O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
Musical Background by Robert K. Oermann
Commercial country music and the blues industry both began in the mid-1920s. By late in the decade both styles, as well as Southern gospel idioms, were being recorded prolifically by America’s labels. Country’s styles fully flowered, however, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is this era that is celebrated on the Mercury Records soundtrack to the period comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In those days, country, gospel and blues musicians were rustic professionals who plied their trade a few rungs down the ladder from the dance bands, Broadway belters and movie crooners who dominated the musical mainstream. Instead of vaudeville theaters and cinema palaces, country acts were more likely to play at small-town schoolhouses or on makeshift stages at rural fairs. A typical pattern was to get on local radio, advertise shows and perform throughout the listening area until you’d “played out” the region and moved on to another radio station in another town.
Particularly in the early days, musical distinctions were somewhat blurry. A white blues act, for instance, might be marketed in the “race” section of a record company’s catalog. A black string band might appear in the “hillbilly” listings. Interracial bands were not uncommon. Sacred and secular selections coexisted side by side. Southern styles mingled freely, as they do on this soundtrack.
The earliest musical style illustrated on this album is the “field holler,” in this case the chain-gang chant of black prisoners, “Po Lazarus.” Rhythmic work songs such as this originated in slavery times. The dominant instrument in old-time music was the fiddle, not the guitar. It was far more portable and probably made the voyage across the Atlantic with our Colonial forefathers. John Hartford’s fiddling of “Indian War Whoop” is derived from the playing of the 1920s string band Ming’s Pep Steppers.
“Haywire Mac” was the colorful nickname of Harry “Mac” McClintock, a real-life hobo who wrote and popularized the songs of his subculture, including 1928’s “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” heard in its original version here. The Southern gospel industry has its roots in the 1920s, too. Companies such as Tennessee’s James D. Vaughan Publishing and Texas’ Stamps-Baxter Music created and popularized a mountain of religious material, which they spread via songbooks and touring quartets. This inspired country performers to record and preserve such classic lyrics as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Down to the River to Pray” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” as well as newer material like “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” Performers such as Alison Krauss, The Cox Family, Dan Tyminski and Gillian Welch give this material new voices; and the soundtrack also includes The Stanley Brothers’ 1955 recording of the standard “Angel Band.”
The discoveries of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927 gave the infant country music industry its first truly national stars. The repertoires of both of these acts have influenced generations of musicians. Rodgers is represented by “In the Jailhouse Now,” sung by Tim Blake Nelson and yodeled by Pat Enright. Grand Ole Opry stars The Whites perform the Carters’ theme song “Keep On the Sunny Side” here. In later years, member Maybelle Carter blossomed as a country-gospel tunesmith. Her “In the Highways” is performed by the charming juvenile trio The Peasall Sisters.
The blues grew right alongside country music. The Mississippi Delta produced a plethora of seminal stylists, not the least of whom was the highly individualistic Skip James. His ethereal, high-pitched singing and unorthodox guitar stylings have fascinated listeners ever since his discovery in 1931. Modern New Orleans bluesman Chris Thomas King evokes Skip’s memory with “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of the black gospel quartet pioneers was Nashville’s The Fairfield Four, founded in 1925 and still an institution today. Like many religious tunes, the group’s “Lonesome Valley” is shared by both black and white traditions. “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” sung here as a trio by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, is an African-American lullabye from the folk tradition.
Jimmie Davis recorded “You Are My Sunshine” in 1940. It became one of the biggest country hits of all time. It sang him into the governorship of Louisiana in 1944 and is now so pervasive in our culture that it is a universal campfire song. This classic gets an update on the soundtrack album by the peerless old-time revivalist Norman Blake. Much of the musical texture of the film is provided by members of the award-winning bluegrass groups Union Station and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, notable here as “The Soggy Bottom Boys” on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and “In the Jailhouse Now.” Classic bluegrass instrumentation and playing styles were formalized in the mid-1940s, but this style’s roots are planted firmly in the ‘30s. The funereal “O Death” is even older. This mournful lament is as aged as Appalachia itself, and the craggy mountain voice of bluegrass master Ralph Stanley gives the ancient melody its perfect expression on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The 1930s was a period when Southern vernacular styles became established as a permanent part of our cultural heritage. Today we think of this as our “folk” music. What these performances show, however, is that these traditions are alive and well in the hands, throats and hearts of contemporary performers. Mercury Records’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a celebration of the enduring vitality of roots music and a captivating listening experience on every level.
Mercury Nashville to release soundtrack for Coen brothers’ new film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”