The ballad "Barbara Allen" is sung three times in "Songcatcher," and the way it's performed illustrates writer-director Maggie Greenwald's take on the place of folk music in America.
The first interpretation comes from musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), singing to her 1907 university class. After her prim, reverential rendering, she reminds them (with an air of respectful condescension) to appreciate not just its structure and lyrics, but also the simple people who embrace it. The second is by orphan Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum), ward of Lily's sister (Jane Adams), who runs a rural school with her partner in the mountains of western North Carolina. Deladis' clear, piercing, high-lonesome voice is a distillation of the Appalachian sound, equal parts joy and sorrow, outpouring and restraint. The third, heard over the closing credits, is a new version sung by country music treasure Emmylou Harris, whose beautiful, crystalline voice epitomizes pure emotional commitment.
It's obvious that Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo") has fallen in love with this enduring music and, by chronicling Lily's extended visit to the mountains, she can explore its roots in English and Scottish folk songs (how they were maintained and transformed by the insular community) and allude to its eventual mutation into bluegrass and, by extension, much of contemporary country and folk music. The film's narrative often just stops to listen to songs being performed by their keepers (including musicians Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Taj Mahal).
Unfortunately, there's a quaintness to the way Greenwald has filmed "Songcatcher" that keeps it from truly expressing the power of these songs, and how they voice the hardscrabble life eked out on the beautiful but harsh mountainsides. In a time of real regional isolation, the issue of exploitation by outsiders is touched upon, particularly in the villainous portrayal of a coal-company henchman (David Patrick Kelly). But Lily's devotion to documenting their music eventually wins over most of the skeptical locals, particularly the ruggedly sensitive musician Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn).
As a document of a culture on the verge of change, "Songcatcher" is unfocused and eventually unsuccessful. But when it comes to music, it's a blissful love letter to the old-time sounds which have the ability to haunt mountain folk and flatlanders alike.