“Havin’ a real backwoods experience, ain’t you?” Mountain man Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) is taunting scholar and “songcatcher” Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), who’s just ridden a rickety horse-drawn wagon up the side of a mountain, recorded some nifty folk songs, found out her sister is getting it on with a woman, and delivered a baby. But whether viewers of Songcatcher will have a “real backwoods experience” is another matter.
Filmed in Madison County, North Carolina, Songcatcher tells the tale of Penleric, a music scholar stymied by the lack of professional opportunities for women in 1907. (For a second opinion, see Page 48.) Defying the sexism that has denied her the professional recognition she deserves, she travels to Appalachia, lugging a portable recorder, to document the music of the mountains.
Scholarly, stiff-backed and tightly-wound, she arrives at the Clover Settlement School where her sister Elna (Tony-winner Jane Adams) and associate Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr) are teaching the locals the finer points of culture–although nary a student nor a class are ever shown. When their helper, the orphan girl Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum) offhandedly belts out the haunting folksong “Barbara Allen,” it lights a fire under Penleric: Here is a classic English ballad being performed by a denizen of Appalachia! Could Deladis’ ancestors have come from England? And how many other songs were taught by how many other grannies to how many other locals?
She determines that the songs must be collected before they disappear! Running Deladis ragged while she carefully notates her music, displaying an all-business attitude that would piss off Mother Theresa, the musicologist sets out across the countryside in search of other victims.
Here she encounters a race of hillbilly lotus-eaters, whose sole occupation seems to be lying about or sitting in rocking chairs, their clothes always perfectly clean and crisply pressed. Yet Penleric is so lacking in charm that it’s inexplicable why any of them would give her the time of day. Her encounter with Alice Kincaid (Stephanie Roth), bonneted and great with child, is typical. When Kincaid graciously hands Penleric a handwritten notebook thick with local songs already lined out with words and music, the scholar rejects them out of hand. “I can’t be sure of your notation, because of the irregular time and unusual modes and rhythms of the tunes,” Penleric says, thrusting the “useless” stack back at its stacker. “Of course, I understand perfectly,” replies the smiling Kincaid, even if we don’t.
This kind of ham-handed dialogue is just one of the problems with Songcatcher, which purports to be an “exhilarating adventure across a part of America still rarely seen,” but keeps us largely in the dark about just what it claims to illuminate. “I have never been anywhere where the music is as much a part of life as it is here,” gushes Penleric, after she’s softened a bit toward her subjects. “It’s like the air that you breathe.”
But it’s a revelation made only on paper. Director Maggie Greenwald repeatedly fails to link the music with the lives–and particularly the work–of its characters, who are given absolutely nothing to do here. Besides Penleric’s songcatching efforts, no manner of work is ever shown outside of a few turns on a mortar and pestle. Coal mining is a topic of conversation, but there isn’t a dirty hand in the cast. Tom alludes to the progress of corn growing in a back field, but there’s barely a bead of sweat on his body. In Songcatcher, the hard-earned necessities of life, like food and water–along with houses and clothing–appear to have come from a catering truck.
In this absence of context, the music, when it does arrive, comes out of nowhere. “Single Girl,” a lament that might provide deliverance from the lonely, soul-killing drudgery of housework, is rendered here sans irony as an amusing little rhyme. The fiddles and banjos that might be the sole source of solace and entertainment after a day of backbreaking labor in the fields or the mines are simply props here. Bledsoe plays guitar to Taj Mahal’s banjo at a “post office” which could pass for a set on Hee Haw. “Well, aren’t you lucky,” hisses Penleric to Bledsoe, “sitting around all day getting drunk and playing music.”
It’s just one of a mountain of stereotypes on this mountain. Men are adulterers, louts and layabouts; ladies are fair, tender and much maligned. There’s a moonshine still, a dastardly coal company rep, and plenty of quaint folk wisdom. After Kincaid almost dies following the harrowing birth of yet another child, Viney Butler (Pat Carroll) advises, “If you don’t want butter, you got to pull the dasher out in time,” a bromide which we can safely say has never been uttered in any hills outside of the ones in Hollywood.
Yep, there’s love in them thar hills, too, and Songcatcher does succeed as a kind of romance novel. There’s Deladis’ ill-fated relationship with Fate Honeycutt; Kincaid’s on-again, off-again marriage to hubby Reese; and Penleric’s inexplicable romance with Tom, which, like just about everything else in the movie, comes out of nowhere. And, there’s the relationship between Elna and Harriet. Who would have thought that rubbing up against a tree would produce so much fire? Greenwald has a much better feel for her women, and does bring poignancy to their relationships, with the song “Fair and Tender Ladies” serving as an appropriate backdrop to courtin’ and chasin’.
The music itself is enjoyable, particularly during a frolic in a barn, where we’re also treated to some flatfooting. Here we find all-too-brief appearances by NEA National Heritage Fellowship recipient Hazel Dickens, North Carolina Folk Heritage Award Winner Bobby McMillon, and storyteller and musician Sheila Kay Adams. But like the rest of Songcatcher, it’s a scene that would gain more power from context: Who are these people, and how does this musical release figure into the rest of their lives?
“What I’d like to see happen sometime,” says Hazel Dickens, in a recent phone call from her Washington, D.C. home, “is for somebody to have a movie on the music alone–to not have any props or any actors come in. Just let the people who sing it do it. Of course, it would probably be a boring movie, because it wouldn’t have the sex and the other stuff in it.”
Dickens knows something about mountain movies. She sings a song in Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning 1976 documentary about striking mine workers, Harlan County, USA. She sings another song in John Sayles’ 1987 Matewan, which exhibits the director’s traditional attention to historical detail. Now, there’s Songcatcher, where no one ever seems to get dirty.
“That was kind of weird,” Dickens says. “But almost every movie is like that, sort of surreal. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one where I said, ‘Man, this thing’s got everything in it that we need.’” She adds, “I think the people they got are real good, and Maggie and the music director’s [David Mansfield] hearts were in the right place. But you know, if you’re not born and raised with the music, it does show.”
The CD, Songcatcher: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture is no roots compilation–Emmylou Harris does an electric version of “Barbara Allen”–but it is a pleasing blend of traditional and contemporary songs. There’s Iris Dement’s striking version of “Little Saro,” Allison Moorer’s goosebump-raising “Moonshiner,” and the harrowing “Conversation with Death,” shared by Dickens, McMillon and David Patrick Kelly. Then there are sweet love ballads like “When Love is New,” by Dolly Parton and Emmy Rossum (who’s a real-life opera singer).
Although it does make passing reference to the exploitation of musicians and the changes being wrought by coal mining, Songcatcher the movie doesn’t claim to be historically accurate–there are many who will see the film as one more “lost opportunity” to bring real insight into the lives of the mountain people.
One can also hope that viewers intrigued by the actual story of Dame Olive Campbell, the settlement school movement, and the uneasy confluence of class, culture and ethics brought about by the opening of the mountains to commerce and outsiders will pick up a copy of All That is Native and Fine (UNC Press), the 1983 book written by now-retired UNC history professor David Whisnant. It paints a far more complex story of Campbell’s cultural work from 1908 through 1948, as well as detailing her fascinating working relationship with her husband, John C. Campbell.
“We can’t be too pessimistic about this,” says Dickens of the reaction of “purists” to the film and the CD, “because after all, it does draw attention to the music. And then, maybe, they’ll do like they did with Elvis: They’ll go back looking for the roots.”