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Rolltop desk

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Blues singer Tommy Johnson holds on to a rolltop desk floating in the flooded area of north Mississippi where he and his friends end their journey.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – “Do. Not. Seek. The. Treasure.”

Wise words from chain-gang inmate Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), as he tries to warn his two friends – Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) – from falling into the sinister clutches of the satanic Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen) who - along with his bloodhound - is hot on the trail of this trio of escapees.

Yes, it must have been more than a few years since I last watched the Coen Brothers’ classic film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), because I had a revelation while watching it.

Sitting around the campfire, feeling a bit melancholy, the guys (who had just recorded a hit record as the Soggy Bottom Boys) are talking about what they will do when they reach the treasure they are seeking, near Arkabutla Lake, which was to be flooded to make way for a flood control project, which was an Army Corps of Engineers project that was part of the effort to change and modernize the American South. (More on the "complicated politics" of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is right here).

But Everett is only conning his pals into going for “treasure.” There is no treasure. Everett wants to stop his ex-wife from remarrying. He simply can’t let it happen. And the odyssey they embark upon is foretold by a blind seer they meet on a railroad somewhere in dusty Mississippi.

Just as The Big Lebowski, two years earlier, was loosely based on The Big Sleep (one of my all-time favorite films), the Coens were loosely referencing John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (in my top three), both films star Humphrey Bogart and both two years apart (1946 and 1948). The greed of Treasure seems to echo that of O Brother in many instances. I'm stunned I had not noticed the connection before. That was my revelation. And yet there is so many onion-like layers to most Coen Brothers films. It's remarkable!

And of course O Brother – set in 1937 during the Great Depression - is based on Homer’s Odyssey, a story the Coens had never actually read (Tim Blake Nelson, the dimwitted Delmar, was the only main cast member who had actually read it), and the 1941, Preston Sturges-directed film Sullivan’s Travels, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

But in addition to the Homeric ideas flowing through O Brother, there are references to the old legend of the crossroads and meeting the Devil there, the Devil giving the mortal a skill in exchange for his soul.

I had to be at that there crossroads last midnight, sell my soul to the Devil,” Tommy tells Delmar as they drive on down the dusty road trying to stay ahead of the law enforcement hot on their trail.

“Well, he taught me how to play this here guitar," adds Tommy, a character based not only on Robert Johnson but an actual Tommy Johnson, both of whom are rumored to have sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar. In this video, the narrator notes that Robert Johnson - who could not play guitar well at all - disappeared for a six-month period and returned to his Mississippi stomping grounds able to play guitar amazingly well. 

Robert Johnson's story has long fascinated me. The stories. The songs. It's all so deeply American. The stories resonate and stay with you. And Robert Johnson is a mystery whose story has only been partially told over the years.

Having grown up in a family where my father was a serious blues music enthusiast from his days growing up in St. Louis in the 1950's, I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou? when it was released, with my Dad and I seeing the accompanying Down From the Mountain folk/blues music tour at their stop in Shreveport, Louisiana in early 2002. I even got to meet Ralph Stanley, who signed my CD. He was the one who sang the chilling "O Death," during the Ku Klux Klan rally that Everett, Pete and Delmar infilitrate in order to save Tommy from being lynched.

Anyway, when Pete asks Tommy what the Devil looks like, Tommy rejects Everett's classic description. Instead he said "He's white. As white as you folks. With empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound. That's right.

And so Tommy is essentially describing the aforementioned Sheriff Cooley, who wears reflective sunglasses/goggles that reflect dancing tongues of fire, simulating the fires of hell.

Synchromystically speaking, as I was working on this post, Reverb magazine posted an article online titled "The Devil, the Burst and the Death Dream: Exploring 3 Mysteries in Guitar Culture" by Casey Hopkins. The timing was weird, I admit. And the writer talks about O Brother, and Chris Thomas King's portrayal of Tommy Johnson and how folks mistakenly thought it was a character based solely on Robert Johnson, not knowing of the actual Tommy Johnson who was said to have sold his soul to the Devil. Was it all just marketing? Did Robert Johnson actually learn guitar from friend Ike Zimmerman, who taught him to play guitar in graveyards at night so as not to wake up the family and the neighbors? Truth is stranger than fiction, whatever that may be.

The article also notes that Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan also is said to have foreseen his own impending death after talking about synchronicity with a friend. Vaughan is said to have admitted to this friend that New Orleans musician and singer Dr. John had warned Vaughan that he would die soon. He would, very soon after that, in a helicopter crash in August 1990, in Wisconsin. This was not far from where R&B singer for Stax Records, Otis Redding, had died in 1967 in a plane crash.

But what is interesting in rewatching O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that one of the key antagonists in the film is a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate named Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), who is a "reform" candidate and "populist" who wants to clean up the state and remove "cronyism, nepotism, rascalism" from the State House in Jackson. He even has a little person campaign alongside him to represent the "little man," who uses a literal broom to demonstrate his reform ideas.

But Stokes, like his name implies, only wants to stoke resentments and hatreds amongst middle-to-lower class whites (his "constituency") as he runs against entrenched incumbent Pappy O'Daniel. 

It's here where I have to make the Donald Trump reference. Stokes comes off like a bourgeois merchant type in Harold Lloyd specs. He has an amusing schtick that captures the attention of the voters who are looking for a distraction. Everyone knows Pappy O'Daniel and his biscuit ads. Stokes wants to attract the little man. One thing we learn, though, is that Stokes really harbors hatred for "darkies, Jews, Papists" and believers in the theory of Evolution.

Stokes is a hardcore racist who comes off like a regular guy when he isn't wearing his blood-red Klan regalia and lynching African-Americans. O'Daniel isn't a saint, but he knows enough about politics and how far to push things. Stokes is that generation who saw the "glory of the Klan" via D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

Recall that the KKK had been out of commission for decades before that film. Interesting that Spike Lee's BlackKKlansman film is coming out this very week. Many people are alarmed by the rise of overt racism in American society. Ugly scenes are caught on video seemingly every day.

Bellows Stokes, a red-robed Grand Wizard of the KKK, about what they are trying to achieve: "(We want) to preserve our hallowed culture from intrusion, inclusion, and dilution of color, of creed, and of our old-time religion. We aim to pull evil up by the root, before it chokes out the flower of our culture and heritage.”

Wow! When I heard those lines and those seemingly long-gone ideas expressed on the screen 18 years ago, little did I realize that we would be essentially facing those same views again in an Alt-Right universe where Trumpists, nativists and neo-Confederates are boldly expressing those same views, as portrayed in 1937-set Mississippi in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

It is almost as if the Coens knew a day was coming, not far into the future, when the ghosts and comedic elements of a dark past in American history would rise up once again in the form of Trumpism. Anyone can say they are not a racist. But they are one if they say they still support Trump after all the racist things he has said over the years and up to the present day. 

I think America is at a crossroads. Which path will we take?

Fortunately, our anti-heroes save Tommy from being lynched and a "fiery cross" is knocked over, eliminating "Big Dan Teague," the Cyclopian menace who stole their money and killed their "horny toad" in an earlier encounter. And don't get me started on the three "sirens" that drug the trio with their seductive ways and heavenly song. Pete nearly met his doom following that encounter. Perhaps Christopher Knowles is really on to something with this siren stuff he has been writing about for well over a decade now. In fact, I know he is on to something. 

Later, when the trio is about to be lynched at Everett's homestead, the floodwaters come and inundate the area. Tommy survives by holding desperately onto a rolltop desk - the same rolltop desk where Everett's wife's ring was believed to be hidden. Yes, Tommy survives. The Devil did not get his due - yet. 

Pete's earlier warning about not seeking the treasure was not heeded. The blind seer had promised a long and winding road of sorts. And they had survived, more or less. And here in 2018, one wonders if we will make it through this unprecedented time of division and upheaval in American society? 

Interestingly, Chris Thomas King, that singer/actor who played Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? has become quite vocal (as noted in a recent Living Blues interview I read) about the "blues mafia" that he thinks controls what is heard and what is distributed and that the purists demand you stay in a box of sorts. He has a new album, Hotel Voodoo, that demonstrates his versatility. And that's a good thing.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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