Had an ill-placed meteor hit New York City’s Carnegie Hall last night, more than a century of accumulated American folk music history would have been wiped out . . . and that’s just counting the five gents in the Fairfield Four. The music from the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou? has handily reached phenomenon status, much like the Buena Vista Social Club. But where the latter tapped an exotic Cold War curiosity and musical verisimilitude that crossed a language barrier, the musicians from O Brother are ours, and they are us. Indeed, the music performed on this evening is from a southern music tradition. But in addition to Louisiana, the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, it features practitioners who heed from Illinois, Vermont and California; it’s a state of mind, rather than a birthright.
In the words of praise cast upon the music of O Brother, sometimes the actual diversity of the music gets lost. Presented live, the nuances are more detectable, and at once they don’t matter, the common thread is the music’s soul.
It’s in the Fairfield Four’s opening “Po Lazerus,” in which the vocal ensemble complements their inimitable gospel-soaked singing backed by their crisp hand claps. In Norman Blake’s restrained and beautiful picking and his honey-dipped way around a lyric on “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s in Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski’s sixth-sense harmonies on “Wild Bill Jones,” and Chris Thomas King’s snakey steel guitar lines and bluesy whisper on “Burning Down the Liquor Store.” In the Cox Family’s creepy ability to strike up their instruments without a introductory lick on “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest” and the ethereal vocal interplay between Emmylou Harris, Krauss and Gillian Welch in various duo and trio forms on “I’ll Fly Away” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” and Krauss’ crystalline a capella “Down to the River to Pray” warmly wrapped in Tyminski, Ron Block and Barry Bales’ lush harmonies. And it’s in Ralph Stanley’s primal falsetto.
To say the soul is in the bloodline is exclusionary. The Whites’ reference to filling the classic venue with hay (a tip to Ernest Tubb’s joke that “you could fit a lot of hay in this place”) proves that this music is made by a greater family, but one tied by spirit. Never before has Carnegie Hall’s stage been so sparsely populated and decorated, yet so full of familial sound.
Like the masks of Greek drama, this O Brother performance was smiles and tears, as it fell a week and a half after the death of John Hartford, a crucial creative force in the old-time music field for the past four decades, who served as emcee at the only other public O Brother concert, last year in Nashville. Elvis Costello stepped in as a reverent, eloquent master of ceremonies, although he did not partake in the music (“I’m an audience member who has been promoted.”). Still Hartford, a dynamic personality in life, transcended his inability to be physically present. Actor Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother‘s Delmar, or “the dumb one,” as he specified) opened the evening by dedicating the show to the late, great entertainer. Following the intermission, T-Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack, introduced a short montage of Hartford clips from the documentary Down From the Mountain (which was culled from last year’s Nashville show). And Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sang a beautiful cover of the Watson Family’s “Your Long Journey” (“Oh my darlin’, my heart breaks as you take your long journey”), a tune they performed at Hartford’s funeral last week.
And as full of hurt as much of the songs were, it was still a celebration, both of the music and of life. Throughout the evening, the good Dr. Ralph Stanley was held like a trump card. His a capella “O Death” is a thing of wonder and one of the film’s failings, not for any reason of offense (the song is sung at a near lynching by a Klansman in O Brother), but because it cheats the listener of the visual of Stanley presenting the song. It’s the most desperate, haunting of songs; that it is spit like an aural exorcism from such a little man, immaculately dressed and dapper in his seventies is a chilling contrast. The song commanded absolute silence from everyone spare the air conditioners.
A master performer without an expiration date, Stanley broke the tension somewhat with a song he’s been performing for more than half a century, the soundtrack’s “hit” tune, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Stanley’s arrangement is the most popular treatment of the song, penned around 1913 by the blinded and very down on his luck Richard Burnett. While Tyminski adapted the Stanley Brothers arrangement, the interpretations couldn’t be more enjoyably different, Tyminski’s tenor conveying a world-weary woe and Stanley’s whelp a pained, primal jolt.
Lest the evening’s program end with a one-two punch of an unwilling death and blinded despair, all of the evening’s performers (including Costello) gathered behind Stanley for the set closing Stanley Brothers gem, “Angel Band,” a poignant, fitting conclusion. While this old-time music features a long-running fascination with death, “O Death” and “Angel Band” might best capture its contrast in the human experience. The latter a more peaceful, spiritual “Oh come angel band/Come and around me stand/Oh bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home”; the latter wild with desperation and tangible detail “Oh death, won’t you spare me over til another year . . . Oh mama come to my bed/Place a cold rag on my head/My eyes are aching and I cannot see/I feel the sheet pulling over me.”
Within the twenty-five songs performed is the crux of existence, the true nuts and bolts of being, something also reflected in its performers. From the eight-, ten- and thirteen-year old Peasall sisters to Willard Cox (wheelchair bound since his car was struck by an eighteen wheeler last year) to the ageless Stanley to the spirit of the departed Hartford. The music was a travelogue, with the majority of the songs touching on some sort of journey; be it the whimsical yet delusional attempt of a hobo to find the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” or the final trip of “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest.” It was a musical sojourn from birth through love, hurt, hope and death (and then more death). And yet a hope returned, because as Stanley sings in “Angel Band,” that journey is just the beginning.