'O Brother, Where Art Thou' reissue: How a best-selling soundtrack changed a prisoner's life

Sorry, ladies: the recording of George Clooney singing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the main song from O Brother Where Art Thou, does not appear on the film’s bluegrass-laden soundtrack, which comes out today on its 10th anniversary in a newly expanded, double-disc form.

In the liner notes, music producer T Bone Burnett admits that “Man of Constant Sorrow” was originally intended to be the Dude’s anthem in The Big Lebowski, but ended up being a better fit for O Brother’s hero, Ulysses Everett McGill. It’s just a shame that the actor who played that character couldn’t sing it.

“Just for the record, George Clooney is a very good singer…[but recording that song] is not something one can do overnight, not even George Clooney,” says Burnett in the reissue, which also features 14 previously unreleased tracks from artists such as Norman Blake and the Cox Family.

Luckily, Burnett didn’t need Clooney to make the album a hit: it sold 9 million copies, ranking as one of the 10 top-selling soundtracks ever and reinvigorating interest in old-timey, roots music. Burnett reveals that it grew so popular, it even changed the life of James Carter, who recorded the album’s “Po Lazarus” in 1959 with folk musicologist Alan Lomax while he was in the Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi. When the album reached No. 1, the Lomax Foundation tracked Carter down.

“He was married to a storefront preacher in Chicago, and didn’t even remember recording the song,” says Burnett. “The Lomax lawyers had a check for him—the first of many. So a movie about these prisoners on a prison work farm down South recording a song and having it become a big hit unbeknownst to them started off with a song recorded by a prisoner on a prison work farm which became a big hit unbeknownst to him. I hope James Carter felt some redemption.”

O readers, tell us your Brother tales in the comments below—are you into the expanded version, or faithful to Where Art Thou 1.o?

Read more:
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
movie review

O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack review

The ‘O Brother’ musicians

Comments (13 total) Add your comment
  • Beepela

    One of my favorite albums of all time. Glad to see the reissue.

    • PK

      I agree completely.

  • Peter

    Nice story, but your entertainment site wouldn’t happen to have any actual information about this soundtrack available, would it?

  • Valerie

    You don’t even mention who actually sang the song.

    • tnsmoke

      Dan Tyminiski of Alison Krauss and Union Station sang the song in the movie (George Clooney lip sync’d it).

  • Ana170

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a company having their lawyers track someone down to give him a royalty check. I thought is was entertainment industry standard to try to avoid paying out any royalties if at all possible.

    • PK

      That’s because it was in 1959. Back when people had morals and decency.

      • Sven

        It wasn’t the company that tracked him down, but the Lomax Foundation’s lawyers. Big difference…

      • Um…

        …They didn’t give him the check in 1959, they gave him the check after the soundtrack (2001) with his recording on it did so well. So, looks like 1959 will still be remembered for its misogyny and racism instead.

      • @PK

        1959 was a time of morals and decency? Tell that to people living under Jim Crow.

    • TQB

      Not true. Record companies constantly seek out the proper owners if there’s a decent record of who it is – better to proactively write checks than deal with the lawsuit when the rightful owners come after you. Has nothing to do with decency – it’s just a safer business decision!

  • fancypants

    So, does the recording of Clooney singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” exist, or do we only have the Tyminiski recording, which Clooney lip synced to in the film?? I’ve never heard George Clooney sing.

  • sam murray

    I was lucky enough to see the second time this soundtrack was performed live at Carnegie Hall. :)

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