A year and a half ago, I wrote, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It was not the first time I had done an article where I looked at a song or something similar to demonstrate how it evolved over time. But just like always, no one really noted the article, even though I loved it. I am convinced the problem is not the idea itself, but just that people aren’t interested in listening to the same song over and over at one sitting. So I’m going to expand a bit on that article over the next week with one song per day.
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.