Appalachian Song Collector
By Paal Juliussen

©Photo by Tom Robertson

Paal Juliussen
A transplanted Winnipegger now living in Montreal
 Free-lance writer trained in philosophy and journalism
  Likes food and contemporary culture
 Musician and avid cyclist
Teaches English as a Second Language

Songcatcher, Directed by Maggie Greenwald, 109 minutes, 2000, USA.
Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Performance
at The Sundance Film Festival
How country music originated from Scottish and Irish ballads
 sung in the 1600s by people who came to America and settled in Appalachia.


Maggie Greenwald’s “Songcatcher” is about transformation. The main character, Lilly Penleric, a stuffy assistant professor of musicology in an even stuffier Eastern university, achieves personal growth through a deep, personal involvement in the hard-knuckle, subsistence living of the resilient inhabitants of Appalachia.


©Photo by André Stern
Row House
Company town, near Hazard, Kentucky

Dr. Penleric’s path from being an emotionally distant observer, to spontaneous human being, takes place in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky as it existed in the first decade of the 20th century.


Rejected for promotion to full professor yet again, Lilly takes a leave of absence and travels to the town of Clover, Kentucky to visit her schoolteacher sister Eleanor. New to town, Lilly’s eyes bulge with disbelief as she listens to a ballad, “Barbara Allen,” sung by Deladis Slocumb, a teenage friend of her sister’s.


Emmy Rossum as Deladis Slocumb


Lilly knows the song as an ancient British Isles tune, and it dawns on her that this original version must have been brought to America by the wave of immigration of the 17th and 18th  centuries, preserved in all its integrity through the protection afforded by the seclusion of the Appalachians.


“Where did you learn that song? Do you know any more ballads?” demands Lilly in disbelief. She quickly seizes on the opportunity of a lifetime: publish a book of the songs of the region, and she’ll get that promotion for sure. Lilly arranges for a cylinder phonograph that can record songs to be sent to her from her university. “These may be the purest ballads in existence!” she declares excitedly by long-distance telephone to a less-than-enthusiastic male colleague and friend, Professor Wallace Aldrich.

Janet McTeer as Lily Penleric


Lilly is disparagingly nicknamed “The Songcatcher” by the people of Clover, a moniker which not only describes her mission as a collector of songs in the mountains, but which also reveals an awareness of Lilly as holding the ballads to be more important to her than the people who sing the songs.


Lilly lives in a bustling, busy time. By 1907 Ellis Island, the immigrant gateway to the United States, had admitted a quarter million immigrants. This era saw Susan B. Anthony railing against the entrenched inequalities of women. Labour unionizers were being shot dead with few repercussions. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his famous paper on the theory of relativity.


In 1898, future president Teddy Roosevelt led the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War that was also fought by a young Tom Bledsoe, mountain-dweller and future paramour of Lilly Penleric. The first meeting of Tom and Lilly did not bode well for an eventual relationship. Proudly proclaiming her mission to collect songs from Tom’s grandmother Viney Butler, Tom says simply: “Collect? You mean Exploit.” The connection of the area people to their mountain is one reason for the preservation of their songs – opposition to the Outside and being fiercely protective of what is theirs. Lilly’s strong-handed approach is seen not as a scholarly endeavor, but as an instance of an outsiders’ theft of intellectual property.


Aidan Quinn as Tom Bledsoe


By the turn of the century, Tin Pan Alley was in full flower in the United States. Tin Pan Alley, that urban explosion of talent and syncopated rhythm that took America by storm and set the tone for a century of musical genius, was dedicated to the business of selling piano sheet music at a time when a piano graced every well-appointed living-room.  The phonograph was still a plaything. The idea that people would pay a lot of money for recorded music, and for a device to play it, had yet to enter the public consciousness.


Tin Pan Alley gave us “In the Good Old Summertime” in 1902; “Give My Regards to Broadway” came along in 1904, augmenting the burgeoning Vaudeville phenomenon with immortal songs that saw a Lyceum, Orpheum or Strand theatre or in towns across the mid-west. “Shine on Harvest Moon” hit the music stands in 1908, and 1910 ushered in both “Down by the Old Mill Stream and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”


    ©Photo by Lonny Shavelson 


The incomparable music featured in “Songcatcher” is not mere backdrop. “Songcatcher” is as much about the music of Appalachia as it is about Lilly. As city-born Tin Pan Alley composers were penning their songs, musicians in the mountains of Appalachia were playing “Old Joe Clark” on homemade banjoes. “Sally Goodin” was the quintessential fiddle tune, and world-wise women were singing “When First I Came to this Country.” “Barbara Allen,” that enduring lament for timeless love, was  sung largely unaltered in word and melody since the early 18th century.


           ©Photo by Lonny Shavelson


“I was born on this mountain, and I’m gonna die on this mountain,” says Viney Butler of Bear Creek, a wise woman and keeper of ballads. Viney is speaking to Earl Giddens, land buyer and gun-toting enforcer for his coal company boss Ambrose McFarland. Earl wishes to buy her coal-rich land for a song and move her into town. Earl’s character is summed up by Fate Honeycutt, Lilly’s assistant who transports her recording apparatus over hill and dale, “He’d steal the dimes off a dead man’s eyes.”

Pat Carroll as Viney Butler

Despite being given every measure of friendship by the people of Clover and its environs, Lilly remains professionally distant, dragging her ivory tower mentality along with her wax cylinder recording apparatus. She refuses to demonstrate her gramophone to neighbours who had walked a long distance to Viney’s, and she coldly declares to a well-intentioned neighbour that her carefully rendered words and music were of no use  to her because she had not collected them herself.
 She coldly dismisses the labour of the neighbour, remarking her work has not been "scientifically collected."


At the small farmhouse owned by the Gentries, Lilly starts to see the iniquity under which the local people are labouring  – she openly criticizes Earl Giddens when he offers Parley Gentry a scant fifty cents an acre for his land (Parley’s wife Rose is played by country-folk performer Iris DeMent ).


©Photo by André Stern
Mining Family


The garden party scene at the McFarland’s is a treat for cynics of the myth of progress: “If we teach these ruffians how to serve tea, they’ll want refinement,” argues Clementine McFarland, all decked out in her abundant lace, funny hat, and oh, so very patronizing smile. Clementine proudly declares she collects local arts and crafts (while her husband Ambrose collects land for eventual strip mining). What farmers would do without their land is, of course, work the coal seams. Refined work indeed.


©Photo by André Stern
Two brothers and their sons leaving "dog hole" mine


The dance scene – with the strains of “Old Joe Clark” - provides opportunity for a chance for the men to dance with the girls. It’s here that Eleanor sees Fate Honeycutt, her chosen beau, running into the bushes with another woman, and it’s here that Earl, waking up after drinking too much and being bested in a fight, sings “Oh Death” with its haunting beginning lines that presage changes for the mountain people. “Well I am death, none can excel - I'll open the door to heaven or hell.”


Lilly’s devotion to her music department back East is tested when Cyrus Whittle, a recently-hired professor from England, comes to the area on a collection foray of his own. The necessity of her having to choose between a life-path with her new love, Tom Bledsoe, in a new enterprise, or continuing with her university, marks the end of Lilly’s tests and trials.


“Songcatcher” won the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. This prize is awarded for recognition of excellence in documentary and dramatic film.


The music in the movie is available on CD: “Songcatcher, Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture.” A companion CD, compiled from the archives of Vanguard Records, is also available:  “Songcatcher II, the Tradition that Inspired the Movie.”


“Songcatcher” features internationally renowned musicians Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens,
and Taj Mahal.                                                     

Contact: Paal Juliussen

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