Music

James Carter

50s prison musician

Biography

James Carter (December 18, 1925 – November 26, 2003) was an American singer. He was born a Mississippi sharecropper and as a young man was several times an inmate of the Mississippi prison system. He was paid $20,000, and credited, for a four-decade-old lead-vocalist performance in a prison work song used in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In 1959, Carter was a prisoner in Camp B of Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, when Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins recorded him in stereo sound leading a group of prisoners singing "Po' Lazarus", an African-American "bad man ballad" (which is also a work song), while chopping logs in time to the music. The recording and an iconic cover photograph of the prisoners in striped uniforms were issued on volume nine, Bad Man Ballads, in Alan Lomax's 1959 Southern Journey LP series on Atlantic Records.

Decades later, the recording was licensed for use in the soundtrack to the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? with music produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett's soundtrack topped the Billboard charts for many weeks and went on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. Alan Lomax's daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis (now Anna Lomax Wood), director of the The Alan Lomax Archive, and Don Fleming, director of Licensing for the Archive, hoped that Carter was still alive and determined to track him down:

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