(2001) PG-13
Running Time: 1:52
Trimark Pictures

Songcatcher is a surprisingly lyrical and deeply moving independent film that I discovered last week. It is well cast and brings the viewer into a great story with powerful effect. I loved it.

Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) is a professor of music around 1907. The film is rooted in facts but takes liberties in telling the story for sake of the screen. The story opens with Lily becoming disillusioned with the “good old boys” club at the university that prevents her from academic advancement. She decides to make a break and heads for the tiny mountain village of Clover, North Carolina,Photo_05_thumb_2
to visit her schoolmaster sister Elna (Jane Adams). Here she discovers the sheer magic of the mountain music of Appalachia. The music in the film actually comes from the 1882 compilation by Francis J. Child, “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.”

Upon hearing her first songs Lily is overwhelmed. She recognizes both the power and the importance of this music and thus begins an arduous study of the words and the sound. She traverses mountains, goes from home to home, and meets all kinds of folks along the way. As an ethnomusicologist she literally enters into the ways of these people and thus the way they express those ways through their music. Driven by her obsession to understand this music Dr. Penleric also immerses herself in the problems of the people and their culture. The context is both rural and mountain but the people have all the problems brought about by deep and grinding poverty joined with social and family/property conflicts. (There is a lesbian theme in one part of the movie that demonstrates the way these folk responded to the issue in their context. Do not let this keep you from seeing the film but you will likely have some mixed emotions about this part of the story. Clearly a feminist agenda is at work here but this actually make the story more true to the times.)

I admit that I am not a huge lover of folk music but this film gave me a deep appreciation for the genre like nothing I’ve seen. These ballads are so full of rich human emotion and expression. The singer of most of the songs is the young actress Emmy Rossum (playing Deladis Slocumb). She has a great voice and a real screen presence. I hope her career advances because she is simply superb in her first role on film. The well-known Aidan Quinn, sporting a heavy beard and mountain ways, is not as impressive in this role as in others he has undertaken, but he fills it out adequately.

What this movie is all about is the music—the lilting, moving music. I know a little about mountain culture but not nearly enough. This film gave me a new appreciation for the ways and life of these people, most of whom are English and Scottish immigrants who  have made their own way in these mountains for over three hundred years.

The music of the mountains combines the influences of Scottish ballad with some West African tone. The result is distinct and still continues down to this day. What I did not know, since I am not a music historian, is the direct relationship between this music and the more popular country music of our time. Having grown up only a few miles from the “Grand Old Opry” I am not sure how I missed this but then I was never a country music fan in the first place. Now that I understand the music better I just might try it again.

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  1. c May 24, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Hi Dr. Armstrong, this is unrelated to your post, but I wanted to recommend the documentary “War Dance” to you. (If you haven’t already seen it). It is a heartbreaking and haunting account of child soldiers in northern Uganda. The film is very well-made and beautiful. The children’s testimonies are heartwrenching.
    The website is here:
    You can rent it at any local Blockbuster or maybe library.

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