Man of Constant Sorrow

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"Man of Constant Sorrow"
Song by Dick Burnett
Music sample
Published 1913
Form Ballad
Writer Traditional

"Man of Constant Sorrow" (also known as "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow") is a traditional American folk song first recorded by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky. The song was originally recorded by Burnett as "Farewell Song" printed in a Richard Burnett songbook, about 1913. An early version was recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928 (Vocalion Vo 5208).

Public interest in the song was renewed after the release of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where it plays a central role in the plot. The song, with lead vocal by Dan Tyminski, was also included in the film's highly successful, multiple-platinum-selling soundtrack.

Some uncertainty exists as to whether Dick Burnett himself wrote the song. One claim is that it was sung by the Mackin clan in 1888 in Ireland and that Cameron O'Mackin emigrated to Tennessee, brought the song with him, and performed it. In an interview he gave toward the end of his life, Burnett himself indicated he could not remember:

Charles Wolfe: "What about this "Farewell Song" – 'I am a man of constant sorrow' – did you write it?"
Richard Burnett: "No, I think I got the ballad from somebody – I dunno. It may be my song..."[1]

If Burnett wrote the song, the date of its composition, or at least of the editing of certain lyrics by Burnett, can be fixed at about 1913. Since it is known that Burnett was born in 1883, married in 1905, and blinded in 1907, the dating of two of these texts can be made on the basis of internal evidence. The second stanza of "Farewell Song" mentions that the singer has been blind six years, which put the date at 1913. According to the Country Music Annual, Burnett "probably tailored a pre-existing song to fit his blindness" and may have adapted a hymn. Charles Wolfe argues, "Burnett probably based his melody on an old Baptist hymn called "Wandering Boy".[2]

During 1918, Cecil Sharp collected the song and published it as "In Old Virginny" (Sharp II, 233).

Sarah Ogan Gunning's rewriting of the traditional "Man" into a more personal "Girl" took place about 1936 in New York, where her first husband, Andrew Ogan, was fatally ill. The text was descriptive of loneliness away from home and anticipated her bereavement; the melody she remembered from a 78-rpm hillbilly record (Emry Arthur, probably Vocalion Vo 5208, 1928) she had heard some years before in the mountains.

On October 13, 2009, on the Diane Rehm Show, Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers, born in 1927, discussed the song, its origin, and his effort to revive it:[3]

"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."

Stanley's autobiography is titled Man of Constant Sorrow.[4]


  1. ^ "Man of Constant Sorrow – Richard Burnett's Story," Old Time Music, No. 10 (Autumn 1973), p. 8.
  2. ^ Charles K Wolfe, James E Akenson, Country Music Annual 2002, p.28
  3. ^ Stanley discusses song's origins on the Diane Rehm Show (link to audio program's web page)
  4. ^ Article on Stanley's autobiography