Bluegrass is big in Paris this year. The rage for imagined roots has made the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? a hit even among the most jaded. Closer to home, the soundtrack has been near the top of the country charts for the first half of the year and has hovered around the top 40 of the pop chart. But the music is still untouchable on mainstream country radio. The "Man of Constant Sorrow" video gets played on CMT, but the album is selling even in markets that don’t carry the country music video channel. Like everything truly important that’s ever happened in American popular music, the O Brother phenomenon flew in under the radar, undetected by the air traffic controllers of the official culture.
This is, of course, very much in the spirit of the Coen brothers’ movie. As everyone knows by now, O Brother is a myth of the Depression South in the form of a screwball road movie, loosely inspired by the original on-the-road tale, Homer’s Odyssey. The story is set in Mississippi, 1937, and was filmed in the real Mississippi of 1999. Mississippi is a fairly mythical place in real life, but in the movie it really stands in for "the South." The plot’s manic interweaving of Depression-era music and politics is true in essence, but the details are drawn from the whole menu of Southern history.
For instance, Pappy Daniels, the old-time music radio host and governor (played by Charles Durning), really existed—but in Texas. His theme song is "You Are My Sunshine," which in real life was written and performed by Gov. Jimmy Davis of Louisiana. Daniel’s political opponent, Homer Stokes, is also a common type of the period. Stokes is a populist reformer who’s down with the Klan. He promises to stand up to exploitative big business interests and purify the white race. If you don’t believe this character existed, go to a library and check out Southern Politics by V.O. Keys, or C. Vann Woodward’s biography of Tom Watson, or, better yet, ask West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (from a safe distance). In the movie, a blues singer named Tommy Johnson claims to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical gift. This, of course, is a rehashing of the Robert Johnson myth, but there really was another, older, blues singer named Tommy Johnson. His most remembered contribution to the blues tradition was "Canned Heat Blues," an ode to Sterno-drinking.
You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. The American South was (and to some extent, still is) a place driven half-mad by violence, Puritanism, extremes of wealth and poverty, and the eternal shadow of slavery. That, of course, is why the South was the point of origin for all the most vital innovations of 20th-century American culture. And that is why the music on the O Brother soundtrack still rings people’s bells. It is the only music we have in which a singer can, as Ralph Stanley does on the soundtrack, address Death face to face, like an old friend, and hear the Reaper talk back.
That’s also why "Man of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys (aka Union Station) can’t get played on country radio. Southerners who’ve moved to town, and maybe even gone to college, are usually embarrassed by the madness that lurks just below the surface of their strip malls and suburbs. They want to pretend that their trailer park cousins don’t exist. They want the South to be respectable, like they are. And that’s who runs the country music industry.
Country music has been a big business in the South ever since the invention of radio, and it has always been cruel to its purest products. The Grand Ole Opry fired Hank Williams near the end of his career and rejected Elvis at the beginning of his. In recent years, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard have been without major-label record contracts. Exiled from Nashville, these old lions have made some of the best recordings of their careers for companies most commonly associated with punk rock. This stuff is like kudzu. Try as you might, you just can’t kill it.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.