Iron chain song turns to platinum

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Sometimes it takes a long time for a story to develop and what looks bleak at the time can turn out very differently. Take James Carter, for instance, who spent four different stints on the chain gang at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison.

During his 1959 Parchman incarceration, Carter and his fellow chain-gang members were recorded by the legendary Alan Lomax from the Smithsonian Museum while they sang a chain-gang song, a recording that ended up gathering dust in the Smithsonian archives, where it remained for over 40 years.

Then famous directors and producers Joel and Ethan Coen began searching for roots and folk music for their 2000 movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Unearthing the Parchman Farm recording, they used it as the lead song in their hit movie and soundtrack. Knowing nothing about the convicts, they credited the four-minute song “Po’ Lazarus” to James Carter and the Prisoners, the title that Lomax had given it so many years ago.

The soundtrack to the movie surged to No. 1 on the charts and by 2007 had been certified platinum eight times over; the royalties began rolling in, making a nice pile of money for many obscure or half-forgotten country and Western musicians.

Producer T-bone Burnett decided to see if it was possible to locate the long-forgotten prisoner James Carter to present him with the first of many royalty checks due him. He was the only member of the chain gang whose name had been recorded.

After a long search, Burnett located Carter in Chicago, where some versions of the tale say he was living with his sister while others say he was in a nursing home. Either way, Carter, who had long since left prison life behind, had not heard of the movie or the soundtrack and had no idea he was due royalties.

Burnett, presenting him with a check for $20,000, told him that he’d sold more records that year than Michael Jackson or Mariah Carey.

I love the story, because it reminds me that we never really know where life is going to lead or how things will eventually develop. How could Mr. Carter possibly have foreseen that his chain-gang song would lead to a financial windfall some 50 years later?

More checks would follow for Mr. Carter as the soundtrack and movie continued to sell. One has the feeling that things ended for Carter much better than they had begun.

And what did James Carter do with his unexpected royalty checks?

Again, the record is somewhat mixed. But for obvious reasons this pastor likes the answer the Coen brothers offered on the American Routes radio program last Saturday. They said that James Carter gave his royalty money to his church.

Yes, I like it that the church was the recipient of an unexpected gift. But I like it even more that a four-time graduate of Parchman Farm eventually became a member of a far more illustrious organization.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.