'Inside Llewyn Davis': From General Custer to Mr. Kennedy, the Genesis of a Novelty Song
If T Bone Burnett's new folk ditty is the next "Man of Constant Sorrow," who stands to reap the rewards? The song's credits are as muddled as its history.
There's no doubt that when it comes to movie soundtracks, T Bone Burnett has good instincts. His intuitive sense certainly panned gold from the musical stream that was O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which sold over 6 million soundtrack albums and made the traditional folk song "Man of Constant Sorrow" into an unlikely hit.
Now, with the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1960s-set filmic-folk-fantasy Inside Llewyn Davis (opening in limited release on Friday, Dec. 6), Mr. Burnett may prove that lightning can strike twice. The film's song "Please Mr. Kennedy" is not just a hot pick because it's representative of that era (and a little kooky, thanks to Adam Driver's loopy bass vocals), it is actually an old topical tune with a muddled, borrowed history that evolved over several iterations. Appropriately enough, that was what song-catching in the folk scene of the 1960s was all about anyway.
"Those songs are beautiful," Burnett tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I do love those songs, and they grow right out of our soil. They grow out of our national identity in a similar way that the songs from O Brother, Where Art Thou? did. They all come from the same place. And they just took different forms and had different intensities."
Case in point: There's a scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) reluctantly participates in the recording of a novelty song called "Please Mr. Kennedy (Don't Send Me Into Outer Space)." The already much-shared clip, which features actors Isaac, Driver (of Girls fame) and Justin Timberlake, realistically depicts the session creation of this silly little ditty. But where did the quirky composition originally come from? And who deserves to get paid for it?
Burnett's rep explains that the music maestro and the Coens adapted their song "Please Mr. Kennedy" from another novelty song of the same name that came out on the 1962 album Here They Are by The Goldcoast Singers. That tune depicts a comical draft-board scenario where some shaggy rock 'n' rollers beg President John F. Kennedy not to enlist them into the army. Since these lyrics were modified for the film (making it ineligible for a best original song Oscar), the new songwriting credit shows original writers Ed Rush and George Cromarty now accompanied by Burnett, the Coens and Timberlake.
That's interesting, because in December 1961, the Tamla-Motown label released a 45 single entitled "Please Mr. Kennedy (I Don't Want to Go)" by Mickey Woods, and you can easily hear the similarity between that war-phobic plea and the Coen creation. Credits for that particular tune actually list Berry Gordy, Loucye Wakefield and Ronald Wakefield as the song's composers -- no trace of Messrs. Rush or Cromarty here.
Before Mr. Gordy starts calling his attorneys, we have to further note that it's fairly obvious the Motown folks lifted their novelty song directly from the No. 1 Billboard hit "(Please) Mr. Custer" sung by Larry Verne, which was released a year earlier in 1960 on Era Records and written by Al De Lory, Fred Darian and Joseph Van Winkle.
Structurally, all four tunes have plenty in common. And much the same way that Justin Timberlake's character doesn't want to go into space, The Goldcoast Singers and Mickey Woods tell the president they're reluctant to go to war -- and the politically incorrect Verne shamelessly implores Gen. George Armstrong Custer not to take him along to Little Big Horn. He's got a bad feeling.
Before technology was employed in the documentation of song, the oral storytelling tradition of passing along information was all we had. Clearly, things haven't changed that much in the record business -- the oral tradition is still alive and well, T Bone Burnett has displaced linear time, and copyrights be damned.
Take a listen to the sonic lineage in action and tell us what you think.