The Hired Hands: A Tribute to Bruce Langhorneby Christopher Nelson
Early on in Peter Fonda’s 1971 surrealistic Western The Hired Hand, the lead characters—a couple of ne’er-do-well drifters—discuss their plans: do they want to trudge on to California, or, after seven years of ambling through the vast plains, do they want to go home? Fonda remarks that he plans to go home, but Warren Oates’s character Arch sighs with great resignation and retorts, “Home, maybe there ain’t no such color.” It is a striking moment of clarity in an often frustratingly abstract film. The Hired Hand is rich in symbolism, often engages in experimental camera work, and moves at a deliberate pace. All of these elements are stitched together by a gorgeous film score by Bruce Langhorne.
Langhorne’s score had been kept under wraps for many years after The Hired Hand’s release. Sure, you could hear it if you were able to track down a copy of the movie itself, but due to the film’s commercial failure, a soundtrack was not officially released until 2004. In 2012, Dylan Golden Aycock’s Scissor Tail Records re-issued the soundtrack, finally giving it some long overdue love with a beautifully packaged vinyl edition. The music itself is devoid of the kinds of clichés and melodrama you could typically expect in a Western. Langhorne employs an unusual mix of instruments—such as upright piano, soprano recorder, dulcimer, and Farfisa organ—to evoke a mood of both melancholy and dignity in his rustic folk ruminations. It is a haunting, lonely score that echoes the sparse landscapes of the film and fills the air with a tinge of sadness and the same sense of resignation that Oates’s character expresses.
It’s fitting that Langhorne’s masterpiece came out of a movie called The Hired Hand, since for many years he was the hired hand of choice in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Langhorne was a session guitarist for folk revivalist mainstays like Richie Havens, Odetta, Joan Baez, the Clancy Brothers, and countless others. Most famously, he played lead guitar on some of Bob Dylan’s most well-known tracks, and even inspired Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Though his impact on the music of the ’60s and beyond is incalculable, his presence has always remained understated and under-appreciated. Very much a secret presence in modern popular music—the man behind the curtain—Langhorne continues to provide inspiration to contemporary musicians, especially in the folk world. Unfortunately, Langhorne has fallen on hard times in recent years, and with his health deteriorating, he has been moved into hospice care.
To celebrate Langhorne’s soundtrack to The Hired Hand and, really, to celebrate his life and contributions to music, Aycock, along with musicians Loren Connors and Susan Langille, enlisted artists to make a tribute album to Langhorne’s legendary film score. “I realized how important The Hired Hand was to so many experimental musicians, and I also knew that Bruce was totally unaware of its influence,” said Aycock in an interview. The resulting album, The Hired Hands: A Tribute to Bruce Langhorne, features a who’s who of artists largely from the resurgent contemporary folk scene, plus other experimental artists. Aycock says he gave the musicians involved in the project very few guidelines: “It was either cover a song from the original soundtrack, or do something inspired by the soundtrack, and the results turned out about half and half.” In all, an incredible cast of thirty-two musicians contribute tracks to the album. Langhorne’s influence, his uniquely mystical ambience, drifts in and out of each track.
Banjo player Paul Metzger begins the album with “Opening,” which shares a title with the opening piece on the soundtrack. It initially sounds a lot like Langhorne’s piece, but loosens up and turns into a reflective dirge. Highlights abound in the compilation and include pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn’s sober meditation “Hello Goodbye Hello,” which touches on a theme from the soundtrack but stays minimalist in approach—that is, until it starts to flutter with dissonance before returning to the theme. Loren Connors adds an interpretation of the “Windmill” track, and although it is a typical late-career Connors piece—with its spindly, angular blues tones—you get the feeling that his moody ambience has always been deeply indebted to Bruce Langhorne. Guitarist Tom Carter contributes his interpretation of the song “Spring” and gives us a sun-baked guitar solo that would feel right at home set against the hazy backdrop of the film. Finally, John Fahey’s “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ” is a posthumous inclusion in the album. It is electric Fahey at its most searching, and you would have trouble believing he didn’t have Bruce in mind when he wrote the song.
Aycock and the other musicians involved in this tribute project hope, above all, that this album will help Langhorne see the impact his solo music had on so many innovative modern musicians. Adds Aycock, “I’m sure all the artists on this compilation are new to him, but these artists are all legends to me, and Bruce deserves all the attention he can get for having inspired so many people in so many genres over the years.” Proceeds from the record will largely go to Langhorne and his family. Even as the man’s health fades, the music will continue to be a growing presence through the efforts of Scissor Tail.
The Hired Hands: A Tribute to Bruce Langhorne is out now on Scissor Tail Records.
CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.