O Brother, Where Art Thou?


In 2000, the Coen Brothers released the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie is based on Homer's The Odyssey and Howard Waldrop's novella A Dozen Tough Jobs, which featured the concept of bringing Ulysses' journey into 1920's Mississippi.

The signature song in that movie is "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow", performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys (Everett, Delmar, Pete and Tommy). Like the blind bard in the movie (radio station manager Lund), the real-world movie-going public couldn't get enough of that old-timey material. Shortly after the movie's release, over one million copies of the soundtrack were sold, prompting a benefit concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame (Down from the Mountain), as well as the soundtrack from that concert, two follow-up albums (O Sister! The Women's Bluegrass Collection and O Sister 2), and a "making of" documentary short (Inside Look: Down from the Mountain) about the documentary Down from the Mountain. There's also a website dedicated to the original soundtrack.

While watching the movie on TV last year, I noticed that the version played when the Soggy Bottom Boys get up on stage is quite different than what they recorded at the radio station. When I purchased the DVD and the soundtrack, I discovered that there were three additional different versions of the song. Here are the five different versions:

(There's also two instrumental versions on the soundtrack that are based on the original traditional version.)

At the time I first saw O Brother on TV, I thought the first different version was just due to the song becoming popular and the musicians shown in the movie having time to elaborate on it. But, that didn't explain why there's five different "old-timey" versions. Much like when I came across that mystery song used in the Death to Smoochy commercials, I started digging into the reason for the differences.

All five versions are credited to the Soggy Bottom Boys, a group steeped in old-timey material. ("Heck, we're silly with it, ain't we, boys?") Even though George Clooney practiced for several weeks, he wound up lip-syncing to Dan Tyminski's singing. Dan is part of the group Union Station, which most notibly performs with Alison Krauss as Alison Krauss and Union Station.

In most films, if a second person provides a singing voice for a character, they get a credit for doing so. For instance, Amy Irving is credited as the singing voice for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Dan isn't actually credited as the singing voice for Ulysses Everett McGill, but he's still received a lot of recognition for doing so. He got Single of the Year in 2001 from the Country Music Association, a Grammy Award, and an International Bluegrass Music Award, all for "Man of Constant Sorrow". There is a nice review at Puremusic website of Dan's CD Carry Me Across the Mountain.

(Side note I just discovered: Kathleen Turner, despite being a main character in the movie, does not have an official credit as Jessica Rabbit's voice. However, she does have an official voice credit for Jessica in the three Roger Rabbit shorts: Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up. These shorts were played prior to other movies, in the tradition of the movie-going experience in the early years of American cinema.)

The five versions of "Man of Constant Sorrow" fall into two categories: the radio station version and the extended version. In the radio version, the verses are sung back-to-back, with a guitar as the only instrument. In the extended version, a guitar, banjo and mandolin provide a musical break to lead in each verse. Beyond that, the lyrics are different in the five versions.


As of April 9th, I still don't have an official reason why five different versions of "Man of Constant Sorrow& have been recorded. If I find one, I'll update this page. In the meantime, I'll just consider those versions to be a nice bonus given to the fans.

Continue on to the next page to see the differences in the radio versions.

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Last Update: April 9, 2006.

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