James Carter

Singer of 'Po Lazarus' in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'
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The Independent Online

James Carter, shipping clerk: born Sunflower, Mississippi 1926; married (three daughters); died Chicago 26 November 2003.

The success of the soundtrack to the Coen brothers' award-winning film O Brother, Where Art Thou? has, since its release in 2000, sparked a renewed public interest in all forms of American roots music. A multi-million-seller and a Grammy-winner, the album features legendary musicians such as Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and the Fairfield Four and offers a superb glimpse into the musical heart of the Old South.

Its lead-off track, "Po Lazarus", is credited simply to James Carter and the Prisoners, and is dominated both by the rhythmic impact of pick and hammer upon stone and by the clear, emotive vocal of the outfit's leader. Many, listening to the song for the first time, would doubtless have supposed that professionals cut it specifically for the film. The truth, however, was that it was recorded, back in 1959, by the veteran musicologist Alan Lomax during one of his periodic field trips through the musically fertile landscape of the Mississippi Delta.

He arrived at Camp B at the State Penitentiary in Lambert in the middle of September that year and recorded Carter and a group of his fellow inmates as they gave a vivid interpretation of the blues-infused work song. The recording eventually found its way into the Lomax archives where it remained, virtually forgotten, until the producer T-Bone Burnett rediscovered it nearly 40 years later. He later recalled: "It just made a deep impression. It was such a beautiful version, a soulful version of a great song."

The song seemed perfect for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen's reworking of Homer's The Odyssey, and Burnett had little hesitation in incorporating it into the soundtrack. The success of the album took many in the music industry by surprise, however, and precipitated a search for Carter, who, despite having vanished into obscurity, was entitled to a series of royalty payments.

Initial suspicions that he might be dead proved groundless and, through the hard work of both Don Fleming of the Lomax Archive and Chris Grier of The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, he was finally tracked down to the Chicago apartment he shared with his wife of 57 years.

Born into a sharecropping family in Sunflower, Mississippi, he had left home at 13 and regularly found himself in trouble with the authorities. Incarcerated within the state's prison system on four occasions - twice for theft, once for a parole violation and once for a firearms offence - he then joined the Marines and, in the late 1960s, moved to the Windy City, where he found work as a shipping clerk.

He barely remembered his recording session with Lomax and had not heard of the film that so memorably featured his voice. He was grateful, however, to be presented with a Platinum Disc and a royalty cheque for $20,000. In 2002 he attended the Grammy Awards ceremony that saw the O Brother project scoop five trophies, including Album of the Year, later commenting: "I did the best job I could with that song. I hope people listen to it for a long time."

Paul Wadey