The Blue Bluegrass of Home

In Songcatcher the music of Appalachia comes alive

Even more than the recent Depression-era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the turn-of-the-century drama Songcatcher is an absolute treasure trove of old-timey, traditional folk music. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia in the year 1907, the film follows city-bred musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) as she traverses the remote, swampy forests and shimmering green "hollers" of the Carolinas searching for the roots of American music. And while the versatile McTeer (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Tumbleweeds and won a Tony for A Doll's House) turns in yet another stellar performance, the real power of this film comes from the music: haunting, a cappella renditions of old English ballads and spirited fiddle tunes of Scots-Irish origin the toe-tapping melodies of which were transformed when played on the banjo and dulcimer, instruments which had been introduced to America by African slaves.

Written and directed by Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo), Songcatcher combines strong feminist sensibilities with surprisingly old-fashioned melodrama. The independent and ambitious Lily is a strikingly contemporary -- and universal -- heroine. A woman in a man's world, she is an accomplished professor of musicology whose struggles to advance professionally are continually thwarted by her male colleagues. After being passed over for promotion for the umpteenth time, Lily flees the city for the backwoods of Appalachia, where her sister Elna (Jane Adams of The Anniversary Party and Happiness) runs a school for children of the poverty-stricken farmers and bootleggers who inhabit the isolated region.

Not surprisingly Lily's initial efforts to penetrate the fiercely insular world of the mountain people meets with suspicion and hostility. Her superior attitude and domineering manner strike a particularly discordant chord in Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), one of the few locals who has spent time in "the other world," as they refer to so-called civilized society.

Quinn and McTeer on the brink of a folk implosion
Quinn and McTeer on the brink of a folk implosion

Lily's ongoing clash with Tom is one of several key relationships that fuel the story. The others include Lily's friendship with Tom's gun-toting grandmother, Aunt Viney (a wonderful Pat Carroll), and with a young orphan named Deladis Slocumb (teenage opera star Emmy Rossum in her feature debut), who has the voice of an angel and sings many of the film's most beautiful ballads (including "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" and "Lord Randall"). Lily's exposure to these people, their struggles, and their goodness has a profound effect on her. While never losing her drive or stubbornness, she finds herself opening emotionally.

"I've never been anywhere where music is [so much] a part of life, like the air you breathe," she gasps in appreciation and awe. Suddenly what had always been a strictly academic, intellectual pursuit takes on an emotional dimension, transforming Lily in the process.

McTeer is such an imposing presence that any man must find playing opposite her difficult, but Quinn more than holds his own. As headstrong as she is, he has also experienced life's injustices and disappointments and like Lily has responded by shutting himself off emotionally. Only through music does he come alive.

Rejecting the hard, gritty look of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, early 20th-century photographers whose stunning pictures emphasized the poverty and dark underbelly of rural America, Greenwald opts for a soft, almost storybook look for her film (which was shot on-site). Although the corporate coal-mining villains are always nearby, trying to bully the subsistence farmers into selling their land at dirt-cheap prices, we never glimpse the eroded mountains and ugly ravages of strip-mining. Rather the landscape has an ethereal beauty: primitive but lush, unspoiled, and unpolluted.

While Songcatcher (an old mountain term for someone who collects songs) probably won't spark a folk revival, traditional-music enthusiasts will most definitely want to see it. (Iris DeMent and Taj Mahal have small roles that allow them to showcase their talents.) Moviegoers who don't know the music but are curious will find a most palatable introduction to it here. Appalachian music occupies a distinctive place in the history of this country's musical heritage, for it was the marriage of the sometimes lilting, sometimes intensely melancholy Old World folk melodies to the equally traditional but more primitive rhythms and beats of Africa (which itself gave rise to the Southern blues) that lies at the heart of all American music, from folk, bluegrass, and country to blues and rock 'n' roll.

 
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