It’s January 1, 2014 and Folk Music is alive and well once again. Of course for devotees it never really went away but thanks to the energy of a new generation of folk artists and the fact that the world is a much smaller place, a new folk renaissance is upon us. Not since the early to mid-1960s have we seen such a confluence of traditional American roots music with new musical ideas and styles from across the globe to fuel a burgeoning revival that blurs the lines of musical genres and pushes through into the world of popular culture.
The baton that’s been passed so many times before – Leadbelly and Bill Monroe to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan – has once again been picked up by the likes of Marcus Mumford, Alex Ebert, and Ketch Secor. The indie folk scene has been building for a while but film, cable TV, and the internet have all helped stoke the revival recently by making it so readily and widely accessible. In the past few weeks alone we saw the Coen brothers instant classic film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Showtime Town Hall concert inspired by the movie, and the Emmett Malloy documentary, Big Easy Express which features these aforementioned folk revivalists and many others.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the recent Coen brothers film about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in 1960 – 1961 BD, i.e., according to Ethan Coen before Bob Dylan arrived on the scene when everything changed. It was the time the folk scene was heating up but before it reached its rolling boil. Talking about the times the movie takes place, Chris Thile, mandolin and vocalist of the Punch Brothers who perform in the film said if folk music is the kind of music played around a campfire, “All of a sudden downtown New York was America’s campfire” in the early ‘60s. Joel Coen explained, “We have a real affection for traditional American music… the music that pre-dated the folk revival” and they figured this pubescent musical period would be the great setting for a film.
Actor/musician Oscar Isaac plays the fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis based to a large extent on Dave Van Ronk, one of the early folk pioneers on the scene who assimilated and reinterpreted traditional folk music. While he made a career as a folk artist and went on to influence so many musicians to follow (including Dylan) Van Ronk never enjoyed widespread success. I’m reminded of an interview with Van Ronk for the documentary No Direction Home about Dylan’s meteoric rise to prominence where he recounts the young and relatively unknown Dylan requesting permission to record his interpretation of House of the Rising Sun. Van Ronk responded that he wished he wouldn’t since he was planning to put the song on his next recording, to which Dylan replied, “Ooops” as he had already made the recording and it was about to be released.
Oscar Isaac sings and plays throughout the film in a performance that is the real deal and deserves nominations for both an Academy Award and a Grammy. T Bone Burnett, frequent collaborator on Coen brother films where music plays a critical supporting role (Oh Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski), produced the spectacular collection of music in the film, assisted by Marcus Mumford. In this case, however, the music was promoted from a supporting role to co-star billing. All of the music in the movie is recorded live and much of it is performed start to finish – it’s what’s happening in the moment and not just used in snippets as filler or as background behind the action. “I love the Coen brothers” said Burnett, “I love the story they’re telling. It’s this crucial American story about the thing I care most about in our culture… music.”
In these days of product placement, Inside Llewyn Davis was the theme of a must-see concert entitled, Another Day, Another Time performed at Town Hall (Showtime on Demand documentary) with the musicians from the film plus a whole host of others including Marcus Mumford, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, The Milk Carton Kids (a delightful surprise), The Avett Brothers, Rhiannon Giddons, and the Dave Rawlings Machine, among others. The concert, filmed live, was skillfully edited and directed with interviews and rehearsals by Joe Beshankovsky and Chris Wilcha, respectively.
And the icing on the cake for me was a Showtime documentary (available On Demand and through NetFlix) called, The Big Easy Express. The film is a condensed version of a whirlwind one and a half week tour by three international folk bands, Mumford and Sons from Britain, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros who hail from down under, and Nashville’s own Old Crow Medicine Show. The three bands, along with the support staff for both the concert tour and the film comprised a group of more than 160 people who all rode together on a dedicated vintage cross-country train from Oakland to New Orleans. It’s truly an adventure and we’re all along for the ride.
The train was so long it took 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The viewer gets a taste of this in the opening scene in which Jade Castrinos of the Zeros walks from one car to the next where each of the groups is playing. Over the course of the entire rail time adventure, in between concerts in six cities along the way, the musicians practiced and jammed and cavorted while the cameras picked up much of the unscripted action. As a result there is a freshness and energy to the film, not to mention several hours of terrific music.
At one point they stop in Austin for a show and pay a visit to the Austin High School Marching Band where they listen, perform and practice together in preparation for featuring the marching band as their backup for one number at the concert the following night.
Each band has a dynamic leader: Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Zeros, and Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show but the supporting cast is rich and talented. When the tour and the film end in Nashville I found myself wishing they’d added another dozen stops along the way, firmly convinced that folk music, albeit in a new form, is indeed alive and well.