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Holiday Sneaks

Sounds of a Lost America

For 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?,' the Coens and T Bone Burnett teamed up to find 1930s music--or create it.

November 12, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin is a Times staff writer

Every Ulysses needs a little traveling music, and in the case of George Clooney's Everett Ulysses McGill, the 1930s incarnation of Western civilization's archetypal wanderer, it's the old folk lament "Man of Constant Sorrow."

That tune is the recurring centerpiece in a feast of traditional music that enriches "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Joel and Ethan Coen's loose, comedic adaptation of "The Odyssey" set in Depression-era Mississippi. The movie opens Dec. 22, and Mercury Nashville Records will release the soundtrack album on Dec. 5.

The black gospel, blues and work songs, the white spirituals and Carter Family classics, the hill tunes and string-band dance music that form the film's score not only define the story's time and place, but also reinforce themes shared by Homer's hero and Americans uprooted by the Depression--exile and haven, the dream of a better place ahead.

Even if the Coen Brothers, post-"Fargo," aren't a box-office given, this might amount to the most significant airing of core American folk music in a popular film since "Deliverance" inspired an epidemic of dueling banjos in the early '70s.

In "O Brother," though, the music isn't isolated to one scene or relegated to background flavoring--it's so integral to the film that it seems to become a character, a Greek chorus with a twang propelling the picaresque plot.

"As we developed the story more, the music became an increasingly important element in it and really began to sort of inform the story itself," says Joel Coen, who directed the movie and co-wrote it with his brother, Ethan. "It also started to inform the tone and the feeling of the whole thing."

True to the Coen Brothers' fondness for counterpoint, the music's earthiness and directness often play against the film's exaggerated, almost cartoon-like visual and acting style.

That--and the brothers' track record of irreverence--might have given pause to some musical traditionalists, but the end product has the endorsement of one fierce guardian of the music's integrity.

"I have to give huge credit to the Coens, because across the board they did it right," says singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, who served as the project's associate music producer.

"It would have been a big drag to marshal this kind of musical cast and to have [the movie] be lame," she adds. "In the past, a lot of people haven't done it right, it's been the coarsest of stereotypes. And this one kind of hit the nail on the head. Death and slapstick really abut each other in mountain music. This balance is necessary, I think. . . . You find yourself tending to alleviate the darkness with some jokes."

This treasure trove of Southern culture is the brainchild of two New York-based Minneapolis natives (the Coens), an Angeleno who now lives in Nashville (Welch) and the Texas-to-L.A. transplant who served as the music producer for both the film and the soundtrack album--T Bone Burnett.

Actually, Burnett's reemergence is one of the notable byproducts of the "O Brother" saga.

The St. Louis-born, Fort Worth-raised musician left the game at a time when he was one of rock's most in-demand record producers, and a singer and songwriter whose four albums gave him a strong critical reputation and a loyal following.

"I sort of dropped out several years ago and started studying with the notion of getting good," says Burnett, who played guitar in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-'70s and whose album productions include Los Lobos' "How Will the Wolf Survive?," Elvis Costello's "King of America" and "Spike," and Welch's two albums.

"He has an uncanny ability to judge a performance," Welch says of her mentor. "It's not the easy thing. It's not, 'Are you in tune, did you play the notes right?' It's nothing that coarse. It's, 'Did you tell the story, were you believable?' "

Burnett befriended the Coens by calling them to say how much he liked their 1987 comedy "Raising Arizona." They hired him on as "music archivist" on "The Big Lebowski," their 1998 "Fargo" follow-up, but that was hardly preparation for the consuming work that "O Brother" would require.

"The goal from the beginning was to find these stories and find themes for the different characters," says Burnett, 52. "Then the challenge was to find where they fit and who should do them and what the tone of them was and how they fit the scene."

When the Coens finished their script, they sent Burnett a CD with 20 to 30 songs for consideration, including Harry McClintock's 1928 hobo's fantasy, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," and "You Are My Sunshine."

Burnett scoured his archives-- and bought about 1,000 more albums--to come up with some additional songs. Among them was "Oh Death," which would be sung for the film in a chilling, a cappella version by bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Burnett and Welch also wrote "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby," an adaptation of a black lullaby, as the "beguiling and frightening" song of the sirens.

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