Southern Bells

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.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2001
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