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Published:December 13th, 2013 08:36 EST
Good to Compare 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack to Dave Van Ronk`s 'Down In Washington Square!'

Good to Compare 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack to Dave Van Ronk`s 'Down In Washington Square!'

By John G. Kays

While Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful soundtrack, it`s maybe not as iconic as O Brother, Where Art Though? I haven`t seen the movie quite yet (it comes to Austin Dec 20th), but this may be a blessing in disguise, since I can judge it on its own merits. I`m a big fan of T-Bone Burnett and a highest order groupie of anything Coen Brothers, so I`m naturally prejudicial, I want to dig it no matter what, and I do! It`s a damn good listen, and knowing it`s live performances, tends to ratchet up the adulation a hundred fold (it doesn`t merely tend to, it actually achieves this end)! But is this genuine folk music?

There you go getting intellectual or philosophical (perhaps musicological) on me; that aint folk. Well, in the sense that this soundtrack is so clean and musically cogent, maybe not, if you were to compare it to the real Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk, who`s a bit rougher and gruffer, possibly a sea-faring man, although the Coens have some sea shanties here, with The Shoals of Herring. But folk has a softer side; the most accessible track (and my favorite here) is Five Hundred Miles. Your best references are Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Kingston Trio`s versions from the early 1960s.

I like the idea, though, that the Coen`s are asking us to explore the history of early American folk music, before Bobby Zimmerman took over things. This is a task I can sink my teeth into; what were the social forces behind this spontaneous movement, that sprung up in Greenwich Village? A hope for commercial success was next to nil - something else was at play here. Was it a genuine longing for artistic integrity? Was it a defiance of 1950s repression of expressiveness? Was there some thawing of Cold War oppressiveness at play here? Did John Kennedy have something to do with it?

We definitely know that Dave Van Ronk has something to do with it. A need to revive the nearly forgotten folk singer is a admirable motive for the influential Cohen Brothers and I`ll pipe in, they`ve achieved this end miraculously; Dave Van Ronk deserves his place in the mostly misunderstood History of American Folk Music. I just picked up that newly issued Smithsonian Folkways Collection (timely, in cahoots with the movie), Down In Washington Square and am riveted! I heard mention of Dave in No Direction Home, but that`s it. I just discovered a fun game, you may wish to join in.

This is it, a Coen Brothers` conspiracy, you play the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack once or twice on your CD boombox (stop listening to music on your computers, people!), then you pop in one of the three CDs from Down In Washington Square. I tried Disc 2 this morning, which has the original version of House of the Rising Sun and Dave`s rendition of the Dink`s Song, also called Fare Thee Well. And Dylan has his own version of the song (Farewell, 1964), originally collected by John Lomax, so you can play this interesting game, comparing all these different editions and mutations. Okay, so now were winning, now we`re beginning to understand the spontaneity of Greenwich Village, springing forth ala 1961!

This soundtrack asks us to find out where some of these songs came from; The Roving Gambler was covered by Bob Dylan, but seems to have roots that reach way back much further, in this case the euphemism traditional gets used, as usual. Furthermore, it`s been covered by the Stanley Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers and here, The Downhill Strugglers give it a nice touch. My take on folk music, is you take something traditional and add a little of yourself to it, making it contemporary to the times you`re working in. The message here, if we`re to believe this entire ball of wax, is that MEDIOCRITY IS COOL! Can`t wait to see the new Coen Brothers` flick! Yourself?