There is a cer­tain poignan­cy to the death this week of the great folk hero Pete Seeger, the singer and song­writer of protest songs who helped define the folk music land­scape of the last cen­tu­ry. There are sev­er­al of his com­po­si­tions that I remem­ber from my child­hood and they feel like tra­di­tion­al songs passed down through gen­er­a­tions, their com­posers lost in the mist of time. Yet these are rel­a­tive­ly young songs, dat­ing from the mid 20th cen­tu­ry when Seeger, play­ing for much of the time with The Weavers, was most pro­lif­ic. Turn, Turn, Turn, We Shall Over­come, Where have all the flow­ers gone?, such gen­tle songs, yet so decep­tive, as they grad­u­al­ly unfold their anguish at the state of the world.

A less suc­cess­ful career in the folk world was the fate of Llewyn Davis, the anti-hero folk singer in the Coen Broth­ers lat­est film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Get­ting into that 60s vibe was helped by view­ing the film at the glo­ri­ous­ly retro Cur­zon cin­e­ma in May­fair, Lon­don, it’s like step­ping back in time with its pol­ished wood fit­tings and low, rest­ful light­ing. Inside Llewyn Davis is a delight­ful film with superb char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion – Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn, a piti­ful, not entire­ly pleas­ant char­ac­ter try­ing to make it as a solo artist after the death of his singing part­ner. Char­ac­ters and inte­ri­ors of the peri­od are rich­ly reimag­ined, in par­tic­u­lar the uptown apart­ment of Llewyn’s wealthy and intel­lec­tu­al friends, own­ers of the infa­mous cat, who are always ready to pro­vide the home­less Llewyn with a bed and dinner.

There is a moment in the film when Llewyn refus­es to ‘sing for his sup­per’ – it’s a per­fect exam­ple of his pride, his refusal to com­pro­mise for his art, even if it means upset­ting and embar­rass­ing his friends and poten­tial­ly destroy one of his remain­ing few chances of find­ing a bed for the night.

It was dif­fi­cult to not just sit and feast upon the rig­or­ous­ly accu­rate peri­od detail­ing: the New York apart­ments, the clothes, the inte­ri­ors of Green­wich Vil­lage base­ment bars. The plot does waver some­what and there’s a slight tail­ing away towards the end, but its an immense­ly enjoy­able and orig­i­nal work.


One thought on “Focus on folk music: Pete Seeger; Inside Llewyn Davis

  1. I was lis­ten­ing to an item on R4 about Pete Seeger’s musi­cal lega­cy yes­ter­day and you’re right, it feels as though his songs have been part of the protest land­scape for far longer than they actu­al­ly have.

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