“You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the fortune you seek. But first, you must travel a long and difficult road — a road fraught with peril.…I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward.”
– The Blind Seer, addressing three escaped convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Backstage in the press room on Grammy night, participants from the O Brother soundtrack were the most gracious and graceful of all the winners. Ralph Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Chris Thomas King, Sharon White and others proudly clutched their trophies and answered both insightful inquiries from knowledgeable journalists and absurd questions from baffled reporters. So it goes; these press conferences rarely offer surprises. But when producer T Bone Burnett arrived, he spun a golden tale.
“There was a line in this movie when they talk to the old seer, and he says, ‘You will find a treasure, but it is not the treasure you seek,’” Burnett began. “The first song on this album ['Po' Lazarus'] is by a group called James Carter & the Prisoners. It was recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax on Parchman Farm in Mississippi, back in the old days of the segregated penal system. Parchman Farm was a bad, bad place. Alan Lomax went down there and recorded these chain-gang chants and hollers. When the royalty checks [from the soundtrack] started coming in, we starting looking for this guy, James Carter. We hired a private investigator to look for him, and last week, we found him. Friday night, the Lomax people went by and gave him a big check and a platinum record. He had never heard of the movie. He had never heard of the record. He had practically forgotten that he had recorded the song. This epic story has replicated itself again and again.”
Carter is now a 76-year-old retired shipping clerk living in Chicago. His wife is a minister, and the couple lives in a large apartment that is part of a building they own. That first royalty check was for $20,000; Burnett has estimated Carter’s total payments could reach the six-figure range. U.S. sales of the soundtrack have now topped five million copies.
The team of people who worked diligently to locate Carter included Chris Grier (a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune), Don Fleming (director of licensing for the Alan Lomax Archive), and Anna Lomax Chairetakis (Alan’s daughter and the director of the archive). Chairetakis struggled for a year to find Carter. She was able to succeed thanks to the records kept by her father, who has always been determined to forward royalties for those unusual archival recordings that do make money. The Lomax organization continues to search for artists who appear on similar recordings.
Beginning in 1933, musicologist Alan Lomax (accompanying his father, John A. Lomax) began recording African-American songs and stories on location in Southern prisons. Although John passed away in 1948, Alan continued his father’s work. In the liner notes to a 1957 collection of songs recorded a decade earlier on Parchman Farm, Alan wrote that by 1947, “the custom of work-song singing was dying out even then.” Alan sporadically visited these prison camps until 1959.
In September of that year, at Camp B in Lambert, Mississippi (about 90 miles south of Memphis), Carter recorded his version of “Po’ Lazarus”. He had learned the song from an older prisoner named Red Kid. Carter, a sharecropper’s son, was imprisoned four times for stealing, weapons charges, and possessing a gun, which was a parole violation. Mississippi Inmate No. 2464 was paroled in December 1967.
In the opening scene of O Brother, African-American prisoners are singing “Po’ Lazarus” as they bust stones with hammers. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen took a bit of artistic license here; the archival recording on the soundtrack is actually of prisoners using axes to chop wood. Still, the work was torturous, and conditions were inhumane. It was not uncommon in the ’40s for black prisoners to drop dead from exhaustion or heat stroke.
“Po’ Lazarus” holds a special place among the thousands of songs in the Lomax archive. Alan has even said that he considers it the finest African-American ballad he and his father ever recorded. Like nearly all folk songs, the lyrics of “Po’ Lazarus” appear in various forms. Alan wrote that the song “concerns the doomed attempt of an exploited and underpaid black laborer to even up the score by stealing the payroll from his bosses”; in the end, he gets shot by the high sheriff. Three versions of the song — including Carter’s — appeared on the 1997 disc Southern Journey Volume 5: Bad Man Ballads, part of Rounder’s extensive Alan Lomax Collection.
Roughly a hour after he had recited the stunning story about finding Carter, Burnett returned to the press room and introduced Carter, who slowly stood up from his wheelchair and approached the microphone. A question was asked, but Carter didn’t respond. He seemed overwhelmed by all the lights, monitors, microphones, and journalists. Burnett gently put his hand on Carter’s shoulder and coaxed him to complete a brief interview. A reporter asked Carter how he felt about so many people hearing his recording. Carter paused for a long time, shrugged his shoulders, and then, in a barely audible voice, he replied, “It’s OK.”