Moving on with our week of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” we have a woman. Recently, I’ve been marveling at the fact that people — including a lot of feminists — get their ideas of the traditional place of women in society from the 1950s. But the truth was that when humans were hunters and gathers, there were women hunters and men gathers. It has been civilization itself that enforced gender roles.
Right about the time that Emry 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 was 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: