STORY OF THE SONG #3: ‘MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW’
“I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all of my days; I’ll bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised…”
Can you believe it’s two decades since George Clooney looked down a movie camera and delivered one of America’s oldest break-up songs into popular culture? This year’s twentieth anniversary of The Coen Brothers’ catalytic ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ is a reminder that great folk songs never get old, they just get better.
BUSY BEING BORN
How do we know it’s a break-up song? First published by a blind fiddler from Kentucky named Dick Burnett, the tune was named ‘Farewell Song’ when it was originally captured for posterity in the early part of the last century. However, claims have been made that the song’s origins go back further than that: “The first time I heard it I was a small boy,” said bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. “I heard my daddy sing it and my brother and I put a few more words to it… we brought it back into existence. I guess if it hadn’t been for that, it’d have been gone forever.” It’s true that The Stanley Brothers recording, first released in 1951 on Columbia Records, reached many more listeners than the song had ever had the opportunity to before, but the first commercially released take was Emry Arthur’s recording back in 1928 on Vocalion Records.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Bob Dylan’s version is interesting as suddenly the lyric alters and “Colorado” takes the place of “Kentucky” in the verse, while Joan Baez and Judy Collins both later bid farewell to “California” in their recordings (both renamed, incidentally, ‘Girl of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’, respectively). Lyrical variations to a song sung across many decades is, of course, part of the folk song tradition, but this particular tune has received many alterations to its central story. Whilst some concentrate on biblical couplets such as “… you can bury me in some deep valley, for many years where I may lay, then you may learn to love another, while I am sleeping in my grave”, Dylan, then a young gunslinger, typically decided to play up the spiteful and rebellious nature of the song: “You’re mother says I’m a stranger, my face you’ll never see no more.”
It’s fair to say that it was The Stanley Brothers performance of the song live at Newport Folk Festival in 1959 that propelled ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ into its position at the top table of the sixties folk revival. Newport regulars Baez, Dylan, Collins and Peter, Paul & Mary all promptly recording the lament over the next couple of years and Dick Burnett’s ‘Farewell Song’ never looked back. Indeed, it was absorbed into the folk music canon forever when Dylan’s eponymous debut album arrived in 1961 and started to change the course of popular music. Peggy Seeger, Waylon Jennings and Rod Stewart, amongst many others, also contributed to the song’s story, before the 1970s arrived and ex-Cream hero Ginger Baker released a live recording (sung by future Wings star Denny Laine) with his Ginger Baker’s Air Force group and ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, saying goodbye to “Birmingham” this time, became the only single of the drumming legend’s solo career to chart.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Soggy Bottom Boys video that opens this story, taken from the million-selling ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack , was played, sung and recorded by Union Station singer Dan Tyminski and roots musicians Harley Allen and Pat Enright. Soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett (I wonder if there’s any bloodline to Dick Burnett, the song’s original publisher?) decided George Clooney’s singing wasn’t up to snuff to record a hit tune and reached out to the bluegrass and country community for assistance. It was a smart move, as the soundtrack’s authenticity helped move the picture’s footprint outside of movie circles and win a Grammy for ‘Best Country Collaboration with Vocals’ and The International Bluegrass Music Association’s ‘Song of the Year’ in the early 2000s. Some claim this success contributed to the march of the modern Americana movement and it’s hard to argue with the number of listeners the film’s soundtrack reached…
Read Story of the Song #2: ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ here.