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The Valedictory Anthem That Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

The Valedictory Anthem That Takes Us Inside <em>Inside Llewyn Davis</em><em></em>

“You’ve probably heard that one before, but what the hell. If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

first spoken dialogue in Inside Llewyn Davis

The coldest murder in the Coen Brothers universe doesn’t have anything to do with bullets or a blade. It doesn’t involve Javier Bardem and a bolt pistol, Liam Neeson and a river, or Steve Buscemi and a wood chipper. It happens on a blustery winter afternoon in Chicago, moments after Oscar Isaac, as Llewyn Davis, has performed a tragic English ballad for an audience of one.

The star-crossed protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) has in fact ventured to Chicago from New York, weathering a small hail of indignities, for just this moment. His one-man audience is the impresario and artist manager Bud Grossman, who runs the Gate of Horn, a marquee folk club. Llewyn’s audition is a chance to win Grossman’s professional favor—and, it seems, a last-ditch effort to convince himself that he still has a sustainable future as a folksinger. The song is “The Death of Queen Jane,” and he treats it with utmost care, picking his Gibson L1 at a cradle-rocking tempo. His singing is pure and affecting, reaching an emotional crux in the last verse, which he tenderly offers a cappella, with a faraway gaze. The silence that follows—for “a good beat” in the script, and a heavy ten seconds in real time—is punctured when Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) finally renders his judgment: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Thud! The coldest, like I said. And while the outcome probably would have been the same, it’s worth considering how this moment would have played if Llewyn had chosen a song with more life-spark. Something like the pivotal main theme of Inside Llewyn Davis: a folk lament known as “Fare Thee Well” or “Dink’s Song,” and first logged in the historical record by John Lomax, who heard a Black woman named Dink singing it along the Brazos River in Texas in 1904.

By this point in Joel and Ethan Coen’s downbeat picaresque of a film, set amidst the bootstrapping Greenwich Village folk demimonde of the early 1960s, we’ve heard Llewyn sing snippets of two distinct versions of “Fare Thee Well.” Each time, the song sheds crucial light on his psychological state, which could charitably be described as tenuous.

The first instance reveals an absence, as Llewyn, after waking up in an apartment in Morningside Heights, puts on an album titled If We Had Wings, by Timlin & Davis—his former duo with another folksinger, Mike Timlin. What we know about Timlin could fit on the head of a record needle: he was clean-cut and well-liked, he sounded like Marcus Mumford, and he ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. (Only a couple of these details are revealed in this scene; we learn the rest soon enough.)

The apartment uptown belongs to an affably pretentious older couple, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, whose orange tabby is both a talisman and an essential engine of the plot. The Gorfeins are benefactors to Llewyn: they shower him with praise, let him crash on their couch, welcome him to dinner with their Columbia University peers. It’s during one of these collegial repasts that we hear the second iteration of “Fare Thee Well.” The Gorfeins—proud of their association with a Greenwich Village folkie (and seeking to defuse some awkwardness around the table)—urge Llewyn to play a song. After some protest, he grudgingly accepts Mitch’s Silvertone guitar. “Alright,” he sighs, starting into “Fare Thee Well,” whose opening couplet (“If I had wings like Noah’s dove / I’d fly up the river to the one I love”) inspired the title of If We Had Wings. The Gorfeins are instantly moved—Lillian so much so that she begins to harmonize with Llewyn on the chorus, at which point he abruptly stops singing. “What are you doing?” he says.

“It’s Mike’s part,” she answers helplessly.

“I know what it is. Don’t do that,” Llewyn retorts. A good beat. Then: “Ah, you know what? This is bullshit,” he says, his agitation rising like the steam from Lillian’s moussaka. “I’m sorry, this is . . . I don’t do this, OK? I do this for a living. It’s not a, it’s not a . . . fucking parlor game.”

Llewyn’s insecurities and resentments are only intensified by his unprocessed grief over Timlin, who may have been more than a musical partner. And as his tirade reaches a boiling point—“I’m a fucking professional! And you know what, fuck Mike’s part!”—we’re meant to absorb the blow like the Gorfeins do, as a sputtering form of violence. 

The pivoting tension between art and commerce, much like the balance between “amateur” and “professional,” was a feature of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. Naturally it courses throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. A few scenes before his dinner meltdown, Llewyn has an argument along this grid with Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who is pregnant with a child who may or may not be his, and who diagnoses his problem as a fatalistic refusal to strive for a better situation. They’re sitting by the window at Caffé Reggio, and their conversation is interrupted by the sight of a familiar-looking tabby, which Llewyn pursues down MacDougal Street. Returning, cat in hand, he tries to pick back up the thread: “Where were we?” 

“You were calling me a careerist,” Jean says flatly. “And I was calling you a loser.” 

“Right,” he says. “Well, those are your categories.”

“No—those are your categories,” she fires back.

Llewyn does think in categories, and he measures his self-worth by some shifting calculus of realness. And whatever you think of the intriguing theory that “Llewyn is the cat,” it’s notable that his later outburst at the Gorfeins’ leads directly to a revelation about the orange tabby. Lillian, who has fled her dining room in tears, returns holding the animal as if it were contaminated. “Where’s its scrotum?!” she demands. “Llewyn, WHERE’S ITS SCROTUM!”

The Coens cut from that priceless line straight to Llewyn’s trip to Chicago, in a Plymouth that belongs to Al Cody (Adam Driver) and is being driven by his friend, the laconic Beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). And in case Llewyn’s evening at the the Gorfeins’ hadn’t been humiliating enough, the other passenger in the car is Roland Turner (John Goodman), a pompous jazzman with an array of noxious habits, both narcotic and colloquial. (“Folk songs,” he scoffs. “I thought you said you were a musician.”) Llewyn, whose father is a retired Welsh seaman, seems wearily familiar with this abrasive verbal treatment. To some degree, we even see him uncoil a little in the car, when he passes the time by singing “Green, Green Rocky Road,” in a jaunty ragtime arrangement identical to the one associated with Dave Van Ronk. 

There’s a certain pitfall in overstating the correlations between Llewyn Davis and Dave Van Ronk, as more than a few surviving folkniks have observed. Van Ronk was a bearish guy with a rough-hewn singing voice, and his roving intellect was shot through with leftist politics and self-awareness, neither of which is Llewyn’s strong suit. (He was also in the merchant marine but, unlike Llewyn, saw the experience as a positive. And he was astute about how race interacts with privilege, an idea that barely registers in the film.) Van Ronk’s eagle-eyed memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was published posthumously in 2005, and provided source material for the Coens. Some of the wry particulars in the book, which was cowritten by Elijah Wald, turn up in Inside Llewyn Davis—along with a general mood of something in the air, and on the verge. But there are also a few details lifted more or less whole, notably in the ill-fated schlep to Chicago. 

Van Ronk, like his fictional counterpart, hitched his way to the Windy City basically on a lark. He devotes several pages to this story, which features delusions of grandeur, a handful of Dexedrine pills, an undelivered demo, and a seat-of-the-pants audition for Albert Grossman (the actual Bud) at the Gate of Horn (the actual club). Describing Grossman’s reaction to his mini-set, Van Ronk writes: “His face had the studied impassiveness of a very bad poker player with a very good hand.” He also recalls that he filled his do-or-die performance with “my biggest flag-wavers”—including “Dink’s Song,” which he recorded for Folkways in 1961.

When Oscar Isaac auditioned for Inside Llewyn Davis, his chief asset was the time he spent learning Van Ronk’s guitar style—a jazzy variation on alternate thumb picking, or Travis picking. When Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Café in the opening scene, it’s an invocation of that style. His 6/8 arrangement of “Dink’s Song” is another tacit homage, though Llewyn’s vocal is much silkier than Van Ronk’s, in line with the soft-burnished rustic chic of T Bone Burnett, the Coens’ executive music producer and folk Buddha.

“Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” as it’s listed on the soundtrack, is about resigning oneself to heartbreak. But it’s also about conjecture—if the singer had wings, then there’d be no farewell. Its poignancy for Llewyn is manifold. What if he’d taken Grossman up on his offer to join a trio? (This too came from Van Ronk, who coulda been the “Paul” in Peter, Paul & Mary.) What if he’d turned off the highway to Akron, in search of the woman who’d secretly birthed his child? What if he hadn’t lost the cat? What if he hadn’t lost his cool? What if Mike had never died?

Like some other Van Ronk staples at the time, “Dink’s Song” was also in the active repertory of an up-and-comer named Bob Dylan. In fact, Dylan performed it at Gerde’s Folk City on September 30, 1961—the day after a fateful review, hailing him as “a bright new face in folk music,” appeared in the New York Times. There’s a nod to this momentous occasion in the film, when Jean urges Llewyn to play the Gaslight because “the Times is gonna be there.” When he finishes his set and heads out into the alley—due for a beating from the husband of a Jean Ritchie-esque warbler, whom he’d crassly heckled the night before—we see Dylan onstage, starting into a rambling valediction titled “Farewell.” (First line: “Oh, it’s fare thee well, my darlin’ true . . .”)

Anyone familiar with the broad contours of “the Great Folk Scare,” to borrow Van Ronk’s ironical term, will understand this moment as both an ending and a beginning. Dylan, destroyer of worlds, is putting an end to the neighborly, low-stakes Greenwich Village scene that Llewyn inhabits like a fish in a bowl. What lies just ahead is the earnest boom, perfectly captured in the Murray Lerner documentary Festival (1967), and skewered in the rearview by Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind (2003). In time Dylan would help end that world too.

But the heaviest what-if in the film isn’t as grandly meta as all that. It comes at the close of Llewyn’s Gaslight set, as he offers the only full version of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).” This is the kindest favor the Coens allow him; the performance is stirring and sure. “That’s what I got,” Llewyn says after, to a smattering of applause. What if that had been enough?

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