Art Wracked: A Look Back at the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Soundtrack

Alex Koenig: no relation to Ezra. A film soundtrack serves one simple but instrumental purpose: capture the mood of what’s on screen. A particularly scary scene in a film may need a foreboding bass...
By    November 1, 2013

o+brother+where+art+thou+obrotherwhereartthou_lg1Alex Koenig: no relation to Ezra.

A film soundtrack serves one simple but instrumental purpose: capture the mood of what’s on screen. A particularly scary scene in a film may need a foreboding bass line. A more poignant setting may bring the work of a brimming brass ensemble to the forefront. At its least effective, a soundtrack is merely tacky wallpaper for a vacuous plot; at its best, it weaves new threads into the story until it becomes more than a background theme—it becomes a moment.

Including momentous compositions within a film is crucial, especially in the classics. Take away “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate and suddenly the synopsis thins. The two-note ostinato of bass notes in the Jaws theme is so nerve-racking that it could make Aquaman leap to dry sand. Both of these compositions transcended the time in which they were released, and are permanently ingrained in pop culture, for better (SNL’s “Land Shark Skit”) and for worse (this unfathomably popular YouTube parody).

The centerpiece of the O Brother, Where Art Thou OST is “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song by the film’s fictional band, the Soggy Bottom Boys. Its legacy nearly equals that of the movie itself, as the origin of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is as a folk song from the Appalachian Mountains, first recorded in 1922, with no clear owner. The purported songwriter, Dick Burnett, admitted on his deathbed that he honestly didn’t remember who wrote the song. The track would have likely gusted away like tumbleweed had not a young vagabond named Bob Dylan plucked an acoustic guitar and recorded the then-definitive version of it in 1961.

One needs not to see O Brother… to understand the song’s cinematic value, as the Soggy Bottom Boys’ music video could double as a movie trailer: The smokestack of a briskly moving freight train cuts through arid skies as escaped inmates attempt to hop on board; three characters wear long, faux beards as they sing at a bar to a hostile audience. Later, a barn goes up in flames as the convicts flee the scene. It’s madness and mischief disguised in a cloak of innocent country twang.

The Coen brothers were behind the boards of this operation, but they weren’t without allies. They enlisted veteran Texas musician and producer T-Bone Burnett, who had helped put together the music for their last film, The Big Lebowski. Along with songstress Gillian Welch, Burnett mixed together a melting pot of old-time country, Americana, and bluegrass. “Down in the River to Pray” is a traditional Christian folk hymn dating back to the abolitionist era around 1867. “In The Jailhouse Now” is an American novelty blues standard originally found in vaudeville performances during the early 20th century. Each of these songs remains distinct in both theme and content, fresh to new ears even though they were resurrected from the dead.

Contrast between good/evil and happy/sad is paramount to the Cohen brothers’ pastoral journey written and directed for the silver screen, and the rest of the soundtrack puts a mirror to that dichotomy. Akin to “Man of Constant Sorrow,” much of the soundtrack is indebted to an Appalachian music influence, known for its soft, solemn dirges. The lonesome traveler blues of “O Death,” “Lonesome Valley,” “Angel Band,” and “I Am Weary” bring you so close to rock bottom that you can taste the soil. Cheerful songs like “Keep On the Sunnyside” and “In the Highways,” are sequenced right next to the grisly ones. Note the tunes’ similarity to the motion picture’s storyline: the hunger and strife of escaped criminals is offset by glorious freedom and redemption.

The Coen brothers’ films aren’t for everyone. Offhand characters, loose ends to the stories, and the brothers’ representation of source material (They based O Brother… on Homer’s The Odysssey, yet claimed to have never read the book.) have been received as charming and mysterious to some and inaccurate, unfulfilling blasphemy to others. Still, the duo proved to be oddly prophetic when in the film, a customer at a record store asked the clerk, “Do you have the Soggy Bottom Boys performing ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’?” The clerk replied, “No ma’am. We got a new shipment in yesterday. Sorry, but we just can’t keep ’em on our shelves.” The flick won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack in 2002, showing everyone that The Big Lebowski was just a wildcard– the brothers were always driven by lucidity and presence; motives to create moments.

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