You probably know the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the excellent version of it (which I will get to) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it is a very old song, dating back to 1913 when Dick Burnett published it. And even that version may just be his version of an earlier version.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any version of the song until 1928 when Emry Arthur recorded it. This version could hardly be more simple and earnest. Arthur sings it with a plaintive tone but there is little of the lyrics in his voice. The accompaniment seems to be a guitar and banjo. The banjo is kind of playful and it pushes a kind of meta-narrative that this is just a song and no one involved has had any worse a life than everyone else in Kentucky. But the version has a sweetness that I love. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was not kind of Arthur’s music career, which was completely over as of 1935. It would have been interesting to hear how he did the song at that point.
Right about the time that Arthur was giving up music, Sarah Ogan Gunning recorded the song with her own lyrics as “Girl of Constant Sorrow.” The lyrics focus on the poverty of the coal mining region that she is from. This a cappella version is probably from 1965, but it is doubtless much how she sang in in 1936. (Roscoe Holcomb did a similar version in 1961.) It’s haunting and beautiful:
Although Arthur’s version of the song sold well, it was not until The Stanley Brothers released their version in 1951 that it really became popular. Their version changes the song into much more of what we know today. Specifically, they turn it into a bluegrass song with that classic howling voice. It also adds a much more lively accompaniment with that relentless fiddle. Ralph Stanley just had his 87th birthday. His brother Carter died back in 1966 at the age of only 41.
During the folk revival of the early 1960s, many people did the song. Both Joan Baez (pretty good) and Judy Collins (meh) did versions of Gunning’s. Peter, Paul and Mary turned it into a dirge. Waylon Jennings managed to turn it into an easy listening monstrosity, which is good in its way. And Rod Stewart did his thing to it in 1969, before “his thing” became harming otherwise good music. But the most interesting, because he really does mold the song to himself, is Bob Dylan:
At this point it seemed that anyone you think might have been tempted to cover it has. Of course, you knew that after Judy Collins did it everyone would have to. What I think is strange is that it really wasn’t picked up by punk bands. The truth is that musically, punk and folk aren’t that far apart. In 2006, punk super-group Osaka Popstar covered it, but it is clearly based upon the film version.
Which brings us to the version in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It was recorded by Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen, and Pat Enright, with Tyminski on lead vocals. But here Tyminski is with Alison Krauss and Union Station doing the song live:
In a sense, I think this version kind of destroys the song in the same way that Jean-François Paillard’s version destroyed Pachelbel’s Canon. It is so powerful that everyone will agree that it is the way that the song ought to be performed and people will stop trying to innovate. Of course, there will always be the iconoclasts who insist that Emry Arthur or Sarah Ogan Gunning had it right all along and the song will be plopped on the end of a disc. But to really please an audience, it’s going to have to have that three-part harmony and the prominent banjo. It will be just like that damned pizzicato counterpoint in “Pachelbel’s Canon.”
Which is fine. Really. You all enjoy yourselves. Don’t worry about me.