We've been marking the death of Pete Seeger earlier this week with a look at his enthusiasm for mass murderers and at the story behind the song he stole from a talented African who died penniless. So I thought we'd close out a folky week with some cheerier fare for a Saturday Night At The Movies - Christopher Guest's 2003 mockumentary about faux folk music, A Mighty Wind:
I always love it when some record from the "Sixties folk music boom" comes on the radio, and one can wallow for three minutes in comically twee clean-cut earnestness: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Brothers Four and all the other college boys pretending to be field-hands. As for the songs, I quoted in my Seeger send-off this trenchant analysis of his lyric style by James Lileks:
'If I Had A Hammer'? Well, what's stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they're about a buck-ninety, tops.
Just so. Anyone can have a hammer, and hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, hammer out danger, hammer out a warning, hammer out love between one's brothers and one's sisters all over the land.
But, upon reflection, the fact that the thought is idiotic is, I think, the point. If it made sense, it would sound too polished, too written, too Tin Pan Alley. It can't be easy sitting in your study and writing brand-new "folk" songs when you're a long way from the cotton fields. So somehow these guys got it into their heads that, if you sounded like a simpleton, it would come over as raw and authentic. I once spoke to a Vegas pal of Bobby Darin's, who gave an hilarious account of Darin, coming out of his finger-snappy tuxedo phase, and agonizingly re-writing and re-re-writing his "folk anthem" "A Simple Song Of Freedom" because he was worried it was insufficiently simple.
The legacy of this period is less musical than political: half-a-century back, the self-consciously childlike "folk song" met the civil rights movement and helped permanently infantilize the left. I caught an "anti-war" protest in Vermont a few years ago and the entire repertoire was from the Sixties, starting with "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", which as a poignant comment on soldiering was relevant in the Great War but has no useful contribution to make in a discussion on Iraq. And, as I observed of Pete Seeger's visit to the "mass" protest movement of our own time, the more pertinent question with the Occupy Wall Street crowd is "Where have all the showers gone?"
So, for all the above reasons, A Mighty Wind is potential comic gold. Christopher Guest has carved himself a nice niche and virtually an entire genre all to himself as an observer of the dorkier corners of showbusiness – the past-it rock group (This Is Spinal Tap), am. dram. (Waiting For Guffman), pedigree dogs (Best In Show). He's not a satirist; he loves his characters in all their doomed pretensions. But he did capture their worlds completely – the absurd pomposity of rock, the upper-middle-class manager, the divisive dolly bird, etc. When A Mighty Wind opens, Guest and his co-writer Eugene Levy are once again on note-perfect form: a legendary folk impresario, Irving Steinbloom, has died, and his son decides to get together all the old acts for a tribute concert live on public television. We meet the New Main Street Singers, a "neuftet" that's more like a sub-Jonestown cult than a vocal group; the (Highwaymen-esque) Folksmen, a now grizzled old trio played by Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean; and a once fey, latterly deeply damaged duo called Mitch and Mickey, played by Levy and Catherine O'Hara. The specially written numbers include "Old Joe's Diner", for the Folksmen, and "A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow", for Mitch and Mickey, both of which were co-written by one of my favorite actresses from the Eighties, Annette O'Toole (Cat People), on a very long car journey caused by the grounding of air traffic on 9/11. Miss O'Toole has a very good ear: These numbers are not so much parodies as songs exquisitely poised at the same exact point of awfulness as the real thing.The Folksmen, who met up at the University of Vermont, sing lyrics about how "my daddy was the son of a railroad man" while wearing "dickie bows" – though, as they point out, "It wasn't retro then, but it's retro now. Then it was nowtro, if you will." If Spinal Tap was laugh-out-loud funny, this film is mellow enough to potter along on wry chuckles.
Its low-key laughs are rather winning: As with the mesmerically awful PBS pledge-week special it parodies, you get sucked in. But for once Guest's faithful recreation is oddly selective. When the movie came out, Michael Hadju in The New York Times bemoaned the film's evasion of the politics of these performers. And, even if he sounded like a parody critic, he's still right. Guest simply eliminates the politics – no Pete Seeger, no civil rights, no Vietnam, just an intro to a number about the Spanish Civil War ("In the late 1930s of the last century, Spain was racked by civil war..."). As if in acknowledgment that something central has been left out, Guest and Levy cast their joke net so wide the focus sometimes gets lost: the New Main Street Singers are managed by a coarse bruiser from a forgotten sitcom trying to live off a catchphrase no-one remembers; Mickey has a new husband in the "bladder management business"; Laurie, a breezy good-time blonde of a certain age beautifully played by Jayne Lynch, used to work in porno flicks... These are efficient and agreeable jokes, but very general.
Aside from Miss Lynch, there are two very sweet performances, by Levy and O'Hara as Mitch and Mickey. Poor old Mitch, gulping up each word as if it's physically painful, is a walking testament to how you can OD on the relentless perkiness of faux folk. If you feel the same by the time he makes it to the end of his big number and need an aural palate-cleanser, the best song to emerge from this period was Ervin Drake's "(When I Was Seventeen) It Was A Very Good Year", originally recorded by the Kingston Trio, though it only sounded good after Sinatra did it with a big dramatic Gordon Jenkins arrangement heavy on the plaintive oboe. Sinatra sounded as if he'd actually had some very good years. When the Kingston Trio did it in their usual perkily unengaged style, they sounded like eunuchs who wouldn't know a good year if it fell on their heads. As for "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore", my advice is jump ship in the first verse. Still, that's the genius of Guest's movie: The Folksmen songs in particular - like the one about the neon diner sign half of whose letters have gone dark - is that its pastiche is, almost literally, painfully accurate. To go back to Bobby Darin and his difficulties writing his simple song, anyone can write a serious song; many people can write a funny song; but to sit down and write, intentionally, a funny song that's seriously unfunny has a kind of genius.