisoners rock & roll and other Vest columns: http://www.mindspring.com/~dcqv

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and Henry the First: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail