James Carter and the Prisoners

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Singer James Carter is best known for his rendition of the traditional work song "Po' Lazarus," the opening track on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou -- a performance…
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Singer James Carter is best known for his rendition of the traditional work song "Po' Lazarus," the opening track on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou -- a performance captured over four decades earlier by famed archivist Alan Lomax while Carter was imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The son of a sharecropper, Carter was born and raised in Mississippi, leaving home at age 13 and going on to enter the state prison system on four separate occasions: twice he was convicted of theft, once for parole violations after he was found in possession of a firearm, and once on a separate weapons offense. While serving a term at Camp B in the state pen in Lambert, MS, Carter was chopping wood and cutting cotton one mid-September afternoon in 1959 when Lomax, who was traveling through the south with his tape recorder and documenting amateur performances of traditional folk songs, approached him to make a recording of his own. Backed by a chorus of his fellow inmates, Carter agreed to perform the old work-gang song "Po' Lazarus," the tale of a man pursued and gunned down by a relentless sheriff; Lomax added the recording to his vast archive, Carter basically forgot the event ever occurred, and by all the rights, the story should have ended there.

It didn't, but it was decades before "Po' Lazarus" would finally receive its due. During the interim, Carter was released from prison for good, although he had trouble holding a job and ultimately relocated to Chicago in 1967 with his wife and their children. In Chicago he worked as a shipping clerk until retirement, and by all accounts never pursued a career in music at any time in his life. Fast-forward to about 1997, when producer T-Bone Burnett rediscovered "Po' Lazarus" while listening to music in Lomax's New York City archives; the song struck such a profound chord that when Burnett was tapped to work on the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou -- filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen's surreal Depression-era fable inspired in part by Homer's The Odyssey -- he sequenced "Po' Lazarus" as the opening cut, ahead of performances by Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss. The record was a left-field smash, going quintuple-platinum and generating a surge of new interest in traditional folk, country, and bluegrass music on its way to winning four Grammys, including Album of the Year. The soundtrack's label, Lost Highway, its producers, and the Lomax Archives wanted to pay Carter the royalties due him, but there was one problem: they had no idea how to track him down.

After searching through Mississippi penal system and parole board documents, Social Security files, property records, and a host of other resources -- and stymied by the commonness of the name "James Carter" -- Lomax licensing director Don Fleming, with the aid of Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative reporter Chris Grier, eventually learned the name of Carter's wife, Rosie Lee, a longtime minister at Chicago's Holy Temple Church of God. They tracked the couple to Chicago, but at first thought they still had the wrong man -- Carter barely remembered meeting Lomax and was incredulous that the work songs he sang while in prison were the kind of music contemporary audiences would want to listen to. Moreover, he knew nothing of O Brother Where Art Thou or its success. But Lomax had shot photos during that 1959 session, and they proved without a doubt the true identity of "Po' Lazarus'" singer. Carter was given a $20,000 royalty check and a platinum record -- he also boarded an airplane for the first time in his life to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Sadly, not long after receiving his Grammy, Carter suffered a stroke; he died in Chicago on November 26, 2003 at the age of 77.