Coen Brothers, O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000

This essay explores the way white trash is often depicted on screen through the use of early 20th century country music. Whether it be through white trash country music narratives or the use of country music on film soundtracks to signify white trashness, it is undeniable that white trash has a special affinity with country music. For this reason my analysis of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001) will demonstrate the way early forms of U.S. country music emphasise the white trashness of the film’s characters.

What exactly is white trash? U.S. cultural critics Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray suggest that ‘white trash is, for whites, the most visible and clearly marked form of whiteness’ (1997: 4). This useful definition identifies the way white trash is seen as radically different from those who are just white. When something white is marked, it loses its whiteness and can no longer call itself ‘white’; it must acknowledge its off-whiteness, its white trashness. To be both white and marked in this sense is to be dirtied, defiled and decentred. As a category, white trash disrupts the neutrality, normativity and cultural dominance implied by whiteness. Richard Dyer argues that whiteness ‘secures its dominance by seeming to be nothing in particular’ (1988: 44). To characterise somebody as white trash is to acknowledge and mark their shortcomings in terms of race and class, rendering whiteness visible in the process. As such, white trash is the ‘film’ on whiteness. By ‘film’, I am referring here to the thin layer of scum that reminds whiteness of its poor relations.1

Set in Mississippi, 1937, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film about white trash people struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression. The white trashness of the film’s three main characters is consistently emphasised by its overall ‘look’. This is largely due to Roger Deakins’ cinematography which is bleached of colour,2 emphasising the hot, arid landscape, as well as the rural setting of economic hardship. The film begins in a softly diffused black and white, depicting a chain-gang of slaves performing hard labour in a desolate, expansive field. A majority of the slaves are African American, and while working they sing a traditional ‘Negro’ spiritual called Po Lazarus.

The palette of the next scene changes to colour, in time for the introduction of the three key white characters. Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are chained together and running through the yellow field, having escaped imprisonment. It appears that they would have been the only white prisoners on the chain-gang from which they escaped. At first, the identities of the escapees is ambiguous because they are framed in a long-shot that silhouettes their bodies against the bright sky. As they get closer, they are still obscured by dirt which helps emphasise their criminality. The fact that their whiteness is marked so vividly by dirt, underlines the way in which the category of white trash dirties whiteness, rendering it visible. In many ways it is because these characters are prisoners/slaves, that they come to be figured as white trash. As Newitz and Wray (1997) note, the term white trash has been said to have emerged in the context of slavery in the early nineteenth century:

Sources attribute the origin of the term [white trash] to black slaves, who used it as a contemptuous reference to white servants. While there is some reason to doubt these accounts, the emergence of white trash within the context of black slavery and white servitude speaks to the racialized roots of the meaning of the term.

Even though their whiteness is often obscured, it is emphasised on occasion. Delmar’s white face in particular is often pasty, suggesting he is either malnourished or in a state of being physically and spiritually unclean. His pale whiteness is something of a spectacle, which seems at odds with the way it is occasionally obscured. In one scene, the three encounter a mass baptism at a river. Delmar is the first to accept baptism as form of salvation, and by submitting to being dunked in the river, he believes he is redeemed and that his crimes have been washed away. Ironically, Delmar’s face continues to appear unwashed and pasty throughout the rest of the film. Though he naively believes otherwise, Delmar can never be really physically or spiritually clean because he is white trash. Delmar never appears to be anything but a dirty white person.

The film’s most recurring idea about white trash is that it’s a dirty state of affairs. The use of dirt to signify white trashness has to do with being unclean, but dirt is used to code these characters in racial terms. For example, they’re occasionally mistaken as ‘negroes’ because of their dirty faces. The fact that their whiteness is marked so vividly by dirt underlines the way in which trash dirties whiteness, rendering it visible. In many ways it is because these characters are convicted criminals, that they come to be figured as white trash.

Another reason the characters in O Brother are figured as white trash is their relationship to country music. To briefly outline the plot, protagonist Everett persuades Pete and Delmar to escape in search of hidden treasure, when his real motivation for escape is to prevent his wife (Holly Hunter) from remarrying – the treasure doesn’t really exist. They might not find treasure, but they do discover country music. Short of cash, they record the song for a blind record producer who gives them ten dollars a piece. Due to a misunderstanding, the blind record producer thinks they are a ‘negro’ group who specialise in white ‘old-timer’ music. They record the song Man of Constant Sorrow as The Soggy Bottom Boys3 and it becomes a runaway hit in Mississippi. However, nobody in Mississippi knows who The Soggy Bottom Boys are and The Soggy Bottom Boys don’t even know they’ve become famous. This is one of the first instances in the film where they are represented in racially ambiguous terms. 

This racial ambiguity is only a problem for the other white characters in the film. It is not the case when they encounter Tommy, an African American hitchhiker. Tommy had recently sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar-playing prowess. When asked to describe the Devil’s appearance, Tommy says, ‘the devil is white, as white as you folks’. Tommy is the only character to acknowledge their whiteness in such direct terms.

Later in the film it is revealed that the white ‘devil’ alludes to the Ku Klux Klan to whom Tommy had really sold his soul. In this scene, the head Klansman states that the ‘dilution’ of whiteness by the assimilation of colour is to be feared at all costs. When Everett, Pete and Delmar blend in with the Klansmen to save Tommy from hanging, they are exposed as impostors. The Klansmen assume they are black or at least ‘miscegenated’ because of their dirty faces. As white trash, Everett, Pete and Delmar are positioned in direct contrast to the Ku Klux Klan’s self-appointed privilege. While the Ku Klux Klan represent an ignorant, ‘redneck’ set of values more in keeping with the way Southern white trash has been historically perceived, the Klan is actually made up of Mississippi’s respected, middle-class set. When Tommy is saved, Everett, Pete and Delmar again attempt to blend into a community gathering by playing some ‘old-timer’ songs. It is here they perform their hit Man of Constant Sorrow and are revealed as The Soggy Bottom Boys.

The main reason The Soggy Bottom Boys’ music appealed to the film’s diegetic population is that it addressed the hardship of the Depression era. Their ‘old-timer’ music is a form of hillbilly music, an early 20th century precursor to American country music. In dialogue from O Brother, the popular music of the time (the late 1930s) is specifically referred to as ‘old-timer’ music. According to country music historian Richard Peterson, ‘old­timer music’ was first used in 1923 and was synonymous with the appellation ‘hillbilly music’. T Bone Burnett,4 the producer of the film’s soundtrack, loosely defines this style of music as: ‘pre-bluegrass music, pre-country, traditional American music. I don’ t know what it’s called, really - “American heritage music, folk, old-time stuff’ (cited in Skanse, 2000). The various types of music to which Burnett refers will hereafter be referred to as country or ‘old-timer’ music because they are now bracketed within the all-encompassing genre of country.5

By describing this style of music as ‘old-timer’, the relationship between white trash and the actual music is not immediately obvious, but when described as ‘hillbilly music’, the associations with Southern poor white trash abound. The term hillbilly first appeared in the New York Journal in 1900 (cited in Williamson, 1995: 37). According to this publication:

A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he can get it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

Of note in this definition is the way the hillbilly is racialised as a ‘white citizen’. As an unemployed male mountain-dweller, a hillbilly came to be associated with fear and revulsion, because of his investment in hard liquor and guns.

Another, much later definition of hillbilly was used in a 1926 issue of Variety in order to aid an understanding of the 1920’s ‘hillbilly music’ phenomenon (cited in Peterson, 7-8):

The hillbilly is a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white whose creed and allegiance are to the Bible ... and the phonograph. The mountaineer is of ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons. 

It is evident through these various quotes, how there was no attempt made to veil the social inadequacy of the hillbilly. This quote from Variety unashamedly takes the hillbilly to task for its outright moronic, white trash existence. Even though this description was used to contextualise hillbilly music, the only real link between the hillbilly and such music is the hillbilly’s’ allegiance’ to the phonograph. Perhaps the phonograph was regarded as a frivolous, recreational investment that played too large a part in the lives of white trash, hillbilly communities.

While this unkind description of the hillbilly is in keeping with contemporary understandings of the term, it neglects the fact that the hillbilly image in country music was only an image. Richard Peterson argues that hillbilly or old-time music attempted to construct the authenticity of the rural mountain dweller through the specific look used for live stage performances. Peterson writes that this hillbilly image had to ‘be seen as authentic, had to fit the image implied in the music, in the lyrics, and most important, in the expectations of audiences’ (55). Because the specific look was fabricated, it meant that many of these musicians did not necessarily have to be hillbillies to be seen as authentic. In O Brother, the staged musical performances are actually performed by contemporary country artists such as The Whites,6 an addition that serves to authenticate the film’s country-ness to a knowing audience. Authenticity is also constructed on the O Brother soundtrack album through its integration of original music from the 1920s and 30s with updated versions of such material by popular contemporary country artists Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch (who makes a non­musical cameo in O Brother).

In the early days of country music, the notion of hillbilly authenticity was imagined and illusory because anybody with musical ability could perform hillbilly music. It thus remains questionable as to whether or not these musical performers were in fact white trash. As Peterson writes (74-75):

the rural status system of the 1920s bears little relation to our contemporary class system. Many who by modern standards might be considered impoverished were then considered relatively well off. Such people fit into the class of ‘respectable God-fearing poor’, and socially they were a clear notch above the ‘poor white trash’ that provided the model for the hillbilly stereotype.

O Brother is set during the Depression of the 1930s and most of its characters are without question poor white trash. Old­timer music is a popular form of entertainment because it is an inexpensive activity that passes the time. Its popularity with the people is noted by two of the film’s political characters, who use country tunes to accompany their campaigns. Both candidates for governor design relentless campaigns to help their chances of being elected. One candidate uses the song You are My Sunshine, while the other’s campaign tune is the similarly themed Keep on the Sunny Side. The naïve optimism of both songs is performed for both candidates by local hillbillies, perhaps because the performance would then be perceived as more authentic, standing a greater chance of appealing to the majority of unsophisticated poor white voters. Political campaigning is also weaved through the narrative of another film about country music: Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975). In this film, Altman similarly represents a strong relationship between country music and white trash, though it is set in a much later time frame (mid 1970s) when country music was an established, popular musical institution.

Cultural critic Barbara Ching argues that ‘country music is capable of performing a rural role in such a way as to underline its construction and social purpose rather than its presumed natural essence, innocence, and/or bad taste’ (233). The constructedness of white trash identity is emphasised by the performance of country music, because in order to be regarded as authentic, a particular white trash image must be fabricated. For example, when Everett, Delmar and Pete perform Man of Constant Sorrow on stage, their white trash image is accentuated by their excessively comic hillbilly garb (fake long beards and overalls). O Brother’s reliance on satire emphasises the way country music constructs authenticity. As Peterson notes, such constructions of authenticity ‘highlight the fact that authenticity is not inherent in the object ... but is a socially agreed-upon construct in which the past is to a degree misremembered’ (5). Certainly, the spur-clad boot of country music is usually pointed in the direction of a distinctly nostalgic past. Meaning, early forms of country resisted modernity, industrialisation and progress because ‘those attracted to the music were responding to representations of an unchanged past’ (Peterson, 7).

In O Brother, the desire to maintain one’s roots in the past is evident in the way old-timey music invokes nostalgia for the ‘old times’ before the Depression.7 Pete and Delmar dream about transcending their poverty which is why they bought into the empty promise of buried treasure. As Delmar says, ‘You ain’t no kind of man if you don’t own land’. The desire to transcend poverty is an experience common to many of the characters in the film. The lyrics to the country songs used on O Brother’s soundtrack also suggest this. One song, I’ll Fly Away, speaks of the longing for freedom or a better place. But whether this means flying towards an unchanged past or a changed, industrialised future remains ambiguous.

In a review of the film, A.O. Scott states that ‘one of the themes that threads through early-20th century American folk music... is the longing for another world’. Again, the exact location of this ‘world’ is not explicitly stated. The song which opens the film, Big Rock Candy Mountain contrasts the poverty and hardship of Mississippi by alluding to a sweet-tasting world of ‘crystal fountains’, ‘cigarette trees’ and ‘lemonade springs’. One part of the song even suggests that jail is no longer threatening: ‘In the big rock candy mountain, the jails are made of tin and you can walk right out again as soon as you walk right in’.

For different reasons, Everett, Peter and Delmar long for a different world, but by the film’s conclusion they still inhabit the same world of Depression-era Mississippi. The only difference is that they are no longer in prison or on the run from the law. The success of their public performance as The Soggy Bottom Boys results in their pardon from doing any further time in jail. Country music literally saves them when nothing else could. In a sense, it is country music that brings them to a place of freedom they never imagined. The search for a new world is not granted by buried treasure, any attempts at religious salvation or even the flash flood that occurs in time to interrupt their execution by hanging. Ultimately, Everett, Pete and Delmar are rescued by the naive optimism and ‘fabricated authenticity’ of old-time, white trash country music.

Coen Brothers, O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000
  • Barbara Ching, ‘Acting Naturally: Cultural Distinction and Critiques of Pure Country’. In White Trash: Race and Class in America. Eds. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 231-248.
  • Richard Dyer, ‘White.’ Screen 29: 4 (Autumn 1988): 44-65.
  • Richard Skanse, ‘Emmylou Harris, T Bone Burnett Revive Depression-era Music: Burnett to Bring Coen Brothers Film Soundtrack to Stage’. Rolling Stone 21 April. 2000.
  • Richard A. Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  • A.O. Scott, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Hail, Ulysses, Escaped Convict’ The New York Times 22 Dec. 2000.
  • Ben Singer, ‘Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism’ . In Cinema and the Invention of’ Modern Lire. Eds. L. Charney and U. Schwartz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 72-99.
  • J. W. Williamson, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies. Chapel Hill, N.C. and London: University of North Carolina, 1995.
  • Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, White Trash.· Race and Class in America. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  1. 1 Film is an appropriate word also because my larger project has been concerned with depictions of white trash in American film.
  2. This bleached effect was achieved in post-production by a unique computer process. As reported on the Internet Movie Database, ‘The whole film was graded digitally on computer. The negative was scanned in with a Spirit Datacine at 2K resolution and then colours were digitally fine-tuned. The process took several weeks. The resulting digital master was output on film again with a Kodak laser recorder to create a print master. It was the first time this had been done for a whole film in Hollywood (but not in other countries)’.
  3. The name of their group, The Soggy Bottom Boys has wider connotations in the U.S. because the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. is known as Foggy Bottom. Named after an area near the Potomac River which was frequently blanketed by fog, Foggy Bottom is the moniker often applied to the Department of State.
  4. T Bone Burnett also provided nostalgic white trash music for the Coen Brothers’ earlier white trash movie The Big Lebowski (1998). Burnett is credited on The Big Lebowski as Music Archivist.
  5. Country music was not named as such until the 1940s.
  6. While the name of this group, The Whites, refers to a family name, it also ironically implies the whiteness of much country music. The title of their album Poor Folks Pleasure (Sugarhill, 1995) explicitly demonstrates the appeal of country music to poor white trash audiences.
  7. This attempt to hold on to an unchanged past parallels the way the modern city was depicted in the early 20th century popular press as characterised by hyperstimulus because of its ability to elicit nervous shocks and jolts in the unsuspecting individual. Cultural historian, Ben Singer writes, ‘The portrayals of urban modernity in the illustrated press seem to fluctuate between, on the one hand, an antimodern nostalgia for a more tranquil time, and on the other, a basic fascination with the horrific, the grotesque and the extreme’ (Singer, 1995: 86-87). While this example is not specific to the consumption of country music in the early twentieth century, it shows that modernity was not initially embraced by everyone. Perhaps, then, old-timer music was enjoyed by rural consumers because they were resisting social and industrial change.

Peer reviewed journal essay for Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, University of Melbourne.

Published by Refractory Journal, issue 4 in 2003.