Llewyn Davis and the gravity of folk
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
For most of the two weeks of my holiday vacation time, I caught up on movies in between family visits and all the other obligatory holiday-type duties. This has been an incredible year at the movies, and in the past three weeks I crossed American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Saving Mr. Banks and Dallas Buyers Club off my list, and all five were amazing experiences in their own right.
But in the midst of all this, I also saw Inside Llewyn Davis, and I spent most of my time leaving the theater playing with my coat and my winter hat to disguise the fact that I was fighting off tears.
Without giving away major plot points, Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis as a Dave Van Ronk-inspired folk singer, just before Bob Dylan helped that New York City scene explode. He struggles in many of the ways starving artists tend to struggle and in other ways that felt unique to him, and earns certain amounts of scorn and sympathy from the audience through his travels.
But throughout the film, whenever he picks up his guitar, it’s magic. All the bitterness and frustration of his life is poured into these folk songs that seem to date to the turn of the century and perhaps even further back. He’s absolutely committed to this music and the life that comes with it, and for the few moments he’s playing and singing, it’s the only aspect of his life that’s right-side up.
The music, from Isaac’s Davis and others, was the unifying force of the movie and a powerful reminder of how good folk music can be when it’s done right. It sent me back to the early 2000s when my friends and I would hang out at a now-departed folk club in Marion, Mass. The Hardware Cafe hosted an open mic every Wednesday night, and typically three of us — two on guitar, me on harmonica and vocals — would play two or three songs. We kept it varied and tried to never repeat a song, playing older artists they’d know (George Harrison, Neil Young, Tom Petty, etc.) while mixing in songs by more recent artists like Ryan Adams and even Blind Melon to keep ourselves interested.
But as far as folk music, we never went much deeper than Dylan or maybe Van Morrison. We were much more interested in rock and blues, and our first real exposure to folk as purists portrayed it was at that club. It was there that I learned who Van Ronk and Phil Ochs were, what a titan Dylan was on the artform, and what it meant to have the guitar and the lyrics working not just at the same time but in sync. Some of the details were lost, and some of the songs felt too long or featured choruses that leaned a little too biblical for my tastes. I was maybe 20 years old and definitely not sensitive enough to appreciate everything I was hearing.
But there was certainly a draw to the best of that music, and we stayed and listened every night. The guy who ran the open mic, Art Tebbetts, was a local legend in that scene and John Sares, who owned the club, was an obvious music fanatic who ran the soundboard and could tear it up on guitar on occasion. In their own way, they were carrying on a tradition at the most honest, grassroots level. We were getting an education in American history every night.
Their passions and efforts were obvious, but I’m not sure I could appreciate what it meant. At 19 or 20, I’m not sure I was capable of understanding how much work really went into anything worthwhile. But these guys and the veteran performers who would dutifully show up every Wednesday with their acoustic guitars were wholly dedicated to this music that lived in the roots of America.
I think about them, and I think about Llewyn Davis begrudgingly watching the incredible and the so-so acts gracing the stage of the Gaslight, and I think about myself in the same position, not on stage but taking in the music and watching people pour out varying amounts of their soul for public consumption. Sometimes it was all right, and sometimes I was at least smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
And sometimes, and these were often enough to keep trips to the Hardware Cafe frequent, I’d see someone who made my jaw drop, singing a song that sounded older than time and playing a guitar that sounded as if it’d been carved out of an oak tree by James Fenimore Cooper. There was such soul in those songs that it was haunting. It wasn’t Led Zeppelin and it wasn’t the Ramones, it was something else that carried its own power, and it was brought back to life in that moment.
Flashing forward to 2014 on a stupidly cold Wednesday night in my apartment, with a soundtrack curated by T Bone Burnett on my record player, I could hear the best of those ghosts again. The songs by Dylan and Van Ronk obviously had it, but in the newer interpretations by Isaac is where it hit closest to home. If I’d seen Isaac on stage in that little club, I would’ve left the place a mess and may have even embarrassed myself in an attempt to talk to him.
There’s little as difficult as delivering a folk song with the weight it requires. When it’s half-assed or insincere, it sounds it. When it’s real, it’s devastating. I walked out of the theater wide-eyed and stunned last month, and all those overwhelming feelings rushed back. The gravity behind all those songs is enormous, and every last bit is felt.
And I remembered how, 12 years ago, I couldn’t pull it off.
Jan. 9, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com