A Man of Constant Sorrow

Something a bit different this week, as Brit examines the genealogy of a deathless folk song…

The above bit of Japanese bootleggery is, as far as I can gather, Bob Dylan’s first ever television appearance, on a curious show called ‘Folk Songs and More Folk Songs’ broadcast in the US in March 1963. Bob featured, not particularly prominently, amongst a bunch of other folkie types including the Staple Singers and Barbara Dane, and he performed Man of Constant Sorrow, one of a repertoire of trad covers collected on his debut album. How strange it is to see him amidst his now-forgotten peers. Nobody, presumably, could have guessed that he would be the one to become American culture’s towering artistic genius, but he is striking: the direct delivery, the hard voice. That elusive otherworldliness is surely there too, though sentimental hindsight cannot be discounted in that assessment.

Anyway, this early incarnation of His Bobness performs an arrangement of Man of Constant Sorrow as put down on record by one Emry Arthur in 1928…

Arthur was not, however, the song’s composer. Its origination – as ‘Farewell Song’ – is attributed to a blind fiddler called Dick Burnett, though Burnett himself was vague (“I dunno. It may be my song” are his lasting words on the subject). Detective work puts the date of Burnett’s composition, or at least of his writing it down on paper, at circa 1913, but only because the lyric mentions being blind for six years and Burnett lost his vision in 1907.

We must suppose that Emry Arthur’s melody is more or less that of Burnett, but it is not the only melody, and in fact it is telling of his rootsy approach that Dylan chose to use it given that a very different version had in the meantime been popularised by The Stanley Brothers….

Their 1959 release (the second time they had recorded it) uses a vocal arrangement which, in my opinion, exerts a quite exceptional grip. This is the arrangement you’ll most likely recognise if you’re not a Dylanist, since it has been famously performed by Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright, with amusing lip-synching work by George Clooney and pals, aka The Soggy Bottom Boys in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 daft but brilliant movie O Brother Where Art Thou?

The family tree of Man of Constant Sorrow, then, begins with Burnett and then splits into two branches as the many performers since do versions of either the Emry Arthur or Stanley Brothers arrangements. There are lots of such versions, including a healthy number feminised to Woman of Constant Sorrow. Or even Maid. This is Judy Collins

…but Joan Baez is another notable, and the music world’s bewildering array of men and women of perpetual misery includes Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Jerry Garcia and Ginger Baker’s Air Force. There are blues rock, heavy metal and reggae flavours of the song online for those who wish to seek them out.

But to save you the trouble I have waded through the best and, for my money, they’re all topped by a craggy-faced hillbilly called Roscoe Holcomb singing in 1961. He seems to meld the gripping melodics of the Stanley arrangement with the folkie rawness of Arthur and thus takes the prize as the best of all possible constantly sorrowful men…

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

7 thoughts on “A Man of Constant Sorrow

  1. g.rees1@btinternet.com'
    May 6, 2012 at 12:25

    A fellow Dylanologist salutes you. There is an equally fascinating geneaology behind another track from his debut – ‘House of the Rising Sun’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_House_of_the_Rising_Sun It was Dylan’s cover version which the Animals then covered, propelling them to fame. But Dylan’s version was itself a cover version of Dave Van Ronk’s version, who got it from a field recording by Alan Lomax. The best version of the song was actually performed at a karaoke in the Scottish Highlands in 2002 by my friend Duncan whose entirely monotone delivery was a stroke of genius.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      May 6, 2012 at 20:28

      Thanks for that Gareth. Btw, would you like to do a Lazy Sunday post one week?

      Re monotone, many (ignoramuses) criticise Dylan’s vocals, but a lot of his songs are extraordinarily hard to sing. Lay Lady Lady and Knockin on Heaven’s Door, for example.

      • john.hh43@googlemail.com'
        John Halliwell
        May 7, 2012 at 17:05

        Ignoramus? Guilty, M’Lud! I’ve been aware of Bob’s presence and massive impact on popular culture for getting on fifty years but I simply don’t ‘get’ him. Tis perhaps sad as I may have missed out on someone special, but there it is………….and here it is – my favourite version of Man of Constant Sorrow – Dan Tyminski again, this time with Alison Krauss and Union Station; taken from the DVD A K and U S Live. Jerry Douglas and his dobro playing – worth the price on its own:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVpHOrk328s

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    mahlerman
    May 6, 2012 at 12:57

    The Chattanoogan Norman Blake hits the spot regularly for me – and so too for just about all the (living) folkies and bluegrassers you mention above Brit. Still going strong I think, with his wife Nancy, he can play just about anything you put in his hands, and his voice has that broken-down quality that seems to define this genre.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      May 6, 2012 at 20:29

      Multi-instrumentalists might be a good future theme…

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        malty
        May 7, 2012 at 16:05

        Another post that helps one forget ones bunions, the snow outside, Man City, the state of nation, and Judy Collins, reeks of the sixties, park the motor, Both Sides Now on the (valve) wireless, dead cert mate, guaranteed, even better than Frank singing Laura.
        Re multi-instrumentalists, I would suggest Our old chum Don Partridge, multi tasker extraordinaire, kind of a folksy, buskery bugger.

        Rosie, oh Rosie
        I’d like to paint your face up in the sky
        Sometimes when I’m busy
        Relaxing I’d look up and catch your eye

        Your eyes when they’re widening
        Bring thunder and lightning
        And sunset strokes the colour of your skin
        Your eyes are so blue
        I just think of a blue sky
        And bumble bees buzzing on the wing

        Rosie, oh Rosie
        It’s raining when you look the other way
        Rosie, oh Rosie
        Your laughter brings the sunshine out to play

        And though I just met you
        When I silhouetted you
        A highlight golden shadow in your hair
        I’d paint in your mind’s eye
        A vary of blue skies
        Summer birds swinging through the air

        Rosie, oh Rosie
        I’d paint your face for all the world to see
        Rosie, oh Rosie
        I’d like to paint your face eternally

        Rosie, oh Rosie
        It’s raining when you look the other way
        Rosie, oh Rosie
        Your laughter brings the sunshine out to play

        Follow that, Bacharach and David.

  3. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    May 7, 2012 at 20:22

    On reflection, I think the key difference between the two arrangements is that the Emry Arthur/Dylan version is melancholy and self-pitying, whereas the Stanley Bros/Soggy Bottom Boys version is angry: ‘I’m a man of constant sorrow, and screw you world’.

Comments are closed.