The excellent Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) opens with a scene of prisoners in the old South working on a road and singing the work song “Po’ Lazarus.” Unlike many of the other songs on the T-Bone Burnett produced soundtrack, though, “Po’ Lazarus” was not recorded specifically for the film.
Recording of “Po’ Lazarus”
The recording of “Po’ Lazarus” was one of the many recordings made by Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax. The two men visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959 and recorded prisoner James Carter leading a group of other prisoners in the song.
That recording of “Po’ Lazarus” later appeared on Lomax’s 1960’s album Bad Man Ballads credited to James Carter and the Prisoners. The song recounts a sheriff going to arrest Lazarus. Then, the sheriff ends up shooting “Po’ Lazarus”: “Well then they taken old Lazarus/ Yes they laid him on the commissary gallery.”
Finding James Carter
But that background is not even the coolest part of the story. According to The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax by Tom Piazza, the Coen Brothers movie brought a little more good will to singer James Carter.
After the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a bestseller, Alan Lomax’s daughter Lomax Chairetakis and others tracked down the 76-year-old Carter living in Chicago. They gave him a substantial royalty check. And then in February 2002 flew him, his wife, and two daughters to the Grammy Awards ceremony. At the ceremony, the soundtrack won the album of the year for 2001.
The New York Times noted that Carter had left home at age 13 and did time in prison for theft, a parole violation, and weapons possession. Before his rediscovery, he barely recalled singing the song for the recording.
James Carter passed away in November 2003, less than two years after his trip to the Grammys. The other prisoners in the recording have never been identified. But together they created an outstanding recording used in a classic film.
What is your favorite song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)