The Songcatcher (2001)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

One of my favorite novels growing up was Christy by Catherine Marshall. When I read the back of Songcatcher at the local library, I believed the story to be somewhat similar. I should have done my usual research before bringing it home. If a liberal were to take Christy, remove all religious ties, and make all the characters immoral and modern in their sexual sensibilities, the result would be this. While the charming highlander brogue and costuming are sweetly seductive in quality, the film is so blatantly feminist it's scandalous.


Lily Penleric is a music professor at an esteemed university. Once again she has been passed over for promotion in favor of an older, more experienced male candidate. Having had enough of the board's obvious prejudice against her, she quits her position temporarily to spend the summer in the backwoods of the Appalachian mountains with her sister Elna and Harriet Tolliver, two enthusiastic school mistresses. Upon arrival, Lily finds the school surprisingly inadequate and the locals not altogether friendly toward 'outsiders.' When she discovers the school ward Deladis knows numerous country ballads that her arch-rival is currently 'discovering' in Scotland and Wales, Lily determines to research and categorize the mountain music for the purpose of publishing a book. Working Deladis mercilessly by having her repeat the songs so she can copy them down, and also sing into the gramophone, Lily is happily oblivious to the other complications in her life. The friendship between her sister and Harriet is not as innocent as it appears. The young man who is courting Deladis isn't overly fond of her new role model, and she finds only animosity in many of the highlanders. One pebble in her shoe is Tom Bledsoe, an extremely talented mountain man with a loathing for 'high-falutin girls.' His grandmother is more than willing to contribute to Lily's collection of folk songs, but Tom seems determined to run the intruder off.


In the meantime, Lily learns of Elna's lesbian relationship with Harriet and is torn between sisterly affection and anger over their sinful lifestyle. She must also contend with country life -- black panthers, grueling childbirth, and rampant poverty. The Songcather strives to be a memorable and charming glimpse into history. As you can see, the parallels between Christy and this film are numerous. A city girl becoming countrified, falling in love with a local mountain man, and being forced to contend with the prejudice and superstition of the highlanders. There's even a fire that almost takes the heroine's life. Unfortunately, the author has none of Catherine Marshall's sensitivity or Christian upbringing. What the film comes across as is a cleverly-packaged modern tale which attempts to legitimize homosexuality, encourages reckless romantic entanglements, and portrays all religious people as Bible-thumping heretics.


The only reason I stuck it out was to see if the end had any redeeming value. It did, but not enough to warrant the two hours spent watching sinful people behave immorally. The film doesn't start off clean and glide slowly into deeper waters. Right off the bat we're given Lily Penleric, a woman who has a sexual relationship with a married member of the school board. After coming to the mountains, she has a fling with Tom Bledsoe. There is some mild language and abuse of deity, a few fistfights and a birth scene where a woman's gown, legs, and hands are shown drenched in blood. Many of the mountain songs are vulgar or violent, a few of them referencing adultery. They're sung so beautifully it's difficult to resist their subtle messages. Lines like "he took off her head and kicked it against the wall" are just about as graphic as modern rappers. Even the implied intimacy between Tom and Lily is mild. They're shown passionately kissing and then stumbling through the wood half-dressed afterward. It's the lesbian relationship that gets the most graphic. Lily walks in on her sister undressing for Harriet and we see brief upper nudity. The two women are always mildly affectionate in public. They kiss, caress, and undress one another in the woods. (One of the locals stumbles across their antics and raises the roof.)


In the end, knowing full aware of their immorality, the highlanders allow Elna to continue teaching school. Add to this implied elements of adultery and one anti-scriptural line near the end (Lily denies Tom's belief that men are meant to provide for their families) and Songcatcher left me less than inspired.