A Story Starring Music – Songcatcher by Maggie Greenwald and David Mansfield

Appalachian folk music – musicology – music in film                 a review by Tim McKamey

Maggie Greenwald
Maggie Greenwald
David Mansfield
David Mansfield

     During the same year the Coen brothers released O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) with its groundbreaking period sound-track of American folk music, a film featuring the music of Appalachia also premiered. Songcatcher, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, with a musical score by husband David Mansfield, is an amazingly evocative film that does much more than simply use music to help tell its story. This story is about music. The events in the story are loosely based on the work of Olive Dame Campbell, founder of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and that of the English folk song collector Cecil Sharpe.

      In 1907 when a musicologist is turned down for a full-professorship at her university, she visits her sister who runs a small rural school in the hills of South Carolina. She stumbles on a treasure trove of traditional English ballads that have been preserved by the people there since the 1600s and 1700s. Recognizing the value in this discovery, she decides to transcribe and record these songs and share them with the world. The rest, as they say, is history. We get a sense of this history, for example, in the lovely way the song Barbara Allen is developed.  It is sung three times in the film, at the beginning at the piano in its classic English ballad form, in the middle in rustic Appalachian a capella, and during the closing credits in a contemporary studio arrangement performed by Emmy Lou Harris.

     Musicology is anthropology with a sound-track. The depth and breadth of the human spirit is explored by examining the songs people sing and the music that expresses and even shapes our lives. Songcatcher is not a theatrical ‘musical’. It does not so much seek to entertain us with song as it does inform us. Through the folk-lens of the music of this tiny Appalachian society  we experience the universal emotions that accompany birth, death, love and hate. We also see the transition this isolated community undergoes as the outside world slowly and inevitably begins to encroach upon it. This is reflected as well in the transition that occurs in the personal life of the musicologist whose work ironically turns out to be intimately wrapped up in that transformation.

     Even as the life of the anthropologist or musicologist is forever altered by observing a particular culture, so too is that culture (and the whole world) forever altered by the encounter. Songcatcher does not bemoan that fact, it simply shows us how it happens. It reminds us of something Carl Jung once said about the alchemy of human relationships; how once they interact, individual personalities are forever transformed.

     The hill-folk think of the musicologist as an outlander, and they often refer to the rest of the world outside their community as ‘the other world’. One of the characters, Tom Bledsoe, is a war veteran and has been to the other world. An accomplished musician in his own right, Bledsoe at first resents the musicologist, Dr. Lily Penleric, seeing her as a thief come to steal “his granny’s songs”. To many of the hill-folk, this “music doctor” is no better than the bankers and coal company men who only want to exploit the land and the people for their own greedy purposes. But the good doctor makes a strong case for why bringing the music and the art ‘down the mountain’ and out to the ‘other world’ could bring more respect and understanding to the peoples’ way of life and help overcome the ignorance of the outlanders.

     Just as O Brother Where Art Thou enlisted a host of talented roots musicians to set the tone for its story, Songcatcher has some stunning performances. Emmy Rossum (Christina in the film version of Phantom of the Opera) makes her debut performance in this film as the young mountain girl Dr. Penleric uses to help transcribe many of the old songs. The great Taj Mahal makes an appearance as does Iris DeMent, Rosanne Cash, Hazel Dickens, Gillian Welch and Patty Loveless. One of the most moving and haunting numbers is “Conversation with Death” which takes place late at night after a barn dance. Nearly everyone has left or is passed out on corn liquor, and the few still standing chant this old traditional in a strange and surreal scene that is at once both prophetic and terrifying.

     Greenwald and Mansfield are to be applauded for this exceptionally sensitive and powerful portrayal of a world that is all but lost to us today, but for the amazing music which lives on. David Mansfield is a talented producer and musician having toured with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and went on to play in bands with T-Bone Burnett who produced the music for O Brother Where Art Thou. Its quite interesting how these two films complement one another and have done so much to bring American roots music to the attention of yet another young generation.

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