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Feel-Good Story From O Brother, Where Art Thou?

| October 18, 2010 | 0 Comments

Last week’s poll of your favorite soundtrack had O Brother (33%) in first place over The Big Chill (21%), Saturday Night Fever (13%), Tommy, The Graduate and Purple Rain (8%), and Grease and Spinal Tap (4%).

The O Brother soundtrack, which won the album of the year Grammy in 2002 and has sold almost 8 million copies, was produced by T Bone Burnett and actually finished before the first frame of the film was shot. A few of the memorable scenes were even built around songs like “Down To the River to Pray” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

As it so happens, one of my favorite feel-good stories centers around this soundtrack. In 1959 an inmate in the Mississippi State Penitentiary named James Carter led some of his fellow prisoners in singing “Po Lazarus,” a bluesy old work song about a man who is hunted and gunned down by a sheriff. On that day musical archivist Alan Lomax happened to be at the prison and captured the song with his tape recorder.

42 years later T Bone Burnett was researching songs for the O Brother film and discovered this original recording of “Po Lazarus” in the Lomax archives. It was placed as the lead song on the soundtrack, and for more than a year, as the record climbed the charts and sold millions of copies, the producers and Lomax Archive director continued to search for Mr. Carter not only to acknowledge his contribution as the performer of the song, but to pay him thousands of dollars in royalties.

Less than two weeks before the Grammy Award show took place in 2002, they finally found James Carter—the son of a sharecropper who’d lived a hard life and was at that time 76—living in Chicago. With only a faint memory of the day he sang “Po Lazarus,” he was presented with a $20,000 royalty check, the first of more to come as the album’s sales skyrocketed. And then for good measure, Carter and his family were flown to L.A. to attend the Grammy show where the soundtrack swept the awards. He died in November of the following year, but what a great coda his life had there at the end.

Here’s that recording from the soundtrack featuring James Carter:

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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