January 19, 2018

A Musician’s Farewell Song, “Man of Constant Sorrow”

Here is another traditional folk tune that has been around for centuries. Notable recordings were made by The Stanley Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Other awesome performances were that of Union Station and Alison Kraus.

Here’s a clip of the most popular song featured in the famed film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

Soggy Bottom Boys in “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow”

Its Origin

A song by the blind folk singer and Kentucky banjoist Richard Burnett. He went blind because of a tragic robbery and shooting incident.

 He meant it as a “farewell song.” It was included in the booklet called Songs Sung by R.D. Burnett – The Blind Man – Monticello, Kentucky and published in 1913.

When asked in a 1975 interview about his song, he was not certain if he even wrote it. Granted he did, he said that it could have been inspired by a Baptist hymn.

Ralph Stanley, lead vocal of The Stanley Brothers, said that he was proud to be among the singers who brought back the song to existence.

The Phrase, “Man of Sorrow”

Those familiar with hymns can agree that Burnett (or the actual composer) adapted the phrase from a Bible account about the suffering Messiah in Isaiah 53:3. In fact, hymnologist John Garst found that the melody and lyrics have close similarities with hymns in the 1800s like “Christ Suffering,” “Tender-Hearted Christians” and “Judgment Hymn.”

Song’s Anatomy

It’s reflective of the content. From the title alone, one can suspect that the narrator may have gone through a series of misfortunes.

Hence, adventure and wanderlust no longer thrill him. Halfway through the song, there were descriptions of having ‘no friends to help’ and of not seeing his over again. Those are tell-tale signs of how dire and hopeless his situation was. Nevertheless, it was not all that depressing of a song. The last lines redeemed the gloomy mood at the song’s onset with a ‘promise’ of reunion in the afterlife.


bluegrass, film

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