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Inside The Music Of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis': A 1960s Folk Primer

Need help deciphering the characters in the Coen Brothers' latest film? We've got you covered.
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Brian Ives
Brian Ives
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So, you’re a Coen Brothers obsessive who has seen everything from The Big Lebowski to Burn After Reading. Or, you’re a Justin Timberlake fanatic who sees all of his films, even Alpha Dog. Or, you’re a huge Mumford & Sons fan, who will go anywhere to hear Marcus’s neo-folk vocal stylings. So, naturally, you’re going to see Inside Llewyn Davis this weekend.

But remember when you saw the Coens’ earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and didn’t know much about that film’s old-time folk, bluegrass and country songs? If that’s the case with Inside Llewyn Davis as well, then we’re here to help. Below is our guide to some of the seminal figures from the Greenwich Village folk music scene, which thrived in New York during the early 196os and serves as the film’s setting. We lay out some of the main players and highlight a handful of their key songs.

Keep in mind that most of the characters in the film itself are either fictional or composites — meaning, they may take an influence here or there from an historical figure, but they aren’t meant to specifically reference any one person. Timberlake’s character, for instance, is a loose composite of the singers Paul Clayton and Jim Glover, the latter from the duo Jim & Jean (with Jean Ray being very loosely represented in the film by Carey Mulligan).

Bob Dylan 

The film doesn’t include a character based on Dylan (“the story takes place in the moment before Dylan and [Phil] Ochs arrived,” writes Elijah Ward in an essay on the Inside Llewyn Davis website), but he was a huge figure in the scene it portrays. The music Dylan played and recorded during this time wasn’t the Dylan of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone” or “I Want You,” it was folk music, and it spanned pretty much three albums: 1962’s Bob Dylan (which features mostly covers of traditional folk songs), 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (the one with “Blowin’ In The Wind”) and 1964’s The Times They Are A’Changin’.
Three songs: “Song For Woody” (one of two originals on his debut, and dedicated to Gurthrie, whose songs “ruled my universe” Dylan wrote in his book Chronicles), “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”


Dave Van Ronk

As the Coen Brothers told The New York Timesthe story in this film is heavily based on this particular New York folk artist. Ethan Coen explained in the interview: “We were in the office and Joel [Coen] said, ‘O.K., suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City. That’s the beginning of a movie.'” As Elijah Wald writes on the Inside Llewyn Davis website, though, the character Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) “is not Van Ronk,” though he does sing some of Van Ronk’s songs (notably “Green, Green Rocky Road”) and also “shares his background as a working class kid who split his life between playing guitar and shipping out in the Merchant Marine.” Ward also writes that “the Coen Brothers mined” Van Ronk’s biography The Mayor Of MacDougal Street (which Ward cowrote) “for local color and for a few key episodes of this week in Llewyn’s life.” Dylan was one of many young folksingers who looked up to Van Ronk, and he wrote about his first meeting with the man in Chronicles: “He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter.” Dylan also writes that, when he first approached Van Ronk to ask about getting a gig at another prestigious Greenwich Village club, the Gaslight, the singer’s response was to ask Dylan if he did janitorial work.
Three songs: “Green, Green Rocky Road,” “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” “Did You Hear John Hurt?”


Fred Neil 

The Coen Brothers told New York magazine’s Vulture that Fred Neil was a figure they also had in mind when writing the film. Neil hosted daytime shows at famed Greenwich Village club Cafe Wha?, where also performed. One of Dylan’s first gigs in New York City was accompanying Neil on harmonica during these shows. As he recalled in Chronicles, Neil was “the emperor of the place, even had his own harem, his devotees. You couldn’t touch him. Everything revolved around him.” Neil later had a hit with his 1966 song “Everybody’s Talkin'” after it was covered by Harry Nilsson on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. (The song has since also appeared in Forrest Gump, Borat and Hangover III). 
Three songs: “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Dolphins,” “The Other Side Of This Life”


Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

According to Slate, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is represented in the film via the character Al Cody (played by Adam Driver of Girls). Both the real Elliott and the fictional Cody changed their real names to something with more of a cowboy vibe: Rambin’ Jack’s real name is Elliot Charles Adnopoz, and in the film, Cody’s is Arthur Milgrum (watch a film clip featuring Driver as Cody). Despite the name change, Elliott’s credentials are bona fide. He was a one-time traveling companion of Woody Guthrie, and folk singer Odetta claimed that her mother came up with his name, saying “That Jack sure can ramble.”

Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said that it was Elliott who convinced him to become a solo acoustic performer in the mid-’70s. In an interview with England’s Guardian, McGuinn said, “He told me, ‘Roger, one of the best times I ever had was when me and my wife went on the road; I put my guitar in the Land Rover and barnstormed around the country.’ I thought it sounded a great way to go on the road: just take your guitar and your wife! It was a pivot point, and I’ve been solo ever since.”
Three songs: ” Black Snake Moan,” “1913 Massacre” (a Woody Guthrie song), “Candy Man”


Peter Paul & Mary

The infamous manager Albert Grossman (who would work with Dylan and Janis Joplin, among other ’60s legends) put together this folk supergroup, a sweet-voiced trio that came to define ‘folk music’ for much of Middle America. Their biggest song was “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” but they also brought a number of traditional songs and Dylan covers to the pop charts. As for Grossman, he’s portrayed in the film as the character Bud Grossman, who is also working with a folk supergroup.
Three songs: “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowin’ In The Wind.”


Phil Ochs

At this year’s Farm Aid, Neil Young called Phil Ochs one of the greatest poets and songwriters who ever lived, and he then went on to cover Ochs’ song “Changes.” Ochs isn’t really referenced in the film, but he is a huge figure in ’60s folk and so is a key part of the background story. Ochs never achieved Dylan’s popularity; instead, he was more akin to Pete Seeger, a guy who truly and deeply believed in the social causes he sang about. To Ochs, these were as important as the music itself. (The music of Ochs and the ups and downs of his life, which ended tragically, are the focus of the recent documentary There But for Fortune.)
Three songs: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “There But for Fortune,” “Power and Glory”


Tom Paxton

Slate writes that Paxton is represented in the film by the character Troy Nelson, who in the film sings Paxton’s beautiful ballad “The Last Thing On My Mind” (his best-known composition). Like Ochs, many of Paxton’s songs had overt political and social messages, but he also wrote about love (“The Last Thing on My Mind”) and even penned the children’s ballad “The Marvelous Toy.”
Three songs: “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Ramblin’ Boy,” “Jimmy Newman”


Doc Pomus

Pomus wasn’t a part of the folk scene at all, but he is portrayed in the film by Coen Brothers favorite John Goodman as the character Roland Turner. Pomus wrote such rock hits as “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment.”

Inside Llewyn Davis opens in theaters nationwide today (December 6).

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