Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (soundtrack)

Inside Llewyn Davis (soundtrack)

I’ve been looking forward to Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film ever since I heard the rumor that it would be based on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the posthumous memoir of my late friend Dave Van Ronk that was completed by Elijah Wald.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but from what I gather from several friends that have – including Elijah – the Llewyn Davis character is not so much Dave but a fictional folksinger partially inspired by him. Apparently it was the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene that Dave recalled so vividly in The Mayor of MacDougal Street that inspired the Coens, and some of the episodes in Llewyn Davis’ life are lifted from Dave’s story. Others, are not.

Although I arrived on the folk scene as a teenager about eight years after the time the film is set in, it’s a period I know more than a little something about through friends who were in the Village at the time like Dave, Tom Paxton (who was the obvious inspiration for the soldier-folksinger character in the film), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who apparently was the inspiration for the cowboy hat-wearing folksinger in the film) and the late Tex König, among others.

The soundtrack, most of which is new recordings featuring the folks in the film, came out in advance of the movie and it’s an enjoyable set of songs – most of which could or would have been heard back in the day.

Something I’ve always liked about albums like this that may be an introduction to folk music for many people is that they can point the way to deeper listening experiences. So, here’s a rundown of the songs along with my suggestions for alternative versions for most of them.

“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” is sung by Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Llewyn Davis and the arrangement is a direct lift from Dave’s version on his Folksinger LP from 1963 – an LP that was later reissued with Inside Dave Van Ronk as a single CD also called Inside Dave Van Ronk. The LP cover from Inside Dave Van Ronk was the inspiration for the Llewn Davis character’s LP in the film. Dave’s version from the Inside Dave Van Ronk CD is my best suggestion for another version.

Isaac performs two versions of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” a beautiful, lonesome song collected by folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink more than a century ago. The first is done in harmony with Marcus Mumford, the second is solo. They’re both nice but I prefer the solo version. This was a song that Dave recorded several times, including a version on Van Ronk Sings, his second Folkways album from 1961 that is included on the recently released 3-CD set, Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. I have dozens of other versions on my CD shelves but one I’ve been listening to a lot lately is by Anna McGarrigle, Chaim Tannenbaum, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright on Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle.

Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” is sung nicely by Stark Sands, the actor who plays the Paxton-inspired character in the film. Historically, it might be a little out of place in a film set in 1961 because I don’t think Tom had written it yet (he first recorded it in 1964). It’s probably the best known of Tom’s songs and he’s recorded it many times. Take your pick of his renditions, but one of my favorites of his version is on 1996 live album Live For the Record.

Hedy West’s “Five Hundred Miles” gets a nice folk trio treatment by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Sands that is an obvious nod to Peter, Paul and Mary’s version on their 1962 debut album. Peter, Paul and Mary’s is also a nice version but more recently Rosanne Cash did it beautifully on The List.

“Please Mr. Kennedy,” on which Timberlake, Isaac and Adam Driver sound like the New Christy Minstrels, is the only song I didn’t previously know. It’s a commercial-folk novelty-protest tune that was apparently adapted for the film from an all-but-forgotten song by a group I never heard of called the Goldcoast Singers. This is one song I have no suggestions of further listening for.

There are two versions of “Green, Green Rocky Road,” one of Dave’s signature songs, on the soundtrack. Isaac does his suitably Van Ronkian version – I presume a performance piece during the film – and then there is one of Dave’s many great versions that runs during the end credits. Like “The Last Thing On My Mind,” the song may be slightly out of time for the movie as I don’t think Dave was performing it as early as 1961. His first recording of it was on In the Tradition, released in 1964. I’m not sure which version is used here but my favorite lately has been the one on …and the tin pan bended, and the story ended, the live recording of Dave’s final concert. Another version I really like is by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Emmylou Harris and Loudon Wainwright III on The McGarrigle Hour – which I had a little something to do with. I was at home one night when Kate called me and said they were in the studio and wanted to record “Green, Green Rocky Road” but didn’t know the words. So I took out a Dave Van Ronk album, transcribed the lyrics and faxed them to Kate in the studio (that was before you could just Google such things).

Isaac does a passable version of the traditional ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane,” although it doesn’t really seem well suited to his range. Joan Baez did a good version on Joan Baez 5 released in 1964 but for a really fine recent version check out Scottish folksinger Karine Polwart’s recent version on Threshold.

There’s a fine old-time version of the traditional standard, “The Roving Gambler,” performed by John Cohen with the Down Hill Strugglers a New York-based string band formerly known as the Dust Busters. They previously recorded the song on their album Old Man Below that I reviewed last year. (The New Lost City Ramblers, John's group with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, were a prominent part of the 1961 Village folk scene.) There are lots and lots of versions of “The Roving Gambler,” but one that I’ve always been partial to was on a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott LP on Vanguard called Jack Elliott that’s been repackaged a couple of times with other material on CDs called The Essential Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Best of the Vanguard Years.

Isaac does a respectful, credible interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s fisherman’s ballad, “The Shoals of Herring.” There are a couple of good versions by the Clancy Brothers but the best version to seek out is by MacColl himself on Black and White: The Definitive Ewan MacColl Collection.

Speaking of the Clancy Brothers, they are the obvious models for the a cappella version of Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle,” a prison song that is sung by Timberlake, Mumford and members of the Punch Brothers. This version seems a little weak to me. My favorite version of the song was recorded by Ian & Sylvia under the title “Royal Canal” on their second LP, Four Strong Winds.

Nancy Blake does a solid version of the Carter Family song, “The Storms are on the Ocean.” Check out the Carter Family’s version on Anchored In Love: Their Complete Victor Recordings 1927-1928. And for a great modern version, find Ollabelle’s self-titled debut album from 2004.

Along with Dave’s version of “Green, Green Rocky Road” that plays at the end, there’s a previously unreleased version of Bob Dylan singing “Farewell,” a song he adapted from the traditional song, “The Leaving of Liverpool.” My favorite version of “Farewell” is by Judy Collins on Judy Collins #3.

All in all, these are credible versions of familiar period folk and folk-like songs. I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie. In the meantime, I’ve been dosing myself with lots of Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton recordings.

Finally, special thanks to Christine Lavin, another great friend of Dave Van Ronk's, who thought I should listen to this soundtrack album before seeing the movie.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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