Chadwell, S. (2004) 'Inventing That "Old - Timey" Style. Southern Authenticity in O Brother Where Art Thou?', in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol 32, No. 1: 2 - 10.
The critics were divided over the film, and some saw it as offering a collection of southern cliches. However, all the critics liked the bluegrass music, and the soundtrack was independently marketed and became a hit. It is possible to consider a number of ways to explain the effects of the music on the audience .
The music lent a necessary comic effect, with lugubrious lyrics contrasting with the highly optimistic narrative. The music offers a comic effect similar to [but opposite to?] the use of music [the characters lip-synch to popular songs of the time] in Dennis Potter plays.
Another possibility is that the authenticity of the music contrasts with the highly fictionalised and stylised inauthentic tone of film itself. However, the film's music is not simply authentic in the first place: the singing is dubbed by an early Nashville music enthusiast. This contrived inauthenticity helps to enhance the other inauthenticity in the film, which can be seen as focused on identity games, the most obvious of which is the parallels with the Odyssey. Indeed, one important aspect of the actual roots of bluegrass music is systematically avoided for some critics -- its African-American roots.
However, the whole film can be seen as about the uses of authenticity. This is most apparent in the scenes ridiculing the Klan. In this way, the layers of meaning in the music are fully consistent with the film. There is a danger that the performance of bluegrass music might be seen supporting the usual hillbilly stereotypes, which have appeared in movies such as Deliverance, or TV programmes such as The Beverley Hillbilles.
In fact, the early associations between bluegrass music and hillbillies was established in the 1920s and 1930s as a marketing ploy, designed to make the music seem authentic. Bluegrass was already part of an emerging successful musical genre, also known as 'old timey' or 'old home' music, developed out of sources such as the music played at popular fiddle contests. It had a clear variety of influences, certainly not an unbroken Anglo-Saxon tradition which is the usual interpretation. This unbroken tradition was claimed in order to increase the authenticity of the music in this commercial sense. The root genre itself was received by audiences in the 1920s as novel and exciting, every bit as much as was rock or jazz. This type of reception is indicated in the reactions of the audience in the performance scene in the film.
Many of the characters have multiple (so inauthentic) identities, most notably the salesman who turns into the Cyclops, or the lead character who makes up a story to get help in the jailbreak. Jokes about authenticity associated with the music include the performers wearing fake beards in order to get the hillbilly 'look'. The film therefore acknowledges stereotypes rather than confirming them. The Klan chief accuses the band of cultural miscegenation, which is probably quite accurate, but the audience rejects his values and don't seem to care, preferring to listen to the music. The songs the Klan sing at their rituals and rally are also culturally mixed, and include music influenced by slave spirituals. The same influences have in fact affected bluegrass too. [The best joke I still think is staging the climax of the Klan rally as a Busby Berkeley musical].
There is of course a black character in the film, but some critics have accused the directors of not giving him much to do. However, it is possible to see his inclusion as a deliberate reminder of the contribution of black people to bluegrass music. His rather marginal appearances can be seen as a way of indicating an absent presence. He is disavowed by society as well as by the film. The character in the film offers an allusion to an legendary black musician Tommy Johnson, and little is actually known about this person in practice. The black actor is himself a Southern black musician who has released an album of music as a tribute to Johnson. Significantly, the black character is the only one in the film who does not make authoritative claims to authenticity!
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