Of Petunia, volcanoes, and deals with the devil: Beth Harrington on The Musicianer

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      Filmmaker and musicologist Beth Harrington is normally based in Vancouver, Washington—“the one that is always mistaken for yours,” she tells the Straight— but she occasionally forays north, as will be the case on Sunday, May 19, when she attends a screening of her film The Musicianer at the Rio. The short film, a 20-minute pilot for a series she’s developing, stars local roots musician and yodeler Petunia, of Petunia and the Vipers, who will also be performing on the 19th. Petunia plays—big stretch here—a yodeling roots musician, led into intrigue by the rediscovery of a long lost short film, also called The Musicianer, which stars fictional yodeler/singer Vern Lockhart. To Petunia’s surprise, the film-within-the-film actually ends up starring, apparently, himself.

      The narrative, shall we say, is “layered”.  

      Last week, Petunia spoke to the author about the film and his role outside the WISE Hall, where he continues his Monday residency with the Vipers, as part of his process towards recording his next album.  You can see that clip here. That talk also takes in the time Petunia sang along while someone played Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, and his enthusiasm for the Carter Family, which initially brought him together with Harrington, whose past film credits include a documentary about the Carter Family, The Winding Stream.

      The Straight also spoke with Harrington about her career—which also includes singing backup vocals for Jonathan Richman!—and the curious story of The Musicianer (a trailer for which can be also found online).  

      GS: How did you get into roots music and rockabilly? How did you get into filmmaking? Which came first, for you?

      BH: Music and art and communications were part of my family culture. I can't separate them out. My dad was an artist and a Mad Men era advertising guy (which, if you followed that show, makes me Sally Draper). Mom was a creative spirit and an art teacher. Dad also sang as a very high level amateur (Bing Crosby aficionado, sang in bands in the Navy). Rock and roll in all its forms was/is a huge part of my life. As a teenager, I played guitar and volunteered at a progressive rock station in Boston. I was surrounded by music and musicians and the excitement of all that and I was sure I was going to be a freeform radio DJ when I got out of college. Instead I found my way into: 1) a rock band; and 2) filmmaking.

      Where did the idea for The Musicianer come from?

      It came from a few places: 1) from meeting the talent that is the man-not-of-this-era, Petunia; 2) from a backlog of music history information I'd compiled from my film The Winding Stream that had no place to go but into another film; and 3) from a bunch of experiences I'd had in graduate school in American Studies and in attending academic country music conferences. All these pieces started to come together in my head after Petunia and I first started conversing about working together.

      I  was just chatting with Al Mader (the Minimalist Jug Band, a longtime Petunia collaborator) and learned something surprising,  that may become relevant to The Musicianer: your husband is a vulcanologist? What does that entail? Do you get to go check out volcanoes with him?

      Andy Lockhart (yes, that's where I got Vern's last name in The Musicianer) is my husband and a volcanologist for the U.S Geological Survey. I met him making a film about a major volcanic crisis in the Philippines, and the scientists who saved the day (he being one of them). Andy's job involved crisis response at erupting volcanoes, hazard mitigation (getting people out of the way when danger is nigh) and training scientists in developing countries on equipment and techniques to do all this. It's incredibly cool and important work and involves a great deal of diplomacy and compassion. He's awesome. I have been to a few of the places Andy's worked in (Saipan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Guatemala) but never when he's actually in a crisis response,  since the goal is to get people out of the way and extra people are not needed in that scenario!  

      Andy will be with me at the Rio screening. And he's an extra in The Musicianer (he plays a background academic.) 

      (Do you check out local musics when visiting places with volcanoes, or collect “volcano songs,” or…? (Actually, I don’t know any volcano songs, but maybe you do?).

      Whenever possible I check out local music anywhere I go in the world. In Mexico there was a band called Los Pinguinos that did a song called "Volcan" that I always liked. Can't find it on the internet sadly. But it was cool. I know there are tons of volcano songs out there. Forces like that are hard to ignore creatively. 

      Musicologists are obviously a big part of The Musicianer. Are you yourself also an academic (and if so, what did you specialize in?). Do you  hang out with musicologists much?  

      As I mentioned I went to graduate school for American Studies which - depending on the program—is a multi-disciplinary combination of history, literature, social science, and cultural studies. All my films connect to this in some way (in fact, I went back to school for this very reason—to become better versed in all these areas so my films would be stronger). I loved the time I spent at University of Massachusetts in the American Studies program. I met great teachers and fellow students. My advisor and I are still friends 23 years later.

      And the people I've met in musicology subsequently have all been amazing. Lots of musicologists and music writers contributed to my films The Winding Stream (about the Carter Family and Johnny Cash) and Welcome to the Club—The Women of Rockabilly. One of the greats that I got to meet was Mike Seeger. He not only was a foundational roots music musician in the 1960s with the New Lost City Ramblers but he was also a famed musicologist (brother of Pete Seeger and son of two famous musicologists). He was incredibly impressive and someone I truly felt was a (quiet) giant in that world. He brought Mother Maybelle Carter out of retirement and arguably helped re-launch her career to a generation of folkies. Mike wasn't flashy. Just super thoughtful and smart. 

      And i thought, that world is one you don't really see in narrative films. I thought I could have fun with it because, like any field, there are people who are great and people who are competitive in a bad way, or toadies, or both. Academics I know who have seen the pilot of The Musicianer tell me they think I hit it on the nose.  

      I don’t entirely trust the academics, though so far the ones in The Musicianer seem sweet. But they’re leading our hero into a very strange land, and some of their gossiping about each other suggests there may be a criticism of them forthcoming…. Is there? Are they ultimately a force for good or evil in the series? Is there commentary on their weaknesses of faults in the future course of the story…?  

      No one person in this series is all good or all bad. Since at the heart of it, The Musicianer is about art and ambition, everyone's got a side that's competitive and everyone's got places they will and won't go. So the academics are in the same league at the musicians and actors depicted in the film. Human. And some of the people you think are most evil probably won't turn out to be... 

      When it comes to music, how committed an archivist are you? Do you  have a working 78 rpm player?  

      I'm not the grand record collector that one might expect. I think I started to be way back when but then realized I had other ways of expressing my interest in music and that collecting at the level that I knew was possible wouldn't be my thing. But boy, I know many people who are at that level and I'm proud and lucky to know them. They represent levels of knowledge and access to things that can benefit me when needed -- and have. I'm grateful to them. 

      But yes, I do have a turntable that plays 78s.  

      Do you have any particular favourite music documentaries, ones that you feel you learned a lot from? 

      Stylistically and from a storytelling standpoint, I loved Twenty Feet from Stardom and Searching for Sugarman. I'm always looking for new ways to tell music stories. But I also enjoyed the new Quincy Jones documentary. I thought I knew his story and didn't. Other favorites in no particular order: Running Down a Dream (about Tom Petty), Dig! (about the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre), Some Kind of Monster (about Metallica! Brilliant!), Hype!, Who Is Harry Nilsson?, The Buena Vista Social Club, Standing in The Shadows of Motown, Miss Sharon Jones. These are all great films for many different reasons (and the ones that often impress me most are the ones about music I'm less interested in but hook me nonetheless -- the Metallic one is a great example of that).

      But the greatest music "documentary"—maybe the greatest "documentary", period—for me will always beThis is Spinal Tap. (Put smiley face emoji here. But I'm also serious.) 

      Al Mader also tells me that you sang with Jonathan Richman. When? What was that like? Tell me a story? What is it like to work with him? Have you been in other bands? 

      Yikes. Talking about Jonathan and my years in the Modern Lovers is a whole story all by itself. It was great. It was an entirely unexpected opportunity (like being an actress getting discovered at a drug store soda fountain in the 1940s). He is a genius performer and someone I admired in his first version of the band when I was growing up in Boston. So it was amazing when years later he asked me to sing in our version of the band. I was thrilled and terrified because I'd only sung in the studio and never performed live. But I learned from one of the greats by being next to him on stage night after night. He believed in me and it was completely confidence building. We're still friends today 40 years later. He's an iconoclast and can make you nuts at times but he's also brilliant and so devoted to the music. He has carved out a unique path in music.

      What was your introduction to Petunia? When did it occur to you to cast him in a fictional role? How was working with him (as a novice actor?). Had you worked with actors before?

      I met Petunia through my editor/friend Emily von W. Gilbert who is an old friend of his. I went to a gig and was immediately blown away by his talent and by his - this will sound very woo-woo - aura. I think everyone who sees him on stage says "there's something about that guy."  We almost immediately started talking about collaborating on something. I really believed he could act and I wrote the part for him so I was capitalizing on what I saw already. But it turns out he is capable of a lot more as an actor, and I am anxious to keep working with him to see him stretch and expand on what he's already done. In any case, he's a pro, he's focused, he's easy to talk with and develop things with, and he's respectful of me and the crew. Everyone loved working with him. 

      I have worked with actors before but it had been a while. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. Making stuff up and getting people to say those things is really liberating when you've been making documentaries and you're waiting around for real people to say authentic things.  

      There’s very much a Twilight Zone element to the film, maybe with a bit of David Lynch thrown in. How weird does the story arc get? How far along do you have the arc of The Musicianer planned out? Have you shot material for later episodes?

      The arc gets a little weirder but not quite Lynchian (though I am flattered by that comparison). We have not shot any new episodes yet but I have written the scripts for seven more shows. 

      What are the locations for the film? Did you shoot up here, or in Oregon? (That’s your home base, right?). 

      We shot this all in the Portland and Vancouver, Washington area. It was easy to shoot in our Vancouver because it's doesn't see a ton of film production so people seem very open to letting me do stuff here. I'm a novelty and a medium-sized fish in a smallish pond. 

      We shot the bar scene and a piece of the train scene in Portland. The "Film within a Film" (the 1920s music clip) was shot on a sound stage in Portland. 

      Tell me about your leading lady. Have you worked with her before?  How did you end up casting her? 

      Jo Cullen is played by the amazing Grey DeLisle Griffin. She is a Grammy Award winning singer and actor. But she is mostly known as voice-over artist. She is probably the most often employed female voice person alive right now. She's done over 700 voices for cartoons, feature films and video games—everything from Vicky from The Fairly OddParents, to Yumi Yoshimura from Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi; from Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, to Lola, Lana, and Lily Loud from The Loud House; from Daphne Blake in the Scooby-Doo to Jacqueline Natla in the Tomb Raider games. She's formidable but lovely. I first met her working on The Winding Stream. She sang in it along with her former husband Murry Hammond of  Ol' 97s. I didn't write the part for Grey but after I did I realized Jo was her!

      Is the Musicianer (the character, not the film) based on  Jimmie Rogers, or (actual country musician and “Wreck of the Ol’ 97” performer) Vernon Dalhart, or is he a composite character? 

      Only in a very loose sense. Jimmie's an archetype I'm jumping off from. But obviously Petunia is a yodeler and I wanted to showcase that and Jimmie is probably the world's greatest yodeler. So there's that. Also I wanted to make a 1920s film like Jimmie's Waiting for a Train so I was influenced by the look and feel of that. And I just liked the idea of Petunia sporting the straw boater and suits that Jimmie was often known for. Vern's story in The Musicianer has a couple of tiny connections to the kind of life an artist like Jimmie would have led, but it's not at all Jimmie's story. 

      I am very fond of stories of lost cultural artifacts returning to light in unlikely ways – from the story of the comebacks of Death (or, locally, the  New Creation) to things like the discovery of a complete cut of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in a janitor’s closet in a European hospital for the mentally ill. Do you have any particular favourite such stories? Are there any that relate particularly to this film?

      I love that stuff, too. Not long ago I read about a grad student (I think) coming across the only known movie footage of Marcel Proust at some party. And I think we always hear about these lost films or lost recordings that emerge over time. A friend of mine, Ned Thanhouser, is the grandson of some early silent film pioneers and his grandparents' movie legacy is partially lost but every once in a while he'll hear from some old movie theatre in Italy or Australia and someone will have found an old film can in a back room with a reel of one of his grandparents' films in them. One they thought was lost. It's so cool. And of course, the documentarian in me is always looking for lost elements when I tell real historical stories. (Like there's only one known clip of all three original Carters together and they're in a garden.  And this emerged AFTER I'd finished The Winding Stream!)

      How far along are you in terms of attracting interest in the pilot for The Musicianer? What is your “dream deal” for the series, and have you had any nibbles? How can supporters of the film help you?

      I'm just starting to get the pilot out to decision-makers. I'm giving myself a year to see what happens to it as a possible episodic. I just brought the project to a festival and market in LA at the Egyptian Theatre sponsored by the National Association of Television Programming Executives. Next month it will be at an event called SeriesFest that is developing the reputation as the "Sundance of TV Festivals." It's also starting to get into regular film festivals, which is interesting. So we will see. It would be great to develop this as a series. Either as a studio thing or as a (fully funded) indie effort. 

      Supporters—with our undying gratitude— are welcome to donate via our website www.themusicianer.com because all of this shopping around still costs money. And of course, getting the word out about the project to anyone you know is useful. You never know who might have the connection you need!

      And believe it or not, liking out social media pages—particularly Facebook—is important, because decision-makers care about those numbers! 

      What do you have planned for the Rio? Will other cast or crew be present?

      The Rio date is gonna be great! We open with Petunia and the Vipers—the big band version!—playing a set. After a brief intermission we will show the pilot of The Musicianer! And then Petunia, Lowell Deo (who plays Professor Reggie Thurkill and co-stars in the film with Petunia and Grey and is magnificent in it, BTW) will join me for a Q & A.

      What do you make of the whole idea—the Robert Johnson thing—of “selling your soul to the Devil for success?” Is  it a metaphor for something? How do you make sense of it? (I’m an old punk, so I think of it in terms of “selling out,” but it’s hard for me to project that attitude back into the 1930s… it’s not like Robert Johnson compromised his character in order to succeed. 

      Yeah, the notion of celebrity and what one could expect out of music - the idea that one could even have a music "career" the way we know it now, was just not a thing in the 1930s. The record business was not very old at that point. Radio was even newer. No one knew if these things would even last. And especially as an African-American artist in those days - how much dare you hope for at that time? So the punk notion of being a "sell out" was not understood that way. Even the Carter Family was surprised by what became possible for them and it in no way mirrored the financial success of someone like an Elvis, lets' say. 

      So to me, the "deal" Robert Johnson mythically made with the devil was more about just being the "greatest" at what he did. Not at being the most financially successful or the best known, because that wasn't even something anyone fully knew to hope for. If there were a deal to be had, I think that is it. 

      Maybe an irrelevant question, but it’s always seemed a bit weird to me that almost everyone knows Robert Johnson, but not, say, Skip James or Bukka White or Mississippi John Hurt or Charley Patton or… Why do you think Johnson has lived on so vividly? (Is it because his music is in any way better than that of his peers?). 

      I think the mythology of the deal with the devil is strong branding. Not to take away from Robert Johnson's talent, but any good marketing person knows having "a narrative" or a "creation myth" is really where it's at. Robert Johnson might be the first modern musician to have that "brand."