Photograph of the book cover featuring a still from the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The main character plays guitar, smokes a cigarrette in a dimly lit venue.

© 2023 Dr. Jesse Gerlach Ulmer

rom the rapid-fire banjo picking and quirky yodeling of Raising Arizona (1987), to the deep, stirring folk songs of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), over the course of more than three decades Joel and Ethan Coen have produced some of the most memorable and influential American roots music soundtracks in the history of film. The Coen Brothers and American Roots Music is devoted to examining and providing a full critical accounting of this valuable and rich legacy.

A broad category that embraces a diverse range of musical genres, American roots music embraces blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, and other forms considered to form the vernacular sources or "roots" of traditional American music. No other musical forms have done more to define American music than roots, and no other filmmakers have presented American roots music on screen as compellingly, as humorously, or as poetically, as the Coen brothers. The enchanting, old-timey tunes in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the rousing, divine gospel of The Ladykillers, the eccentric playlist of The Big Lebowski–these films are characterized by thoughtfully curated soundtracks in which the Coens, along with their musical archivist and producer T-Bone Burnett, excavate America’s musical past to re-present half-forgotten yet unforgettable genres, artists, and songs that are not only important to American cultural history, but are also used to shape the Coens’ quirky, comi-tragic stories in entertaining and interesting ways.

Why have the brothers turned to this genre again and again throughout their career? What is the Coens’ creative process in terms of incorporating roots music into their films? What is special or significant about the Coens’ use of roots music in the context of American film and culture? What are the various functions, critical and aesthetic, that roots music plays in the films themselves? One of the keys to addressing many of these questions is by thinking about the Coens as serious curators of American roots music whose job involves, like professional museum curators, a complex admixture of scholarship, public engagement, cultural preservation and re-presentation, contextualization, entertainment, and narrative. Another key to fully understanding the Coens use of roots music and what makes it so analytically stimulating is how they employ roots music to construct multiple layers of complex meaning in relation to the story and the action on screen, filtered and orchestrated through a distinctive, tragi-comic tone that fuses irony and sincerity into a compound-complex sensibility that cannot be easily described or pinned down yet has been felt by countless viewers of Coen brother films. This peculiar tone, in fact, is one of the most identifiable and celebrated facets of Coen auteurism. Film critic Josh Levine calls this unique tone, “that Coen brothers feeling,” which elicits in viewers “a messy combination of intellectual and emotional responses that don’t easily resolve themselves into a simple statement.” The job of this book is to contend with this messy combination of intellectual and emotional responses, not to resolve them into any kind of simple statement, but to try to better understand how these responses are generated by reflecting on the central role that roots music plays in the Coens’ tonal key.

Now Available

Bibliographic Information

  • author Dr. Jesse Gerlach Ulmer
  • isbn 9781476689890
  • pages 216 pp.
  • format 6 x 9" paperback
  • publication date April 27, 2023
  • publisher McFarland

Table of Contents

  • acknowledgments
  • chapter 1. Frameworks
  • chapter 2. “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles!”: The Big Lebowski
  • chapter 3. “An Anthology of Moods”: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • chapter 4. “Let us make beautiful music together”: The Ladykillers
  • chapter 5. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song”: Inside Llewyn Davis
  • conclusion The ­Post-Existence of the Coen Brothers and American Roots Music
  • bibliography and filmography
  • index

Keywords & Interest Areas

  • The Coen Brothers
  • American Roots Music
  • American Traditional Music
  • T-Bone (Henry) Burnett
  • Folk Music
  • American Traditional Music
  • Americana Music
  • American Culture
  • Film Music & Soundtracks
  • Tone in Film, ie: irony, sincerity
  • Film Music & Soundtrack Design & Curation
  • American Film & American Indie Film