James Carter was the singer of “Po Lazarus,” the song that opens the fabulously successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I wrote about his amazing story for my old blog Tres Producers in March of 2002:
- James Carter recorded a version of “Po Lazarus” for rambling folklorist/producer Alan Lomax in 1959 as an inmate in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. He forgot about it. 42 years later the song appeared on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and now Carter, 76, shares a Grammy for album of the year, has a $20,000 check as a down payment for what could turn out to be hundreds of thousands in royalties (the album has sold over 5 million copies so far and was the No. 2 country album for 2001, according to Billboard), and enjoys a bizarre twist of fate late in his life.
Proving that there is no such thing as a monolithic “music industry,” just a collection of greater and lesser individuals and organizations doing their thing, the heroes of the story are album producer T-Bone Burnett; Don Fleming, director of licensing for the Lomax archives; and Chris Grier, a reporter for The Sarasota Herald-Tribune; all of whom went out of their way to track down Carter, who lives in Chicago and had never heard of the movie or the soundtrack.
There was more a couple of days later:
- In a nutshell, O Brother Where Art Thou? producer T-Bone Burnett, Lomax archivist Don Fleming, and reporter Chris Grier tracked down ex-convict singer James Carter (who was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959) in Chicago to present him with the fruit of forgotten labor, 43 years down life’s highway.
Well, the story continues. It turns out “Don Fleming” is the Don Fleming, the cool-guy record producer/musician I interviewed for The Encyclopedia of Record Producers a few years back.
….just over a year ago, in keeping with his Smithsonian and Library of Congress past, Fleming hooked up with the Lomax Archives – which provided the Carter recording for the O Brother soundtrack – where he is now wallowing in music history heaven.
Yesterday, within the same hour, I got very nice emails from both Don Fleming and Chris Grier, who had independently found my Carter blog via web searches. Small world. Fleming and Grier both got to go to Carter’s house a couple of weeks ago, presented him with a check and a platinum record, and Fleming got to accompany Carter, his wife, and three daughters to L.A. for the Grammys.
In an email Grier told me, “I dug Mr. Carter much. Nice ol’ fella, very bright and witty. It’ll be a long time before I forget the hour I spent on his living room couch, listening to him spiel about the old Mississippi prison camp days.” Grier is writing a book about Alan Lomax, and James Carter will fill a very interesting chapter.
As a reporter, Grier has mainly done investigations and now he is the “computer-assisted reporting specialist” for the Sarasota-Herald Tribune in Florida. With visions of Hal 9000 strong-arming a reluctant interviewee in my head, I asked Grier what his title means, exactly.
“Well, I mainly acquire government databases and dump them into my computer, where I use them to show how poisoned the air and water are, how dangerous the roads are, how many bus drivers and gym teachers have felony records that they didn’t disclose, that sort of thing. Basically, it means I see daylight a whole lot less. It also lets me do stuff like find James Carter, though, so it’s kinda cool.”
Very cool, I’d say. The James Carter story has taken on a life of its own; as I was talking to Don Fleming on the phone a few minutes ago, he had to go. CNN wanted to talk to him about James Carter.
Sadly, James Carter died Nov. 26 in Chicago of complications related to a stroke at the age of 77. But at least his life had a real nice coda at the end.