Inside Llewyn Davis: The Music Behind New Coen Bros Film

I delve into the music central to cult filmmakers the Coen Brothers' journey through Sixties New York's East Village...
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I delve into the music central to cult filmmakers the Coen Brothers' journey through Sixties New York's East Village...

Fargo meets A Mighty Wind?

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‘You ever play drums?’ the handsome young guy standing before me enquires.

I hesitate before I answer the question. The man asking it is Oscar Isaac, the star of the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, which centres on the music scene in Greenwich Village in ’61, just before the earthquake known as Bob Dylan struck. Isaac plays the titular folk singer and I have just asked him about his character’s distinctive style of guitar playing. The film opens with a close-up of Davis/Isaac performing (live) the song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” which is allowed to run uninterrupted, to the point where you feel you are watching a concert film rather than a drama. It is a compelling performance, complete with mesmerizing guitar picking.

‘You must have played drums, right?’ he repeats. For a delicious second I think he might be going to ask me to join his band – having detected a hitherto undiscovered seam of rhythm running through my body - but no, he is just making a point. Yes, I have tried to play drums, I said, and like everyone else who has ever thought “Keith Moon thrashing. How hard can that be?” I came away with fresh respect for tub-thumpers.

‘Well, this guitar style is like that, where you have to learn to move everything – both hands plus the thumb and fingers on the right hand - completely independently. Then,’ he adds with a winning smile, ‘It’s just a matter of hundreds of hours of practice.’

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Earlier, at a Q&A after a screening of the movie, its music supervisor, the tall and prodigiously talented southern gentleman T-Bone Burnett (producer for Costello, Plant & Krauss, Orbison, and the movies Walk the Line, Cold Mountain, O Brother Where Art Thou etc. etc.) had explained to the audience how he had first heard of this daunting technique. Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk (1936- 2002), aka “The Mayor of MacDougall St”  - the epicentre of the early sixties Greenwich folk explosion - who was a hugely influential player on the scene. Many feel he never got the recognition he deserved, although if his character is even remotely like Llewyn’s, that’s understandable. But the man could certainly pick a guitar.

‘It’s called Travis picking,’ Burnett explained to the audience. ‘But Dave Van Ronk didn’t originate it, nor did Merle Travis, the man it’s named after. One of the prime exponents was Ike Everly, Don and Phil’s dad. Everyone here knows that the Everly Brothers’ dad was a great guitarist, yes?’

Well, no. The Everly Brothers are having a moment right now, what with acclaimed duo albums by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy and Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong, but I never appreciated that theirs was a  musical dynasty. Later, I asked T-Bone Burnett about Everly Sr. ‘Their father was a barber, but he was also a fine player. He had The Everly Family Show on the radio with his wife Margaret in the 40s and 50s, which was popular right across the south. But Travis picking goes back even before him.’ Burnett then rattles off the names of historically significant pickers faster than I can keep up.

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I subsequently track down a recording of The Everly Brothers playing with their father at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969. Not only is dad in fine finger-picking form for a man of any age (he is 61 at that point and effortlessly outplays his sons) he talks about learning the basis of his style  - and Van Ronk’s - from his neighbour Mose Rager (‘Mose was a barber too, but he’d rather play you a song than cut your hair’) and Merle Travis, a co-worker in the coalmines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

But, as his wife Margaret mentions on the record, the timeline leads back to Arnold Schulz, a black man who gave bluegrass legend Bill Monroe one of his first gigs and began the process of pass-the-picking-parcel that ended with Van Ronk in NYC. Schulz is something of a Robert Johnson figure in Americana - when he died aged 45 in 1931, a legend sprung up that a white musician, jealous of his skill on guitar and fiddle, had poisoned him. Margaret Everly can be heard to comment on the irony that this whitest of American music traditions – the bluegrass/folk of the Appalachians – has a black man at the heart of its creation myth.

It makes you want to zip straight back to Greenwich in its pomp and walk down Jones St towards 4th St just as Bob Dylan and his girlfriend are doing on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

So how did Oscar Isaac master this ancient technique, which Don and Phil can be heard admitting on stage they never learned to play like their dad?  ‘I had some luck,’ he says. ‘I was up for one of the Bourne movies and I was told it was in the bag then I get this phone call saying it’s not going to happen for me. So I took this really small little movie that was filming in New York and the call for Inside Llewyn Davis came in while I was on that. We were doing a scene at the bar and there was this extra who kept picking up a guitar that was just laying around the set and he was an incredible player. I mean, I already played guitar but this guy was something else. So I got talking and told him I was going to audition for the movie. It's kind of based on Dave Van Ronk, I said, and he said: "Yeah, I played with Dave." I was like - really? “Yup. You want guitar lessons?” And I said damn right I do, where do you live? “On McDougal Street. Right above the old Gaslight." [The Gaslight, now closed, is the folk club featured in the movie]. And I was like, whoa. His name's Erik Franzen. He's been there for forty years or more and he had some recordings with him and Dave Van Ronk playing together. So we'd play and he’d teach me this crazy syncopated style and then we started playing in the Village. I opened for him a couple times at open mic nights.’

The power of the film is such that it makes you want to zip straight back to Greenwich in its pomp and walk down Jones St towards 4th St, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, just as Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, are doing on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that snowy shot is a touchstone for many of the exterior scenes in the movie). So if Isaac and Franzen gigged around it, how much of the old Village scene is left? ‘Not that much,’ admits Isaac, ‘But there’s pockets here and there if you go looking. You can find good music if you want it.’

The Gaslight, the Kettle of Fish and other early sixties institutions are long gone, but landmarks such as Cafe Wha?, the Minetta Tavern and Caffe Reggio on MacDougal and the Bitter End on Bleecker still exist, as do the Village Vanguard, 55 Club and Blue Note for jazzers, plus there’s a raft of more recent music venues like the quirky Le Poisson Rouge, the Fat Cat and, in the East Village, Joe’s Pub to hang out at. There is life in the Village still, it’s just not the same life as that documented in Inside Llewyn Davis (which to be fair, shows that MacDougall St also gave us the anodyne Peter, Paul & Mary and far too many singers in fishermen’s sweaters).

Still, we probably shouldn’t expect the ’61 edition of Greenwich Village to have survived intact. As Dylan said in his memoir, Chronicles: “Everything was always new, always changing, never the same crowd on the street.” But the Coen Brothers have captured a perfect snapshot of one moment in the ever-evolving life of the Village, just on the cusp of another sea change, when one winter a whiny-voiced kid from Minnesota blew into town.

* Inside Llewyn Davis opens in the UK on January 24th.

Robert Ryan's novel 'The Dead Can Wait.' Is available for pre-order now.