Wandering Home:
Folk, Americana, and Inside Llewyn Davis

By Eric Lenier Ives

Credit: Brendan Gordon
Cred­it: Bren­dan Gordon

The Coen Broth­ers have made it their mis­sion to tell us an Amer­i­can sto­ry. Not the Amer­i­can sto­ry but rather a sin­gu­lar and some­times beau­ti­ful story.
In Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Broth­ers orches­trate a spec­tac­u­lar sound­track to accom­pa­ny and to dri­ve the nar­ra­tive of the film.
Yet one almost hes­i­tates to cast the music of this film in a sup­port­ing role for the sound­track enjoys its own arc—its own story—that stands dis­tinct from the film it was pro­duced for and com­ple­ments so well.

Amer­i­can folk music is a somber genre full of pin­ing for a lost home as well as a genre cel­e­brat­ing the endurance and resilience required to make a new one. The Inside Llewyn Davis sound­track is no excep­tion as the album floats from melan­choly tracks at its out­set such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” “The Last Thing on My Mind,” and “Five Hun­dred Miles” into the com­e­dy of “Please Mr. Kennedy”—a poke at the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of folk music in the lat­ter half of the 20th century—and mov­ing final­ly into more tra­di­tion­al immi­grant and blue-col­lar songs such as “The Rov­ing Gam­bler,” “The Shoals of Her­ring,” and “The Auld Triangle.”

Yet in the move­ment of the album, though it may momen­tar­i­ly linger on cap­i­tal­ist cyn­i­cism or Appalachi­an blue­grass, actor and singer Oscar Isaac returns pow­er­ful­ly to the heart of the music and per­haps the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter itself. In “Green, Green Rocky Road” and “Fare Thee Well,” the hope of folk aspi­ra­tions and the often soli­tary sto­ry of wan­der­ing unite and endure togeth­er. Even in the title of “Green, Green Rocky Road,” the road is both lush and ardu­ous, both beau­ti­ful and dif­fi­cult. Inside Llewyn Davis cel­e­brates the uncer­tain­ty and move­ment of folk life with an image of a crow per­sist­ing as it “keep[s] on flap­ping / to the Sun.”

How­ev­er, tracks such as “The Rov­ing Gam­bler” and “The Auld Tri­an­gle” harken back to Depres­sion-era, Dust­bowl mood of folk music, where song and lyric live as a cathar­sis for the rough roads and seem­ing­ly ran­dom amblings of blue-col­lar and immi­grant life in Amer­i­ca. In “The Rov­ing Gam­bler,” a soli­tary pok­er play­er wins the love of young girl who vows to fol­low the “gam­bling man” wher­ev­er he goes, leav­ing her “dear old Mama.” The film, how­ev­er, abridges the sto­ry of the song where, in the final four vers­es, the gam­bling man “[leaves] her in El Paso,” “[winds] up in Maine,” and kills anoth­er gam­bling man for cheat­ing. Love, it would seem, is not enough to tem­per the heart of the gam­bling man as the rov­ing gam­bler can­not reli­ably swear alle­giance to any­thing besides “lay­ing [his] mon­ey down” and being what he always has been. The upbeat melody—and indeed the film’s own omission—mask the truth of the song and the sto­ry that a close lis­ten­ing to the lyrics reveals.

“The Auld Tri­an­gle,” how­ev­er, diverges slight­ly from the idea of a lone­ly wan­der­er to a four-man a cap­pel­la ren­di­tion of the song (pur­port­ed­ly) orig­i­nal­ly com­posed by Dominic Behan in 1954. The Auld Tri­an­gle refers to the loud “jin­gle jan­gle” of the instru­ment used to wake inmates of Moun­tjoy Prison in Ire­land. In the film, the Punch Broth­ers, Mar­cus Mum­ford, and Justin Tim­ber­lake come togeth­er to sing of the plight of a prison inmate ris­ing in the morn­ing only to face the hope­less­ness of prison life and “hun­gry feel­ing” that the morn­ing once again brings. One might think that the Auld Tri­an­gle is mere­ly a device that inter­rupts dreams, that pulls the pris­on­er from his fan­tasies of “[his] girl Sal,” which in fact exist, per­haps with­in those dreams.

Per­haps, awak­en­ing in a prison is, the per­fect set­ting for a folk song. Folk music is pre­cise­ly a sto­ry of liv­ing in the after­math, liv­ing after the gambler’s cards have been dealt or the prison sen­tence has been issued; folk is liv­ing the con­se­quences. This is the sto­ry of mov­ing on, of wan­der­ing, but it is yet unclear of where to go or where one can go. It is as if the Tro­jan War had already end­ed and folk music is Odysseus’ trav­els home. The Home­r­ic sim­i­le is quite inten­tion­al as in 2000 with the release of Oh Broth­er, Where Art Thou? and the album of the same name in which the Coen Broth­ers loose­ly fuse the Great Depres­sion-Appalachi­an aes­thet­ic with Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. And, indeed, the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis hap­pens to be named Ulysses. The ref­er­ence is inescapable and clear­ly still holds weight in Amer­i­can cul­ture and even beyond. We feel our­selves to be on a jour­ney with a clear goal but no end in sight; we can imag­ine an end to the jour­ney, but we find our­selves still wan­der­ing for one rea­son or another.

Folk music might very well be, wan­der­ing for­ward while reflect­ing on a past that you can­not change. Loss and the inabil­i­ty to change that loss is the back­ground of each song; yet in this album there is no uni­fied sor­row for that loss. The Inside Llewyn Davis sound­track out­lines the diver­si­ty of emo­tion and pos­si­bil­i­ty even with­in a seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble circumstance—the past is unchange­able, yet how we use the past to form our own iden­ti­ty is progress. It is no coin­ci­dence that the album ends not on a somber note, but instead on a reprisal of “Green, Green Rocky Road” sung not by Oscar Isaac but by Dave Van Ronk, a pre-Bob Dylan folk singer whose life serves as a mod­el and inspi­ra­tion for the film itself. Where Inside Llewyn Davis begins with the lamen­ta­tions of a wan­der­ing life in “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it ends with hope and the accep­tance of loss and tran­sience as a part of the beau­ti­ful, rocky road.

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Eric Lenier Ives is a recent grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty where his stud­ies focused on inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. In the com­ing year, he will return to Ger­many as a Ful­bright Scholar.