Most of you, I'm sure, have only heard one version of this song, and it's probably not going to be this one. I've always wondered what traditional folk fans must've thought when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack blew up in 2001, a year after the movie was released. After all, this was a genre that, for all intents and purposes, no longer retained any commercial value, and all of a sudden this soundtrack to a Coen Brothers movie entirely comprised of old standards and blues songs rockets up the charts and spawns a surprising hit single that actually received airplay on non-country stations. Did those people think "wow, what a crazy fluke; at least now some people will appreciate the musicians that actually record this kind of music"? Or did any of them truly believe a new folk renaissance was coming? For their sake, I truly hope it was the former.
At any rate, it's always funny how certain things manage to take hold of our national consciousness without any warning and causing a massive wave of adoration, an often equally massive backlash, and (inevitably) a host of imitators trying to steal them blind. And, in most cases, the imitators and copycats tend to destroy the original's power and ability to stun and amaze - the easiest benchmark to see when a trend has run its course is when the mainstream has bent it to its will. I remember it happening with Pulp Fiction, it happened with Saturday Night Live, and has been happening since time immemorial.
For whatever reason, that didn't really happen with folk music in 2002. There were a few more copies of Allison Krause & Union Station sold, I'm sure, but when "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow" stopped getting airplay and the soundtrack stopped selling, that was really that. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has more or less receded from memory (and with good reason - it's funny and charming, but hardly a major Coen Brothers effort), and lovers of traditional music have returned to their yellowed copies of Broadside and Chambers Brothers vinyls. Maybe that's for the best. It would be maybe a little too meta and weird for the American consciousness to absorb a form of art that is already so inured with American consciousness - granted, the "old weird America" Greil Marcus wrote about, as opposed to the modern, weird America we live in. Or maybe it's too much to expect wood-chopping songs to make a real comeback.
So, for whatever reason, this was a song that Dylan really seemed to hold in high esteem around the time of the recording and release of his first album. It shows up on the legendary Minnesota party tape, recorded in the apartment of (girl)friend Bonnie Beecher in 1961. Of course, it's one of the songs on his debut. And he chose it to perform on his first-ever TV performance, a show called "Folk Songs And More Folk Songs" that aired in March of 1963. That's a lot of venues for this song to show up, and a lot of important ones from a historical standpoint.
Then the song disappeared from his repertoire, only to reappear in (you're not going to believe this) - 2002, right around the time the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was at its commercial peak. I wanted to find an mp3 of one of the performances to link to here, but my memory tells me not to bother, as the arrangement is very close to the O Brother version and loses its novelty very quickly. It's kind of amusing that Dylan, a trendsetter for many years, would dust off one of his oldest recorded songs and give it a runthrough in a manner markedly different from his debut. He does have a puckish sense of humor.
The Bob Dylan version is far more laid-back, as you'd imagine, really as much a showcase for his harmonica skills as anything else. Actually, comparing it with the more famous O Brother version, Bob's version is a real disappointment, and not just because the O Brother version is so fantastic. Dylan makes an odd artistic choice in stretching out certain words in the first and third lines of the verses, which kills a lot of the narrative tension in the song. And, for whatever reason, the lyrics are quite different, maybe closer to the original (except he changes the place he left from Kentucky to Colorado), but not as poetic or interesting as the more famous version. The last verse, in particular, is head-scratchingly mundane: "I'm going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I had known how bad you'd treat me honey/I never would have come". He manages to turn something heart-tugging and emotionally resonant (even for a blues song) into a crappy kiss-off. Thanks, Young Bob!
As a bonus/apology for not finding the 2002 live version, here's the video of "Man of Constant Sorrow" as performed on TV in 1963 (and used in Scorcese's No Direction Home). It sounds exactly like the album version, so if you've never heard Bob Dylan, well, now you kind of have. Enjoy!