For the second installment of a series celebrating music choices in films, Lizzie Rodgers looks at the siren song in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I first realized the mesmerizing powers of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” from the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), when I found myself singing it to a garden as I planted vegetable seeds. The song snuck up on me and before I knew it, I was sitting in dirt, attempting to sing the seeds to sleep in the same syrupy, Southern voices as those of the actual singers, Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch. The spell was broken only when a co-worker at the farm tapped me to head back to the truck.
This is the affect of this song and many others on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Set in 1930s Mississippi, the movie narrates the journey of three jail-escapees (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson), basing their adventures on those of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Joel and Ethan Coen took some creative license while adapting the Odyssey, but one detail they decided to include is the story of the sirens, albeit with a twist. The siren song is one of the most memorable parts of the Odyssey: gorgeous women sing to Odysseus beautifully, trying to entice him and his shipmates to their death. In the Coens’ 1930s Mississippi, the siren song resurfaces as “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.” Driving down a dirt road in a stolen car, the three men dressed in rags are stopped when one fugitive, Pete, hears their voices. Spellbound, he screams for the car to pull over and the three men run down to a river where the angelic sirens are poised on smooth rocks washing their clothes. The men hear their lullaby: “Go to sleep you little baby, go to sleep you little baby, your momma’s gone away and your daddy’s gonna stay, didn’t leave nobody but the baby…” Suddenly, the sirens are in control; they’ve swept the fugitives off of their feet and into their river world.
The creators of this soundtrack picked each song to fit the corresponding scene very precisely. Although this movie is not a musical, it uses music to enhance the film to an unusual degree. The producer of the soundtrack, T-Bone Burnett, worked with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to write and create a great country-feel for the movie through the music, which won all three Grammy awards. “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” is especially effective. Although it’s a lullaby, the lyrics of the song and sirens themselves make the scene eerie. It evokes the essence of the sirens in the Odyssey, who are dangerous and notorious for leading men off course. Both the song lyrics (“you and me and the devil makes three”) and the sirens’ actions towards the men give the scene a sexual dimension. At the end of the scene, the sound and image fade out, indicating the captivating and hypnotic powers of the song, as the men are lulled into blissful sleep by the sirens.