thatcow

SongCatcher

They’ll tell to you some lovin’ story and then declare they love you well and away they’ll go to court some other and leave you here in grief to dwell.� These words sung by Roseanne Cash in the ballad “Fair and Tender Ladies,� capture the basic events in the film Songcatcher. This particular stanza, however, reflects false promises made to the people of Appalachia throughout this film, especially, as the MacFarland Coal Company promises economic benefits at the cost of the people’s land and their well-being. Songcatcher depicts the preservation of a unique culture symbolized through its beautiful music that is threatened by the invasion of progress, represented by an aggressive coal company. The characters Dr. Lily Penleric, Tom Bledsoe, and Earl Giddens embody the tenacious spirit, preservation, and talent found in the Appalachian people of North Carolina.

Firstly, Dr. Lily Penleric, a talented musicologist who travels to the Appalachian Mountains to spend time with her sister, discovers that the mountain people have been singing the purest forms of Anglo-Scottish ballads that are over 200 years old. Now, she feels that she owes it to these people to preserve their songs by recording them on cylinders, phonographs, and writing them down, note for note. Although, the mountain people do not quickly accept her because she is an outsider, Lily works very hard at making contact with individuals who will share the music and make it possible for her to save as many of the songs as she can. Lily’s “pioneer spirit� and willingness to take chances, make it possible for her to collect many songs. Interestingly, the first verse from the song “Pretty Saro,� “When I first came to this country in eighteen and forty-nine, I saw many fair lovers but I never saw mine, I viewed all around me and saw I was quite alone, and me a poor stranger and a long way from home,� relates to Lily because she is far away from home, has not found her true love yet, and is actually someone’s mistress. Throughout this film, she stays focused on her efforts to make certain these love songs are around for the future. However, the irony in her capturing these ballads is that they are about love, lost love, and rejection and all of these themes relate well to Lily.

Secondly, the character Tom Bledsoe, the “mountain man� of the film, projects a very depressed and solitude spirit. He has faced many obstacles in his life, including loosing two wives, a child, and fighting in the Cuban war. Tom saw the “other side� of the mountain when he left his home to work as a coal miner. Furthermore, he realized that other cultures are much different, and for him, just unsuitable so he returns home to the mountains. In a scene with Lily, Tom says, “See, that’s what you outlanders don’t understand. Life is for enjoying, not just getting and working, getting and working.� He suggests to Lily in this phrase that life should not be all work, but it is also having fun, and sometimes letting loose is good for you. The ballad I relate most closely to Tom and his sense of loss is “When the Mountains Cry.�

A lilac comes on a poisoned thorn, it has roots dirty and torn, young-uns a-playin as the black crow flies, mama’s weeping, hear the mountains cry, there was another a wild dirt flower, cold was her heart, and as dark as dire, tears on the ground for her love did die, ‘neath the bloody moon, hear the mountains cry, oh, dig his grave, narrow and deep, set a jug of whiskey by his thirsty feet, and lay two pennies on his roving eyes, two women wailing as the mountains cry, oh the wind blows weary, and the willows sigh, rivers of sorrow when the mountains cry.

He sings this song while mourning the death of his friend, Reese Kincaid. However, it also reflects Tom’s sorrowful attitude about the bad situation in the mountains, as well as showing his personal grief both past and present.

Finally, Earl Giddens, an Appalachian native who works as a representative of the MacFarland Coal Mine, tries to buy land at the cheapest price possible. Ironically, Earl is destroying rather than preserving the way of life by cheating the people out of the value of their land, even though he is from the mountains himself. For example, at the Gentry’s home, Earl offers to pay only fifty dollars for their 100-acre farm. Lily, present at the time of the offer, asks Earl, “Is that what your education taught you, to hate your own people?� Her remark causes Earl to recognize how he is betraying his own people, although, it does not stop him from taking the Gentry’s land. After a violent scene, Earl leaves the Gentry home at gunpoint knowing he has basically robbed them. Immediately, the attitude of the mountain people is voiced through Fate Honeycutt’s comment, “That man would steal the dime off of a dead man’s eye.� Later, in an effort to redeem himself, Earl joins a community gathering and begins to sing “Oh what is this, I cannot see, an icy hand takes hold on me, oh I am death, that none can excel, I opened the door to heaven and hell,� a stanza from “Conversation with Death.� When he realizes he is unwanted, he leaves the gathering recognizing he is beyond redemption. His place in the community is reflected in the words of the song the people sing after he leaves: “Farewell, Farewell, to all farewell, my doom is fixed, I’m summoned to hell, as long as God in heaven shall dwell, my soul, my soul, shall scream in hell.� It is obvious that Earl Giddens has lost everything because he turned on his own people.

In conclusion, I would recommend Songcatcher to anyone who enjoys music, especially folk ballads. In addition, this film is an excellent story about the struggles people face to preserve their culture. Although, they each have their own task in the film, they cannot resolve each other’s individual issues as they relate to the community when faced with the changes of modernization. Furthermore, each character helps the others recognize the importance of preserving their unique culture, especially as it is represented through music. Lily, Tom, and Earl work hard to accomplish their goals and appear to succeed. However, each character has only partial success. Lily collects the music, but it burns in the school fire. On the other hand, Tom finds happiness in his relationship with Lily, but he leaves his home in the mountains to be with her. Lastly, Earl makes his land deals for the coal company, but he loses his self-respect and his place in the community. This film to me means that no matter what problems one faces or the obstacles one encounters, sometimes those things worked so hard for come at a great cost. The lovely ballads in this film reflect a similar theme of effort, hope, and loss. Songcatcher is an inspiring film that can be enjoyed by almost anyone, especially for those who appreciate music and the effort to preserve it for the future.

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Review: Down from the Mountain and Back Again star3/10 mastadonfarm

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