The O Brother... Phenomenon

by Susan Frank

From The Folknik Jan/Feb 2002

A few weeks after I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou I began to notice a phenomenon.

O Brother was brought to you by directors, Ethan and Joel Cohen, who also begat Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Liebowski, to name a few. ItÕs a retelling of the Odyssey-more in spirit that specifics-set during the Depression, in the deep south.

The camera follows three escaped convict buddies as they make their desperate flight toward food, the right pomade and a milion dollar stash. On their way they meet-among others-Blind Teiresias, the Sirens, the Cyclops and Robert Johnson, all made human yet still breathing the air of the supernatural and the dust of the Great Depression.

I went to see O Brother simply as a Coen brothers fan. I hadnÕt heard any hype about its music. But the music was as physically important as a character in the story, and became voice and vehicle of the characters, and all as unself-consciously as a musical isnÕt. The CoenÕs said they were "harking back to a time when music was a part of everyday life and not something performed by celebrities. That folk aspect of the music both accounts for its vitality and makes it fold naturally into our story without feeling staged or theatrical."

They and T Bone Burnett-the soundtrackÕs producer- put together a gemlike collection of period recordings and new renditions of traditonal music, all with traditional musicians-no Hollywoodizing. But they convinced Hollywood and everybody else too.

The O Brother soundtrack flew up the Country charts, going triple platinum. The album was awarded Album of the Year and Single of the Year by the County Music Awards and Album of the Year by the IBMA. The IBMA also awarded Song of the Year to ŌMan of Constant SorrowĶ (the movieÕs touchstone) sung by Dan Tyminski, who also won Male Vocalist of the Year. Moreover, Gospel Recorded Performance of the year went to Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, for a song from the movie. To top it off, the Coens and Burnett were were honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award for the whole project.

The statistics say phenomenon loud and clear-how often does an album of traditional music go triple platinum? But the true phenomenon I noticed is my urban, broadband peers trading bluegrass mp3s.

IÕve heard a coworker, a mid-twenties techno, hip-hop coolster-who did NOT grow up on Doc Watson and Folk Legacy records-dropping the name Ralph Stanley and telling everyone about the O Brother benefit concert he went to! Another coworker -an eyebrow-pierced, scooter-riding, messenger-bag-bearing, web designer-downloaded the soundtrack to the companyÕs mp3 server. I even hear the strains of Alison Krauss floating out of hip cafes.

I am usually labled by my peers as an anachronistic phenomenon myself: listening to all that "old, folk music, hillbilly music, banjo twang music.Ķ Mostly they never refer to it, choosing to overlook the slight irregularity out of kindness. So when I suddenly become cool, I knew a phenonemon was afoot. When the Muzak versions come out, I will know we have truly arrived.

O Brother came out on video last June and is also out on DVD. Obviously, I highly recommend it.

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