As is so often the case in Coen Brothers movies, music stands out in their recent release The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Indeed, in addition to Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design, Joel and Ethan Coen’s acclaimed western anthology garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song in “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” The song was co-written by David Rawlings, and Gillian Welch—who performed two songs on the landmark soundtrack of the Coens’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The only song penned expressly for the movie, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” is sung at the end of the first of the six tales in the anthology (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) by Tim Blake Nelson (as Buster Scruggs) and Old Crow Medicine Show founding member Willie Watson (The Kid). Both characters are singing gunslingers, and the song depicts the frequent finale arising from that occupation.
"When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings"
“David and Gillian read the script and knew the scene,” says Ethan Coen. “Willie’s done a lot with them, and they know Tim from O Brother [Blake, George Clooney and John Turturro are the escaped convicts who are the main characters]. So they knew who his character was and where he was going to—and who else would we turn to for an original Americana song that would fit in with the story?”
The remaining soundtrack songs derive from traditional standards, notes Coen, beginning with the music of the classic dying cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo,” which is followed by Blake’s appearance, on horseback, playing guitar and singing the Sons of the Pioneers’ country-western standard “Cool Water.” In this version, though, a musical saw can be heard echoing the sung chorus as Blake rides through a canyon.
“We actually saw the canyon--Diablo Canyon--in Santa Fe while scouting another movie and thinking, ‘We gotta go back to Diablo Canyon!’” recalls Coen. “The guy who plays the saw—Amir Yaghmai—had to fly in with it. It’s custom-made, and Amir is a very good whistler, too, and also whistled on a couple of passes. We sometimes used that for variety.”
In an Instagram post, Yaghmai noted that he’d played musical saw and whistled “just for fun” until he started working with his composer friend Woody Jackson on his music for the Red Dead Redemption western-themed action-adventure video games. “This led directly to me sitting in a studio with T Bone Burnett and Ethan Cohen having one of the most memorable sessions of my life.”
Burnett, who worked on the music for O Brother and other Coen productions, was Buster Scruggs’ music producer.
Noteworthy, too, was the clip-clop sound of horses’ hooves on the “Cool Water” track.
“Hoof-clops is kind of a lost art!” Coen observes. “Percussionist Roger Squitero used a pair of wooden cups that he brought in his hoof-clop kit. I know Monty Python used coconut shells [in Monty Python and the Holy Grail], but they’re amateurs!”
The “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” opening segment also features another key song in “Surly Joe,” with lyrics by the Coens.
“It’s based on ‘Little Joe the Wrangler,’ which is really old,” says Coen.
The cowboy standard “Little Joe the Wrangler” was originally written by N. Howard “Jack” Thorp, published in his 1908 Songs of the Cowboys collection, and included in the Western Writers of America’s list of Top 100 Western songs. It was rewritten by Friedrich Hollaender and Frank Loesser and then sung by sidekick character actor Fuzzy Knight in the 1942 western Little Joe, The Wrangler starring Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter.
“They rewrote it, and we rewrote their version!” says Coen, who with his brother turned the original, about an orphan boy who dies tragically in a stampede, into a somewhat tragic tale about the unlucky gambler who challenges Buster Scruggs. “It’s the folk [music] tradition: A song gets stolen, and re-stolen—and stolen again!”
Other Buster Scruggs soundtrack songs include a pair of traditional Irish songs (“Weela Weela Wallya” and “The Sash My Father Wore”) sung by Liam Neeson in the “Meal Ticket” story, and the 1910 American-Irish song “Mother Machree,” sung by Tom Waits in the “All Gold Canyon” story. The British music hall song “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” is performed by Jonjo O'Neill in the closing “The Mortal Remains” story, as is “The Unfortunate Lad,” sung a cappella in the same segment by Brendan Gleeson.
Here Coen points to veteran Coen film score composer Carter Burwell.
“We talked to him about the six different movies [in the Buster Scruggs anthology] that might be connected musically or not--since each was its own thing, and all so different from each other. But we decided to start with ‘Streets of Laredo’ and end with it in the end credits, while Brendan Gleeson in the stagecoach is singing basically the progenitor of that song.”
“The Unfortunate Lad,” which is also known as “The Unfortunate Rake,” dates back to the mid-1700s and is in fact the musical ancestor of “Streets of Laredo.”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which played theatrically in limited release in November, is available for streaming on Netflix.