"Man of Constant Sorrow" (also known as "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow") is a traditional American folk song first recorded by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky. The song was originally recorded by Burnett as "Farewell Song" printed in a Richard Burnett songbook, about 1913. An early version was recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928 (Vocalion Vo 5208). Public interest in the song was renewed after the release of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as it plays a central role in the film's plot. The song was also included in the film's highly successful, multiple-platinum-selling soundtrack.
Some uncertainty exists as to whether Dick Burnett himself wrote the song. One claim is that it was sung by the Mackin clan in 1888 in Ireland and that Cameron O'Mackin emigrated to Tennessee, brought the song with him, and performed it. In an interview he gave toward the end of his life, Burnett himself indicated he could not remember:
Charles Wolfe: "What about this "Farewell Song" – 'I am a man of constant sorrow' – did you write it?" Richard Burnett: "No, I think I got the ballad from somebody – I dunno. It may be my song..."
If Burnett wrote the song, the date of its composition, or at least of the editing of certain lyrics by Burnett, can be fixed at about 1913. Since it is known that Burnett was born in 1883, married in 1905, and blinded in 1907, the dating of two of these texts can be made on the basis of internal evidence. The second stanza of "Farewell Song" mentions that the singer has been blind six years, which put the date at 1913. According to the Country Music Annual, Burnett "probably tailored a pre-existing song to fit his blindness" and may have adapted a hymn. Charles Wolfe argues, "Burnett probably based his melody on an old Baptisthymn called "Wandering Boy".
During 1918, Cecil Sharp collected the song and published it as "In Old Virginny" (Sharp II, 233).
Sarah Ogan Gunning's rewriting of the traditional "Man" into a more personal "Girl" took place about 1936 in New York, where her first husband, Andrew Ogan, was fatally ill. The text was descriptive of loneliness away from home and anticipated her bereavement; the melody she remembered from a 78-rpm hillbilly record (Emry Arthur, probably Vocalion Vo 5208, 1928) she had heard some years before in the mountains.
"Man of Constant Sorrow" is probably two or three hundred years old. But the first time I heard it when I was y'know, like a small boy, my daddy – my father – he had some of the words to it, and I heard him sing it, and we – my brother and me – we put a few more words to it, and brought it back in existence. I guess if it hadn't been for that it'd have been gone forever. I'm proud to be the one that brought that song back, because I think it's wonderful."
Stanley's autobiography is titled Man of Constant Sorrow.
Recordings and cover versions
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1960 – A version of the song, "Girl of Constant Sorrow", is included on the remastered version of the album Joan Baez, first released in 1960 on the Vanguard label.
1961 – Recorded by Roscoe Holcomb (Daisy Kentucky) in 1961–1962 with an arrangement more like Dylan's than that of the Stanleys.(Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward,Smithsonian Folkways, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.)
1970 – It was also recorded by Ginger Baker's Air Force on their eponymous debut album in 1970, sung by Air Force guitarist and vocalist (and former Moody Blues, future Wings member) Denny Laine. The band used the same melody, and for the most part the same lyrics (but substituted 'Birmingham' for 'Colorado'). The arrangement differed, though, as this was a loosely improvised live version, with violin and saxophones, that stays very much in the major scales of A, D, and E, unlike its future bluesier brethren. It was the only band single; it charted #36 on the U.S. country charts and #86 in UK.
1993 – "Man of Constant Sorrow" was one of many songs recorded by Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice one weekend in February 1993. Jerry's taped copy of the session was later stolen by his pizza delivery man, eventually became an underground classic, and finally edited and released in 2000 as The Pizza Tapes. Jerry Garcia also sang an a cappella version on June 11, 1962, at the Jewish Community Center in San Carlos, California, with the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers. Though unreleased, it has been widely circulated among traders at least since the 1980s.
2000 – Jackson Browne and Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon recorded their version of the song in 2000. It also appeared in Shannon's album The Diamond Mountain Sessions.
2000 – The song appears in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, under the title "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." Performed by the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys in the movie, it was recorded by Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen, and Pat Enright. It was a hit in the movie for the Soggy Bottom Boys and later became a hit single in real life. It received a CMA for "Single of the Year" and a Grammy for "Best Country Collaboration with Vocals" and it peaked at #35 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Dan Tyminski performed this song at the Crossroads Guitar Festival with Ron Block and live with Alison Krauss. The version used in the film is closest in lyrics and singing style to Ralph Stanley's.
2003 – In 2003, musicians Skeewiff remixed "Man of Constant Sorrow". The song was so popular in Australia, it featured at #96 in the Triple J's hottest 100 songs of 2003. That same year, the O Brother Where Art Thou? version of the song ranked #20 in CMT's 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.