Inside Llewyn Davis is the new cinematic offering from the enigmatic Joel and Ethan Coen. It's inspired by the singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk, a relative unknown to the mainstream but a folk luminary, who trawled the clubs, bars and cafés of Greenwich Village from the late 50s onwards until his death in 2002. He is now deemed “legendary”, and the film is loosely based on his posthumously published memoir, The Major of MacDougal Street.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Van Ronk moved to the Village as a teenager and stayed. His debut album, Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual, was released in 1959, leading Bob Dylan to pronounce that he “sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price”. His best known song is a cover of Fed Neil's Green, Green Rocky Road, which is used in the film. It’s a sparse, nervy and exquisite recording.
I know it’s difficult to imagine a folk world without Dylan and this is exactly what the movie is all about. Set in the Village in 1961, it portrays an insular guarded and blinkered music scene that opposes change and is all about curating the folk songs of the old world. It was an intellectual and politically charged period but, dare I say it, slightly dull.
It was a scene waiting for a charge of electricity and by 1966, much to the chagrin of the old establishment “Judas” Dylan had turned it up to 11. The folk messiah moved to New York in 1961 and began to play around various clubs in the Village. He wrote and performed Blowin' in the Wind for the first time at Gerde's Folk City in April 1962 – he was 21 at the time.
The movie covers a particularly turbulent period in the life of a frustrated singer who doesn't want to move on and is teetering on a breakdown, meltdown or maybe both, in a world closing in on him. He is suffocating.
Llewyn Davis is played by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, who is totally believable as a paranoid singer who smells change and resents it: “It's a bit of an apocalyptic film, it’s a story about a man walking around in the end times before the rapture and the second coming when Dylan arrives on the scene, completely changing everything,” explains Oscar when I meet him in a posh Covent Garden Hotel.
“The scene is changing and the floor is shifting from underneath him. This was a time when folk singers were preservationists, they were looking backwards and curating these old songs and bringing them to the forefront. Dylan arrived and looked backwards and forwards at the same time. Llewyn Davis plays the old songs and doesn't write anything new. Elements of the scene want to hear new songs and it's not what he does, so he spirals into an existential crisis.“
How did he prepare for his most important part to date, imitating or reimagining a semi-fictional folk singer at a pivotal time in the development of folk music? “I started playing in the village in little coffee shops and open mic nights and I met a musician who played with Van Ronk, who lives above the old Gaslight on MacDougall Street. I opened up for him and he gave me guitar lessons. I just immersed myself in the whole thing. I sang badly for many years, until I finally got to the tipping point where I began to sing OK. I had to learn a whole repertoire of Van Ronk songs, along with this style of guitar playing known as 'Travis picking', and of course it was nerve-racking.”
This technique of playing the guitar is achieved by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips or fingernails or with picks attached to the fingers. Donovan taught John Lennon how to do it and you can hear him playing it on Julia and Dear Prudence from the White album.
I move to the adjoining hotel room to talk to the musical director on the movie, the very tall singer/songwriter T Bone Burnett, who has played with Dylan and has a long illustrious 40-year career. We talk about the village and its importance in the emerging folk scene.
He says: “I first arrived in Greenwich Village in the mid sixties and at that time it still remained unchanged, it was post Dylan so folk rock had happened and there were a lot more clubs by then, but it was essentially the same. There was a real sense of change but at the same time there were people who continually looked backward, the traditionalists if you like. The likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie could be seen hanging around Washington Square Park in the Village, along with the beat poets. At that time it was like a country town on Manhattan and people would gather around the park exchanging ideas and trying to move things forward.
“We were all trying to work out who we were, when in walked Dylan who said this is the way we will do it, we will reinvent our music and make it real and relevant for now. Dylan understood that the history is in the DNA, it's not in the story telling, it’s in the characters of the people in the songs. Music is at its most powerful when it's creating identity.”
I suggest the change was given a leg up by the British Invasion of 1964, which was spearheaded by the Beatles. Burnett responds: “You're right. America had been flattened after the assassination of JFK and the spirit the Beatles brought from England, was the exact same spirit that we were all able to reinvent ourselves with. It was an inspirational time.”
Bob Dylan is one of the 20th century’s most important musical figures. His contribution to social and political issues, along with his huge canon of work, is unparalleled: “The first Dylan was Elvis Presley, he went back through the music of the 20th century and reinvented it in the same way Bob did,” beams T Bone.
“Dylan had Elvis to work off, who knew how to take something old and completely make it new. It's amazing to think that we have been able to invent these great Johnny Appleseed characters. These guys, who grow up in a small town like Elvis in Memphis, Chuck Berry in St Louis or Robert Johnson in Mississippi, these guys grew up with nothing and they walked out of their houses with a song and they conquered the whole world. In Memphis in 1955 for instance, there were five guys: Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. They had no college education and yet they changed the entire world. That's the power of music. Music confounds the machine.”
Pete Mitchell talks to Oscar Isaac about his role in Inside Llewyn Davis on Saturday 25 January from 10pm on Absolute Radio and Sunday 26January at midday on Absolute Radio 60s. Listen here.