Author: Varner, Marty

Contemporary film portrayal of folk music

The current stock of movies that are nominated for the Golden Globes currently and will soon be nominated for the Oscars is one that will be remembered for decades. What makes this year special as well is that two of the biggest movies of the year have “bluegrass-ish” songs throughout the movie. The obvious one is the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, which explores the life of struggling musician Llewyn Davis who is supposed to be based off of Dave Van Ronk. While the movie contains much more, most scenes have a folk song either in the forefront or in the background to create the feel of the scene. Just like for Oh Brother Where art thou? there was a live concert that Showtime presented where the artists from the sound track perform the songs live. To create the sound track the producer, T-Bone Burnett, enlisted the work of the most talented musicians out there. Some artists in the sound track are David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, The Milk Carton Kids, and the almighty Punch Brothers. Along with their role with music in the film, Chris Eldridge’s face is on the cover of Llewyn Davis and his dead singing partner’s record.

I believe the reason why folk music, and especially the singer song writer genre is so perfect for this movie is because one of the main themes is loneliness. Llewyn Davis is not a likeable person and because of that he is distant and cannot connect to anybody, so it would only make logical sense for this character to be a singer song writer who will refuse to have another partner even if it means he cannot have a career if he doesn’t. Folk also has a connotation of travel and a story like delivery that is perfect this Coen Brothers kinda-sorta road movie that almost flows like a story song about a sad and lonely man.

The biggest smash and probable best picture winner, 12 Years a Slave also contains music as a tool so that McQueen can properly portray this heavy novel written by the man who went through the whole ordeal. Music is involved in this gut wrenching film because the main character (Solomon Northup) is a professional fiddle player in Saratoga New York. In separate instances throughout the movie, he is given a fiddle as a present, breaks it in anger and is told to play it while a young woman slave is screaming in agony because she was hit in the face with a glass bottle. In many ways the fiddle is one of the largest symbols since it can symbolize so many things. It can symbolize his last cling to a society where these injustices are not done, but I think it just simply symbolizes his own society and heightened culture. Even in the North the life for men like Solomon was incredibly challenging. It was very difficult to be properly educated and therefore have enough money to live. While I am assuming most were suffering in Saratoga New York where Solomon lived, Solomon has a two story house a wife and two children. The reason why he has these things is because of his unique ability to play the fiddle. This signifies that Solomon was not only cultured and elevated compared to men of his own race, but he seemed like one of the most intelligent men in the city. This fact makes the later events even more horrendous since the audience knows that nobody, especially a man like of his intelligence should be degraded to such a low and torturous life. McQueen knew the heaviness of that detail and knew that the fiddle and Solomon’s love and talent for it would add another layer to an already impeccable movie.

A week from today I will be in Bakersfield California for the Great 48 Hour Jam. Along with picking till my fingers bleed, I will also be honored to be teaching a guitar workshop sometime that weekend. At this workshop I will be happy to show anybody anything they are interested in, whether it be chords, licks or anything else.
Posted:  1/4/2014

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