"O Brother": Creative Uses of Film in Teaching Oral Traditions

October 31, 2003

Ever since the film Amadeus created an unprecedented interest among college students in the music of Mozart, music teachers have been aware that popular films can entice university students into learning about new topics. I myself was part of that Mozart boom. After seeing the play Amadeus and then witnessing the popularity of the film, I offered a course entitled Amadeus, Mozart and Myth for the general population of students at Boston College (where I was then teaching). That experience provided some of the most intense involvement with musical detail connected with larger issues that I have ever experienced in a course for non-majors.

The opportunity for such a connection with music presents itself once again with the Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou, an unexpected hit that is still being shown and is doing a brisk business on the video, DVD, and music album markets. It seems to be one of those rare films that deserve repeated viewings, and most of the reason for this is its music. In O Brother, the music is American folk song or, as this generation seems to want to call it, Roots Music. Like the music of Amadeus, many students have discovered this music only because of the film.

For those teachers who havent delved much into folk music (possibly born too late for the last big revival), it is important to remember that O Brotherjust as with Amadeussimultaneously elevates and distorts its topic. This makes it an ideal teaching tool, since one can teach on several levels at once: by looking at the film for its music and context, looking at its actual sources, and critiquing how that is done; and also by considering what music does to us when combined with visual images. Perhaps surprisingly, there is also a third levelwhich was also present in Amadeusand that is considering the original versions of the story line. For Amadeus it was the play itself (and behind that, the Pushkin opera and the original poisoning myth). For O Brother, it is Homers Odyssey, a rather grand and perhaps more distant topic, but absolutely worth taking a look at.

I argue for at least considering this level of teaching. One reason is that students in this day and age need stretching; they need to have their curiosity stimulated by seeing how amazing the connections can be in the realm of the intellect. Imagine having the brilliance to discover a twentieth-century laboratory of epic-writing that would help explain how the Homeric epics were composed almost 3000 years ago! A second reason is that folk-music itself, ever since the 1960s, has been trivialized and made to seem inconsequential by our treatment of it. The latest example of this is the parody film by Christopher Guest, A Mighty Wind. To parody the folk revival is not difficult some pretty silly things went on, but it might be confused with the real music of the American oral tradition.

O Brother presents some of those serious contexts, albeit usually with a tongue in cheek or with a flippant side to it. For example, the musically moving scene of a baptism in the river: our friends have just fled their chain-gang and have ended up in the woods; a heavenly-sounding choir moves past them; in a trance-like procession, the singers proceed toward the river; and the vieweras well as the protagonistsis drawn by the music to follow. A baptism by immersion in the fashion of the Holiness Baptist Churches is taking place, and one of the three fugitives jumps into the river to become baptized himselfwith all the comic touches conceivable. Yet the music persists, and it is the spiritual mood that prevails despite the comic overlay.

And now we are ready for the more detailed analysis that can really make the students think. This is not the actual sort of music that would accompany such a river baptism. In fact, it is a hymn that, while certainly traditional, is here performed by singer Alison Krauss backed by a choir from the First Baptist Church of White House, Tennessee. Perhaps this is a good job of manipulation on us, the viewer, and on the hapless comic actor. It is possible to see footage of actual river baptismsas well as to hear other amazing religious musicin the film Two Black Churches by William Ferris. The music of this scene from the Ferris film, though not as polished as the music of Krauss, displays raw power. To contrast these two films may provoke a good discussion about what happens to music of this sort when it is arrangedeven tastefully. This is not the place to be judgmental, I would suggest, but a time to let the students express their no doubt differing opinions.

One could find many more examples, but the point of the film O Brother gives us a contemporary window on a vast body of song, music, and culture in the era just before it became commercial. In fact, the scene in which the justassembled Foggy Bottom Boys (our fugitives plus their black blues-singing friend) are being broadcast live on the radio represents that moment in time. Student projects emanating from this scene or any of a dozen otherseach representing and sometimes misrepresenting a genre of folk musiccan be quite rewarding as the students find out for themselves what lies behind the beautifully chosen music of O Brother.



Homer, Odysseus

Lord, Albert. A Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960; 2nd edition with CD-Rom, 2000)

Scarborough, Dorothy, A song catcher in southern mountains; American folk songs of British ancestry (New York, AMS Press, Inc., 1966; reprint of the 1937 edition)

Films and Videos:

Joel and Ethan Coen, dirs. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001)

John Cohen, dir. That high lonesome sound (1966)

William Ferris, dir. Two Black Churches (1975)

Christopher Guest, dir, A Mighty Wind (2003)

Maggie Greenwald, dir, Songcatcher (2000)

Jeremy Marre, dir. Chase the devil: religious music of the Appalachian Mountains

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