Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers’ latest meditation on American legend and myth. A gaze and a glance help to frame their story. Both occur in the same subterranean folk music club in Greenwich Village, and express contrasting feelings at the heart of the folkie bohemia, circa 1960. Both pass quickly and are all the more telling for that.
Early in the film, onstage at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street, Jean of the duo Jim and Jean looks out over the audience, her eyes darkening when she spots Llewyn Davis; but then she returns to gazing at Jim, who is smiling, strumming, and singing “500 Miles.” Jean beams in earnest reverence of—what, the singer? the song?—and her gaze stays fixed for maybe a quarter of a minute until the chorus comes around again and she joins in the harmonizing.
That gaze appeared all over the ’50s and early ’60s folk revival. It signified a hushed, pristine respect but it generally appeared at the stagier end of the folk music performance spectrum. Hardly remembered now, the gaze could rattle ganglia of resentments back then, inside a Greenwich Village fueled partly by fierce judgments about stylistic differences both just-noticeable and large.
The glance comes at the film’s conclusion. Llewyn Davis heads out of the Gaslight for what turns into a back-alley beating (his second) by a drawling, Stetson-hatted silhouetted figure who is named Man in the script but whom I will call Authenticity. The camera shows Llewyn leaving the club and glancing for maybe three seconds at an act onstage who is singing, “Oh it’s fare thee well….”
“This guy’s a freak, a phony, a joke,” Llewyn’s glance says; but it’s a joke unlike anything Llewyn’s seen or heard before; and his scorn cannot conceal that the singer has momentarily stopped him dead in his tracks. The camera cuts back to the stage for a side view silhouette, and lingers just long enough to make obvious what some in the film’s audience have already recognized by ear and by heart: The joke is the then-barely known Bob Dylan in his puckish Huck Finn cap. He is the last person Llewyn sees before he walks into the alley and gets bashed in the face by Authenticity.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a fantasy of a week in the life of a locally well-known Greenwich Village folksinger just before that Village folk scene enjoyed its brief but momentous heyday. The time, the film announces, is the winter of 1961; Bob Dylan is still a 19-year-old newcomer, something of an intruder. A folk scene had developed over the previous five years or so in New York’s longtime bohemian enclave, centered originally on large informal Sunday jamborees in Washington Square Park where cosmopolitan assemblies of enthusiasts would congregate to play their music. Folk aficionados and curious tourists and strollers from the neighborhood huddled around the separate groups, each huddle listening to a different musical genre, ranging from Kentucky bluegrass ballads to Israeli labor Zionist horas.
At the very end of the 1950s, the Village scene became semi-attached to a new national folk music enthusiasm among college-age whites. Smooth, commercial folk singing acts led by the Kingston Trio started turning out hit records. In the Village, where the acolytes worked in earthier vernaculars, a few clubs, bars, and coffee houses either gave up presenting jazz and beat poetry in favor of folk music or began presenting music for the first time, cashing in on the latest fad. The Gaslight, which opened in 1957 as a venue chiefly for poetry readings, was one of the most successful folk clubs; another, Gerde’s Folk City, a former workingman’s bar nearby on 4th Street, began presenting folk music early in 1959 under the name, The Fifth Peg at Gerde’s.
It was, just as the Coens describe it, a new downtown New York underground, with friends and fellow travelers in quirky corners of the Upper West Side intelligentsia—a bohemia that was on the verge of contributing crucially to a great cultural change but that had no particular idea of where it was heading. The times were riven by anxieties, above and beyond the Cold War balance of terror, that must seem prehistoric even to straight-laced young viewers today. The birth control pill, for example, was brand new and abortions were illegal, which cast a pall of careless pregnancy over condomed heterosexual love-making, even in the liberated Village.
A particular anxiety afflicted the late-50s folkies, defined as a constant struggle between authenticity and commerce. The strain had something to do with the sin of selling out, squandering one’s talents and crossing over to the dark side, the money-driven world of (in 50’s hipspeak) finks, phonies, squares, straights, and Jivey Leaguers. One version or another of this tension had been, as it remains, intrinsic to bohemian life, going all the way back to the Parisian bohème of the 1840s. In the late 1950’s, the likes of the Kingston Trio (and the Brothers Four and the Chad Mitchell Trio) incarnated sell-out slickness for the authenticity-obsessed Villagers. But the Village folkies’ cult of authenticity had additional dimensions.
In part, their authenticity was political. Twenty years earlier, a smaller folk revival—pioneered by folklorists such as Alan Lomax and performers including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and the rest of Almanac Singers—had close connections to the Communist Party’s Popular Front. The intervening McCarthyite repression, followed by the crisis of Stalinist tyranny after the dictator’s death in 1953, choked off that first revival. But it also paved the way for the second revival which, arising amid the civil rights movement, renewed the first revival’s Dust Bowl, hard travelin,’ left-wing populist romance and enlarged it to include “We Shall Overcome.”
(Inside Llewyn Davis knowingly but humorously touches on the abiding sectarian leftist milieu with a single word spoken by minor union official: “Shachtmanite?” It would take far too long to explain that reference here it but can be figured out by looking up Max Shachtman online at www.marxists.org.)
The folkies’ authenticity was also aesthetic, cultivated by the 78-RPM record collectors who cherished the blues, songster melodies, and hillbilly music of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the music’s surviving master performers, ranging from Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis to Clarence Ashley and Roscoe Holcomb. Here were the sounds and the lexicon of authentic American folk music, with unadorned beauty and expressive wisdom.
Paradoxes and contradictions abounded inside the cult of authenticity. Much of the supposedly pure, uncompromised folk music of yore had, for one thing, been recorded in the 1920s and ’30s by intensely commercial enterprises, led by Victor and Columbia Records, on niche labels like Bluebird and OKeh. Authentic folk music and money making had been walking hand in hand for some time. The folksingers’ populist righteousness, meanwhile, disguised what the premier Village folksinger Dave Van Ronk, an astute left-wing anti-communist, described as a chief distinguishing feature of the folk revivals—“that the folk had very little to do with them.” By definition, the authenticity prized in the Village was impossible, a posture; and at times it was unwittingly condescending in its pastoral purism—a point made in the movie when the spirit of Authenticity made flesh twice kicks Llewyn Davis’ ass.
Authenticity came in various modulations in the Village, extending from reverential imitations sung and played as if the songs were museum pieces, to the forceful reinterpretations of older styles by gifted performers like Van Ronk. The variety created ample grounds for snobbery all around. And lurking within the folk community were the competing ambitions of young Americans who wanted to win, if not a fortune, then at least recognition, praise, and maybe a modest measure of fame. These ambitions, jangling against the politics and aesthetics of authenticity, would lead to rancor in the early 1960s, when sophisticated businessmen like the manager and impresario Albert Grossman figured out how to turn the folkies’ esoteric anticommercialism into a goldmine—foreshadowing the explosion that would rip the folk scene apart in 1965, when Dylan decided shift his music into electric blues and rock.
All of these difficulties, though, affirmed how the troubled authenticity ideal, with its self-defeating lures and snares, served, for a time, as the closest thing to a common creed as the idiosyncratic late ’50s folkie Village would honor, a creed of disaffiliation from what the folkies beheld as mainstream America’s deadening consumerism and tacky artifice. By that creed, one measured one’s own integrity as well as that of friends and rivals.
The competing claims of authenticity and commerce turn up continually in Inside Llewyn Davis, most obviously in the contrast between Mel Novikoff (an imaginary Moe Asch of Folkways Records) and Bud Grossman (an imaginary Albert Grossman). The shortcomings as well as the idealism of authenticity are obvious enough, in what John Cohen of the sparkling, old-timey New Lost City Ramblers once called “the clear, pure light of non-commercial, long-playing, short-selling records for Folkways.”But the cracked virtues of commerce slip in as well, as Grossman’s evil eye for singers who connect with an audience and will make him pots of money picks out the gangly and unhip but brilliant songwriter and singer Troy Nelson, a stand-in for the real-life Tom Paxton, even as he brusquely dismisses Llewyn Davis.
The traditionalist Davis’ superb revisions of the blues, with hints of ragtime and jazz, nearly erase the distance between past and present; sometimes they can make you weep; but they will only carry him so far. The contrasting, increasingly commercial style of Jim and Jean, embodied in Jim’s insipid, gimmicky song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” may be leading the pair to Scarsdale and cultural oblivion. But Davis’ anguished solo integrity—he had lost his real shot at commercial success when his singing partner killed himself—will confine him to a career of performing for the cognoscenti, mainly in bars and coffee houses. Like it or not, the future does not belong to performers who play drop-dead renderings of old blues songs. It belongs to those who will turn the authentic into a more personal art, making it, in the literary modernists’ formulation, utterly new. It belongs to Nelson/Paxton’s impassioned original compositions like “The Last Thing On My Mind”—and to the art of the young singer Davis disdains at the end of the movie. Authenticity defeats Llewyn Davis in more ways than one.
To one who was there (albeit as a pisher) and who has studied it since, the magical vies with the mythical in the Coens’ recreation of the early ’60s Village. The street scenes are faithful, the cars the exact vintages; everything is accurate down to Llewyn’s nephew’s Etch-A-Sketch (which came on the market, I’ve confirmed online, at Christmas 1960). But if everything is right, everything is also off-kilter. Llewyn Davis’ Welsh name instantly conjures up Bob Dylan, but Dylan had barely reached New York from Minnesota when the film commences. Word got out before InsideLlewyn Davis’ release that the title character is supposed to be based on Dave Van Ronk, and some scenes and details do roughly match Van Ronk’s life. But this is just a springboard for the Coens’ storytelling: Llewyn Davis is certainly not Dave Van Ronk.
Still, in the very first scene, Davis—acted by Oscar Isaac with some of Van Ronk’s display, especially his beard—performs one of Van Ronk’s favorite numbers, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The guitar playing, uncannily, is Van Ronk’s, note for note, and it doesn’t sound like an imitation—it sounds, well, authentic, like the genuine article. But the singing, although intense, has none of Van Ronk’s growls and twilight bluesy voice cracks. Someone who looks something like Van Ronk picks Van Ronk’s (difficult) lines but sings in another man’s voice. It is Dave Van Ronk jumbled, as if in a dream.
So the other sights, sounds, and stories of Inside Llewyn Davis are true enough but all mixed up, exaggerated, and refracted. The filmmaker’s underlying conceit of verisimilitude makes it possible for the Coens to create a mythic non-Village (like the mythic non-Mississippi Delta of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) out of a faithful rendition of the real thing. The trick, which is truly an art—and I imagine the Coens have thought hard about this—is not unlike that of the finest folk songwriters and performers, in their ability to inhabit the past, touch it, and then reconstruct it, but on their own terms.
The Village folk bohemia declined rapidly after 1965 and limped into the early 1970s, when head shops, t-shirt tourist traps, and the odd fast food franchise took over much of the neighborhood. The Gaslight shut down in 1971. Gerde’s hung on and, after moving quarters and acquiring new owners, enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s by featuring alternate rock acts such as Elvis Costello, 10,000 Maniacs, and Yo La Tengo, and a new wave of performing songwriters including Lucinda Williams and Suzanne Vega—but Gerde’s, too, folded after the owners lost their lease in 1987. The harder edged music of the punk rockers and the post-Velvet Underground Lou Reed took off elsewhere in Manhattan.
Still, a mystique pervades the old streets even now, not all of it nostalgic, not unlike the mystique that pervades Bloomsbury and St. Germain-des-Près. Enough of the old Village landmarks are alive—the Caffé Reggio on MacDougal, Village Cigars at Sheridan Square, even the ancient, decidedly unhip Monte’s Italian restaurant down near Bleecker—for the Coen brothers to play off of in filming their mythic Village. Here, half a century ago, the latest Greenwich Village bohemia sorted out anew the conflicting pulls of tradition, innovation, commerce, and art. We care about that sorting out today because we still live with its consequences, not least the music it produced. We also care because the dilemmas that the folkies faced fifty years ago, although shaped very differently now, have hardly disappeared. When they do, modern life as we know it will have disappeared as well.
The Coens, understanding and feeling all of this, shuffle the old Village folk scene like a deck of cards, then cut the deck and shuffle it again: everything is as it was except that everything is disordered and askew. Their genius lies in their ability to summon the perennial emotions and folly and loyalty of young artists and performers—some gifted, many not—and to do so by locating that folly and those feelings exactly yet obliquely in a particular time and place: MacDougal Street and its environs on the cusp of what will become the rebellious 1960s, in words and song and scenery but also in details as small as a gaze and a glance.
SEAN WILENTZ is the author of Bob Dylan in America, 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story, and several books on American history. He is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor in American History at Princeton University.