“Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well, that long black train, got my baby and gone”
“Mystery Train.” Herman “Junior” Parker (1953), Elvis Presley (1955)
Sources, heritage and progress
The Mississippi river marks the western boundary of the state of Mississippi. In O Brother, America’s great river road is only suggested by the result of works to tame its catchment basin. Joel and Ethan Coen use the motif of progress to treat the theme of nostalgia—for the South and also the golden age of Hollywood—in a comedy with music, but also irony and a mock-epic tone to it. They shot their film on location; because the green of the countryside was too aggressive, they decided to process the whole negative digitally to give the picture a warm sepia tone reminiscent of newsreels of old.
See “Digital Intermediates: The Future is Now (Well,...
The Coens often decrease the saturation of colors as in the long dissolve showing the three convicts’ breakout at the beginning of the movie.
This is somewhat surprising for film-makers used to...
For Mystery Train, Jarmusch found his main shooting locations at the intersection of East Calhoun Avenue and South Main Street where the Union train station, the Arcade Luncheonette and the shuttered Arcade Hotel stand (Rae). Cold saturated greens, reds and blues—Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ suit, the lipstick smeared on the Japanese tourists’ faces and the Memphis sky—contrast with the gray, bleak streets of Memphis where Jarmusch follows his foreign characters over long, contemplative lateral dolly shots before letting them leave the frame.
In these two motion pictures, the South is represented as a crossroads. Jarmusch respects the unities of time, place and action for the three episodes—“Far from Yokohama,” “A Ghost” and “Lost in Space”—which occur simultaneously at a major geographic and cultural nodal point by the Mississippi river. The characters in transit all stay at the Arcade Hotel. In the first two episodes, Jun, Mitzuko and Luisa are pilgrims illustrating the different meanings, both sacred and secular, of that noun, which comes from the Latin adjective peregrinus, meaning foreign. The first two come to Memphis to pay homage to Elvis Presley. They visit Graceland and the Sun recording studio which they regard as holy places. Luisa in the second episode is an Italian widow who has to spend the night in Memphis before shipping her husband’s body home to Rome. In a diner à la Edward Hopper, she meets a con-artist who claims he is a messenger acting on behalf of Elvis Presley and offers her a relic—Elvis’ comb—for twenty dollars. In the third segment, three Memphis residents (an African-American and two Whites, one of whom is an Englishman nicknamed Elvis because of his fifties look) become fugitives after shooting a liquor-store clerk.
In O Brother Joel and Ethan Coen stage three outlaws running away from the authorities, whose quest for fortune in Mississippi brings them face to face both with corrupt politicians and with deceptive sirens, who turn one of them in to the police for the bounty. Their musical talents earn them their pardon and redemption at the end of their progress. In a beautiful shot the three outlaws meet Tommy Johnson, a bluesman standing at a crossroads trying to flag a ride to Tishomingo. He claims he has sold his soul to the devil who, in return, has “taught [him] to play this here guitar real good.” In this scene, the Coen brothers combine two well-known myths. One is African-American, used by bluesmen such as Peetie Wheatstraw, Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson
The two were not related.
to build their artistic personae. Tommy Johnson’s encounter with the Devil as told by his brother Ledell is a good illustration of these encounters which have long captured the popular imagination:
“If you want to learn to play anything you want to play and learn to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there a little ‘fore 12:00 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself […] a big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you.”
The “big black man” is evidently Trickster, embodied by Esu in the African myth system (Floyd 24) and who survived the Middle Passage to North America “in a form that contained [his] more malevolent traits—that is as Legba, the Devil” (Floyd 73). Interestingly enough, Joel and Ethan Coen combine this piece of African-American lore with its Faustian western equivalent, a popular myth in more ways than one since the sixteenth century, when the Volksbuch (“folk book”) was published in Germany. Indeed, the Devil Tommy meets is white, “as white as you folks. With empty eyes and a big, hollow voice [traveling] around with a mean old hound.” He is personified by a Sheriff who never takes off his sunglasses and trails the four main characters with his bloodhound during the whole film.
As Houston A. Baker, Jr. remarked: “The crossing sign is the antithesis of a place marker. It signifies, always, change, motion, transience, process.” (202) If one charts the geographic axes along which American musics have developed, one can distinguish two parallel westbound transatlantic routes and within the United States a northbound one, up the Mississippi, which intersect in the blues and country music. The first transatlantic axis merges with the Middle Passage. Black people’s field hollers, chain-gang songs and work songs have their origins in and borrow numerous characteristics from African music.
See Jones, Floyd, Levine.
Work songs have integrated other types of songs (Balmir 190), especially ballads, as in “Po’ Lazarus”, the chain-gang song opening O Brother:
Well, the high sheriff, he told the deputy
Won’t you go out and bring me Lazarus? […]
O Lord, bring him dead or alive […]
Well, the deputy, he told the high sheriff
Said I ain’t gonna mess with Lazarus […]
English, Scottish and Irish ballads followed another transatlantic course (Balmir 211). Whether black or white, ballads often deal with unrequited love and badmen. Black outlaws such as Morris Slater and Aaron Harris served as models for ballad characters like “Railroad Bill” and “Po’ Lazarus” (Levine 410-412) and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, songs such as “Railroad Bill,” “Casey Jones” or “Frankie and Johnny” were equally popular among southern Whites and Blacks (Levine 194-195) and made up a strong base on which American music was built. The cradle of country music was the Appalachian mountains, where many Scotch-Irish settled in the eighteenth century (Kaspi 58). The development of coal mining at the end of the nineteenth century attracted migrants, mainly from the South, poor Whites and African-Americans who sought to flee the overcrowded rural zones and severe segregation in southern states. The combination of the Celtic tradition on the one hand, and African-American elements on the other—especially the rhythm and the prevalent role of the guitar—resulted from these shifts in population (Herzhaft 15-16).
Hillbilly music was the first—slightly derogatory—name and fixed form of what we now call country music. It was soon to be labeled “Old Time” (Herzhaft 21) or “Old Timey” music, as Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother designates it, and hence was associated with the notions of nostalgia and heritage from its outset. Paradoxically enough, technological progress was part and parcel of the professionalisation and popularization of country music, with the development of the phonograph, and above all the radio, with five hundred radio stations in southern states as early as 1922. Country music gained an even wider audience with the Grand Ole Opry show, sponsored by the Life and Accident Insurance Company, broadcast by the WSM radio station in Nashville from 1925 on. Black singer and harmonica player De Ford Bailey was the first solo artist to play on the show (Herzhaft 27). The program planners did have a commercial agenda, but it was based on the perpetuation and protection of a musical heritage. Indeed, over the years, they set themselves up as guardians of the old timey tradition and regarded their weekly show as an academy of “folk” music from which electric instruments were banned until the beginning of the 1950s. However, there is not much custodians of fixed art forms can do about the reception and appropriation of music by other performers, as Elvis Presley’s well known début shows (Marcus 120-175, Guralnick Lost Highway 118-141). The first successful single he recorded at the Sun studio on Union Avenue in Memphis on July 5th 1954 featured a blues played at breakneck tempo—Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right”—and a bluegrass song entitled “Blue Moon of Kentucky” written by Bill Monroe, a traditionalist who defended old time music and the mountain tradition against western swing and electricity, which he thought corrupted music (Herzhaft 76).
The dividing lines between traditional, authentic “folk” music and popular “commercial” music are not as distinct as they seem.
For a discussion of that distinction see Middleton...
As early as the 1910s, the very mechanical reproduction techniques used to diffuse and market music enabled ethnomusicologists like Alan and John Lomax to study and preserve American folk history, with the support of the Library of Congress from 1933 (Assayas 1034-1035). O Brother and its soundtrack offer a good illustration of this principle. “Po’ Lazarus” was collected by John Lomax in 1959 and the Coen brothers have the Soggy Bottom Boys perform one of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels entitled “In the Jailhouse Now” during one of Homer Stokes’ campaign meetings sponsored and broadcast by the—fictional—WFAK radio station. The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” is Stokes’ campaign song; ironically, a populist who strongly opposes miscegenation is associated with a band whose background is anything but strictly white. A.P. Carter scoured the Appalachian mountains and collected thousands of folk songs with a black guitar player called Leslie Riddles, who influenced Maybelle Carter’s characteristic “thumb-lead” guitar style (Herzhaft 30-31). This simultaneous combination of melodically thumb-picked bass notes with finger-strummed chords is clearly heard in “Worried Man Blues,” a song built on a typical 12-bar blues tonic, subdominant, dominant chord pattern and adapted in “Mystery Train,” first recorded in 1953 by the African-American singer Junior Parker and which was to become one of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits.
The politics of popular music
Jim Jarmusch engages in a play on white and black stereotypes in Mystery Train. The one character pronouncing words which sound like a verse taken from a blues is the Englishman Johnny, who tells his companions: “Dee Dee walked out on me this morning, before I even found out about being laid off.” Ironically he is nicknamed Elvis because he looks like a rockabilly singer straight from the fifties, with a pompadour, sideburns and drainpipe pants which give him a distinctively “white trash” look.
The casting of a musician who sang “I’m so bored with...
The blues often deal with the predicaments of individuals struggling in a hostile environment. They represent the black secular rendition of a set of themes encountered both in country music and sacred music. The longing for a better place liberated from the contingencies of the here and now is the topic of countless spirituals and gospels, but also country-music songs such as the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” or, in a slightly more pathetic mode, “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”:
For six long years I’ve been in trouble
No pleasure here on Earth I found
For in this world I’m bound to ramble […]
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore […]
“We ain’t one-at-a-timin’. We’re mass-communicatin’!”: what Pappy O’Daniel says about the importance of the radio in his electoral strategy is equally relevant in the field of popular music and can serve as a motto for the music industry. The radio laid the foundations of a system relying on the constant renewal of a cultural supply largely based on the promotion of distinctive styles but resulting in an ever-increasing standardization serving a mass-medium subject to commercial and political interests. One finds this convergence in Joel and Ethan Coen’s work, but the film-makers take some licence with the South’s music and political histories. It was Jimmie Davis, not O’Daniel, who recorded the immensely successful “You are my Sunshine” (Herzhaft 51) before becoming Governor of Louisiana in 1944. However Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel did exist. He won fame as a radio host for the Light Crust Flour and later his own Hillbilly Flour. He was also the manager of a very popular western swing band called… the Light Crust Doughboys
See the liner notes to the Les Triomphes de la country...
(Dumery 16, Herzhaft 51) and was elected Governor of Texas in 1938. During the campaign, he was accompanied by his band, the Hillbilly Boys; he presented himself as “The ‘Common Citizen’s’ Candidate for Governor” and—like the character of Homer Stokes—posed as a simple hillbilly fighting the establishment.
His credo read “If and when I am elected Governor of...
In O Brother the role of music as a means of propaganda is dealt with in a mildly satirical mode. According to Theodor W. Adorno, standardization and its corollary—i.e. “pseudo-individualization”—were the fundamental characteristics of popular music (Adorno “On Popular Music” 302 & 307) which, according to him, was without exception deeply reactionary,
Letter to Walter Benjamin (Benjamin 139).
simplistic and had a stupefying effect on the masses (Adorno Prismes 103). However, Joel and Ethan Coen draw our attention to an element that Adorno deliberately refuses to take into account in the scene where the Soggy Bottom Boys launch into “Man of Constant Sorrow” during Homer Stokes’ jamboree. The crowd which recognizes and cheers this anonymous band illustrates the growing importance of interpretation in the development of music and the music industry. As the reception and impact of music have been increasingly mediated by modern means of reproduction and gatekeepers, there has been a shift in the listeners’ demand from more or less interchangeable renderings of a vast repertoire of songs to specific styles and voices.
O Brother being a musical—or at least a comedy with music—, besides what Michel Chion calls “musique de fosse,” or pit music, coming from off-screen (Chion 189), the role of screen music (“musique d’écran”), that is music whose source is visible (Chion 189), is considerable and the eye of the camera focuses on—mostly lip-synching—characters impersonating musicians. In Mystery Train, besides John Lurie’s score with its traditional role of narrative cueing,
That is when it signals and/or stresses a particular...
Jarmusch often resorts to diegetic music, but never shows us musicians playing.
Evidently, Jarmusch casts musicians to underscore the...
Recordings are broadcast and played on radios or jukeboxes and the musicians Jarmusch casts as misfits do not give any musical performance. Rufus Thomas makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film at the Union train station, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins plays the part of a reception clerk and rock singer Joe Strummer is an Englishman going through a bad patch. To link the three segments Jarmusch resorts to sonic clues: the noise of a train clanking through the night near the Arcade Hotel, a gunshot and the voice of Tom Waits—another musician already cast by Jarmusch in Down by Law—announcing Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Mapping popular culture’s crooked highways
Although we never see musicians perform in Mystery Train, music history is the backdrop of Jim Jarmusch’s representation of Memphis and a major theme in the plot. Twice he shows a derelict movie theater—the Lamar movie theatre on Lamar Avenue
This theater was once considered as a possible location...
—with “Grand O Opry” written in plastic letters on its marquee, referring to the shrine of country music which moved in 1974 from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to… a theme park called Opryland outside Nashville. Jarmusch has the three main characters of the “Lost in Space” episode drive past what was once the Mecca of soul music, Stax, called Soulsville USA in its heyday, but in the film a dilapidated building with blocked windows and “Stax” spray-painted on white walls. In Memphis, white and black musics of the past are therefore on an equal yet unenviable footing and played on obsolete devices. The myth of Elvis Presley is kept alive by modern-day moneychangers and does not quite live up to the expectations of Jun and Mitzuko. When they visit the Sun recording studio where not only the King, but also Carl Perkins and Howlin’ Wolf once cut masterpieces, the legend is but a tedious enumeration of celebrities, figures and accounting data. As the guide puts it, “The bottom line was the song [‘That’s All Right’] was going to be a hit.”
The creative spirit of Memphis and what Peter Guralnick has called “Sweet Soul Music, Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom” and—one may add—integration are dead and gone.
Today, Soulsville, a non-profit organization, is building...
Only sonic traces of a glorious past remain. The Stax record label was held up as an example for a fruitful and lucrative collaboration of white and black musicians and businessmen. Booker T. & the MG’s, Stax Records’ house band, consisted of two African-Americans (drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and organ player and leader Booker T. Jones) and two Whites (Steve Cropper on guitar and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn). An African-American, Al Bell, was Stax’s national sales director in 1965 and in 1970 reacquired the label from Warner with one of Stax’s co-founders Jim Stewart. Stewart (the “St” in Stax) and his sister Estelle Axton (“ax”) (Guralnick Sweet 99) had an undeniable musical flair but the same could not be said of their business acumen. Only when Atlantic, their distributor, was absorbed into Warner Bros. did they find out that the deal they had signed with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler included the handover not only of their whole catalogue but also of all their unreleased masters (Guralnick Sweet 357). With hindsight, Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968 (Guralnick Sweet 353-355) marked the beginning of the end for Stax.
On that day, Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn had to be...
Racial tension grew considerably at the time and remains tangible in “Lost in Space.” Charlie wonders if they let “white folks” in the Shades bar, the African-American fugitive who bears the same name as one of the characters in the Lost in Space television show (Will Robinson) does feel lost in the Arcade Hotel “with two snowflakes,” and Johnny shoots a racist liquor-store clerk after he slurs “Niggers! You gotta watch them every second.”
If the gap between the black and white communities is manifest in both films—and even broadening in Mystery Train—the same does not apply to the ever-widening hiatus between serious and popular music that Adorno deplored, but which the Coen brothers and Jarmusch choose to ignore. In addition to allusions to popular culture—e.g. the night clerk played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who says “Man, you’ve got a curse on you, as sure as the moon rolls around the world” hinting at his song “I Put a Spell on You,” or Mitzuko’s scrapbook of Elvis lookalikes including Madonna and the Statue of Liberty—both Mystery Train and O Brother are presented as pastiches of literary works depicting initiatory voyages. Jarmusch’s motion picture is advertised as “a minimalist’s version of The Canterbury Tales”
See the liner notes to the Mystery Train soundtrac...
where the motifs of pilgrimage and death are clearly alluded to in the first two episodes, with the Tabard Inn changed into the Arcade Hotel, Thomas a Becket’s shrine into Graceland and the Pardoner into a small-time hustler. The Coens have the three redeemed fugitives cling to a coffin life-buoy which has shot from the water as in the epilogue of Moby Dick and scatter numerous references to The Odyssey, such as Tiresias (Homer XI: 100-172), the blind seer of Thebes who retains his prophetic powers even in the underworld and who in O Brother becomes a black man on a hand-pumped railcar, or the Lotus-Eaters episode (Homer IX: 102-117) re-invented as a baptism scene where Pete and Delmar are seduced by Christians whose “honey-sweet fruit” (Homer IX: 106) makes them forget their past sins to the sound of the traditional “Down To The River To Pray.”
In these two works, music is viewed as an instrument of choice to chart history and culture in and along the Mississippi. This exploration takes the form of a tribute in O Brother and of a bittersweet commemoration in Mystery Train. In the former, music strengthens the bonds of a community whereas, in the latter, it accompanies the isolation of characters from very disparate backgrounds while remaining the only element connecting them. By combining the literary topos of the initiatory journey and the motif of popular music in irony-tinged motion pictures, the cinéastes hint at a paradoxical aura of past—but still present—art forms. In both films, songs belong to a rich collection holding an important place in the collective memory, a corpus from which the directors draw their inspiration to fix their vision of and tinker with clichés about the South. This may be because music, thanks to powerful means of diffusion, has constituted an effective medium to convey and perpetuate the oral tradition over the twentieth century. If we advert to Gérard Genette’s typology in L’Œuvre de l’art - Immanence et transcendance (11, 79, 83), recorded music in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction has held the status of multiple autographic work—as aesthetic object and artefact—, but sometimes attains the allographic status—that of an artistic ideal, for instance a score fixing the criteria of its interpretation—when a performance captured in concert or during a recording session becomes an epitome in relation to which all other versions are judged.
One could mention Coleman Hawkins’ version of “Body...
In 1936, Walter Benjamin described the withering auratic value of the visual arts thus:
By making many reproductions [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition […]
(“The Work of Art…” 514)
It would appear that the exact opposite has occurred in the case of popular music.