Man Of Constant Sorrow

Album: Clinch Mountain Bluegrass (1951)
  • This song was first published in 1913 by the blind folk singer Richard Burnett. In addition to The Stanley Brothers, other artists to cover it include Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. The only charting version of the song came in 1970 by Ginger Baker's Air Force, with Denny Laine on lead vocals. It reached #85. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Bertrand - Paris, France
  • Burnett sang this as "Farewell Song" and included in a booklet of six tunes called Songs Sung by R.D. Burnett - The Blind Man - Monticello, Kentucky. It's uncertain if Burnett was the actual songwriter, but his life did share a striking similarity with the man of constant sorrow:

    I am a man of constant sorrow
    I've seen trouble all my days
    I'll bid farewell to old Kentucky,
    The place where I was born and raised.

    Oh, six long years I've been blind
    Friends, my pleasures here on Earth are done.
    In this world I have to ramble,
    For I have to parents to help me now


    The Kentucky-born banjoist was indeed blinded six years earlier in a robbery-turned-shooting and spent the rest of his life as a wandering musician. When asked in a 1975 interview if he wrote the song, he replied, "I think I got the ballad from somebody… I dunno. It may be my song." He added he was inspired by a Baptist hymn called "Wandering Boy," but - according to the Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings - hymnologist John Garst found a connection with the 1807 hymn "Christ Suffering," which included the lines, "He was a man of constant sorrow, he went a mourner all his days."
  • This song was featured in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is based on the epic poem The Odyssey. The song relates to the story: The lyrics, "I am a man of constant sorrow. I've seen trouble all my days," refers to Odysseus and all the troubles he had on his journey home.

    In the film, the song is sung by The Soggy Bottom Boys, a group made up for the movie with George Clooney as one of the members. The real voice was that of Dan Tyminski from the band Union Station, with backing vocals from Harley Allen and Pat Enright. Other members of Union Station also played on the track:

    Jerry Douglas – Dobro
    Barry Bales - Bass
    Ron Block - Banjo

    Tyminski was later tapped by the EDM star Avicii to sing on his 2013 bluegrass-inspired song "Hey Brother."
  • Burnett recorded his version for Columbia Records in 1927, but the label refused to release it and even destroyed the master. Burnett's friend and fellow Kentuckian Emry Arthur made the first commercial release the following year under the title "Man of Constant Sorrow."
  • Released in 1961, Judy Collins' first album was called A Maid of Constant Sorrow, with the title track being a version of this song with the gender reversed.
  • This occasionally popped up in bluegrass and gospel circles throughout the '30s and '40s with recordings from the Hall Brothers, Alfred Karnes, and labor activist Sarah Ogan Gunning (as "Girl of Constant Sorrow"), and Juanita Moore. But in 1951, The Stanley Brothers, with lead vocals by Ralph Stanley, famously launched the mountain ballad into the mainstream with an emotional rendition learned from their father. Ralph recalled in a 2009 interview with the Diane Rehm Show: "'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."

    The Stanley Brothers' version was used as the prototype for the Soggy Bottom Boys' cover. Ralph Stanley also sang a Grammy Award-winning a cappella version of "O Death," another traditional folk tune, for the movie's soundtrack.
  • The song has gone through many lyrical changes. Emry Arthur traded six years of blindness for six years of trouble, which explains why the later covers fail to mention Burnett's affliction. Like Judy Collins and Joan Baez after her, Sarah Gunning sang it from a female perspective, but the women have vastly different experiences. Gunning is a coal miner's wife struggling to feed and clothe her family, while Collins and Baez are world-weary women returning home to California.

    Bob Dylan bids farewell to Colorado instead of Kentucky, and doesn't concern himself with a lack of parents or friends, but worries over his fate to ramble "through ice and snow, sleet and rain."
  • Although this perfectly fit George Clooney's Odyssey-like journey in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack's producer, intended it for an earlier Coen Brothers movie, The Big Lebowski. "[I was] thinking it would be a good song for The Dude. It fit the epic hero UE McGill much better, of course," he said.
  • The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack led a bluegrass revival in America and reached #1 on the Albums chart in 2002, the year it won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. "Man Of Constant Sorrow" is the most famous song from the set, and the one The Soggy Bottom Boys performed at the ceremony.

    The song also won the 2001 CMA award for Best Single and a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
  • Alison Krauss often performed this song with Union Station, which was her band. At the Grammy performance, she joined in along with Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, forming a bluegrass all-star team along with Union Station members Ron Block, Barry Bales, Pat Enright, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas.

Comments: 14

  • Jamie Bowles from Nashville, Tn, UsaI can attest to the fact that Rosemary definitely did NOT get all the musical talent in the family!
    I was in the best Country band in Southwest Ohio in 1990, with Joe Clooney (Rosemary's kid brother), and he SINGS HIS AZZOFF. And plays great drums while doin' it. If George has never been out to see his Uncle Joe work, he's missin' out.
  • Camille from Toronto, OhOne of THEE best moments in Grammy history was the reaction of the lead singer, Dan Tyminski, when they announced 'Man of Constant Sorrow' to be 'Best Country Collaboration with Vocals' (2001). You could tell he was beyond amazed; he started to stand up, but the moment overwhelmed him and he sat back down, shaking his head, his big smile beaming across his face. It was as if he couldn't quite believe it. I'll never forget seeing that on TV.
  • Jim from West Palm Beach, FlThe song is a real life reflection of a bluegrass musician from Kentucky of the early 20th century. He was miner and logger who was robbed, shot and ended up blind. His only means of income was his music.
  • Eisso from Groningen, NetherlandsOf course the Odyssey is not a novel, but an ancient epic. Indeed, Odysseus (Ulysses) is called all the time 'the much-troubled' as an epitheton, but this song isn't really based on the Odyssey, it's only associated with it by the 'Brother'-movie.
  • Thomas from Somerville, AlGood song, Good movie. It really opened up the bluegrass genre to American music. A task that needed doing.
  • Henry O. Godwinn from Wheeling, WvI really like this version. Bob Dylan's cover is just too whiney (and I like Dylan). Dan Tyminiski from Union Station actually sang it. Don't know if Clooney can sing but I kinda doubt it.
  • Sarah from Nashville, TnKentucky bluegrass fiddler Dick Burnett wrote the song in 1913. Emry Arthur first recorded it in 1928, but it was made famous by Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers in 1950. Bob Dylan and Waylon Jennings recorded a version (as did Peter, Paul, and Mary). Rod Stewart didn't record his version until 1969. As a child of bluegrass, this song has been around for a while. I remember hearing it played as a very young girl.
  • Gabe from Arlington, VaOn "The Rod Stewart Album" Rod is listed as the writer. Obviously, they should have listed him as the arranger for that version, and not the writer.
  • Allan from Vanderhoof, CanadaI've heard that Clooney was being approached after the movie came out by people thinking he was singing because he did such a great job lip-syncing. As anyone who has tried to sing along with their favourite song on the radio can testify, good syncing ain't easy. Kudos to George.
  • Tim from Charlotte, NcThe Emry Arthur version was recorded in 1929.
  • Tim from Charlotte, NcThis is a traditional Folk Song. The earliest recording I could find was by EMRY ARTHUR on the album "Man Of Constant Sorrow
    and Other Timeless Mountain Ballads
    Classic Recordings of the 1920s and 30s" on the Yazoo label.

    It also appears on Bob Dylan's first album in 1962 (which was mostly folk covers) and the "No Direction Home" soundtrack. Also recorded by Joan Baez, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Rod Stewart, and many others.
  • Ørjan from Bergen, NorwaySong released by Rod Stewart in 1969 on the album "An Old Raincoat Wont Ever Let You Down"/"The Rod Stewart Album" (UK/US)
  • Linus from Hamilton, On, CanadaThis was so popular in Australia that it reached #96 on the Triple J Hot 100
  • Dennis from Anchorage, AkI heard a great story that George Clooney sang this while they were shooting the scene and even though he knew he sounded awful he pretended to think he'd done a great job just to tease the producers. He has said in interviews that his aunt (big band great Rosemary Clooney) got all the musical talent in the family.
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