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).
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”
As the Coen Brothers told The New York Times, the 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?”
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”
— Brian Ives and Kurt Wolff, Radio.com