The Coen Brothers new film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a moody portrait of Greenwich Village in 1961. Beautifully art directed, it re-creates the world of the Folk Revival with such vividness you can practically smell the sweat and cigarette smoke. The music (produced by the great T-Bone Burnett) is captured in such loving, simple way. Entire songs are included; no cutting away and fast fade-outs. It is a film that goes entirely against the rhythm of most modern cinema. It is a moment-by-moment tale of a man trying to pursue his dream while everything (and I mean everything) tells him to give up.
One of highlights of the film is a touching scene where the young folksinger Llewyn attempts to communicate with his father, who is suffering from something like Alzheimer’s (though it was only called “old age” then). He picks up his guitar and sings a childhood favorite, a song his father always loved: “The Shoals of Herring.”
Well, that scene sent shivers down my spine and brought a tear to my eye. Why? “The Shoals of Herring” happens to be my favorite song. Never heard of it? If you’re American and under forty, I’m not surprised. But if you’re British or aware of the English folk scene in 1960s, you might know it.
Oh, it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger
For to hunt the bonny shoals of herring.
Now, you might wonder why a boy growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia would find himself so touched by a song about the life of a fisherman on Great Yarmouth on the North Sea coast of the U.K. It’s confused me too. But the song has always moved me. Maybe it’s because it describes so well the work and toil of life in general.
Sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes
as we hunted for the shoals of herring
Later in life, I re-wrote that to fit my life:
Sat on my ass, pitched ten million jokes
As we hunted for the shoals of comedy writing.
Well, you can fill in whatever you do for a living and get the idea.
But I think it was Liam Clancy’s heart-felt delivery of the song that really got to me. I used to listen to The Clancy Brothers albums for hours on end, this song in particular. Liam sang it with all the anguish and world-weary triumph of a man who had lived his life and lived it well. To paraphrase Rex Reed talking about Barbara Cook , if I get to heaven and the angels don’t sound a lot like Liam Clancy, I’m going to ask for my money back.
The song was actually written in 1960 (therefore it couldn’t have been a favorite childhood song of Lllewyn, but who’s quibbling?) by the great British folksinger and all-around friend of the working-man, Ewan MacColl.
MacColl was a dyed in the wool Communist (he once wrote a song in praise Joe Stalin, though he had the good taste to be embarrassed by that later in life) and rabble-rouser who lived as down-and-dirty a life as Davis in the film. He was heavily influenced, as all early folk singers were, by the wandering maverick Alan Lomax, who traveled the world collecting folk songs and causing trouble.
Ewan was married to theater-great Joan Littlewood, left her for Pete Seeger’s sister Peggy and wrote some of the greatest songs of the Century. He produced nearly a hundred albums. (He hated Bob Dylan for taking the little niche of Folk and turning it into His Personal Empire. Presumably, Llewyn had the same take on Dylan, after the film closes.)
And the songs MacColl wrote! “The Shoals of Herring” for one but also “Dirty Old Town” and even “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Quite a legacy.
But it’s “The Shoals of Herring” that stays with me. Supposedly, MacColl just interviewed fishermen and set their quotes to music. I can believe that. The lyrics are above all genuine in their depiction of a working life. For me, the song says it all about life and work and how they go together.
Night and day we’re faring
Come winter wind or winter gale
Sweating or cold,
Growing up, growing old and dying
As you hunt the bonnie shoals of herring