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.
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
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.