Saturday, March 23, 2002

The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack hit #1: March 23, 2002

Originally posted March 23, 2012.

The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a slow burner. Released in December 2000, it served as the musical back drop to “the Coen brothers’ delightfully warm and weird Depression-era re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey.” AMG The soundtrack hit its peak in the first quarter of 2002 after winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. That sent the album to the top of the charts and completely out-of-the-blue blockbuster status as an eight-million seller in the U.S.

“In order to capture the sound of Mississippi circa 1932, the Coens commissioned T-Bone Burnett, a masterful producer whose work with artists like Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, Joseph Arthur, and Counting Crows has earned him a special place in the folk-rock hall of fame.” AMG He tapped “an impressive assembly of old-time country veterans (Fairfield Four, Ralph Stanley, the Whites) and talented newcomers (Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris)” AMG to “re-create the country, bluegrass, folk, gospel, and blues of the era.” AMG

“There are no original compositions here (though Burnett is given a ‘music by’ credit usually reserved for composers), and the characters do not generally break into stylized song and dance numbers.” AMG However, “nearly every scene in O Brother is set to a period song, and the music frequently drives and defines the action.” AMG For example, the a cappella performance on Stanley’s “chillingly plaintive O DeathAZ “sets a chilling tone for a climactic struggle at a Ku Klux Klan rally.” AMG Also, “a significant segment of the plot hinges on the (utterly plausible) notion that Dan Tyminksi’s ebullient rendition of I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow could be a runaway hit.” AMG

The material is featured “in arrangements that are either a cappella or feature bare-bones accompaniment.” AZ “Nothing mucks up these homespun tunes” TM “which were made without the meddling clarity of digital technology” AMG but instead in a style “reminiscent of the single-microphone, wax-cylinder recordings of the 1930s.” TM They “give the film much of its power and authenticity.” AMG Every song was recorded for the film with the exception of “a stunning 1955 Alan Lomax recording of a black prison chain gang singing Po Lazarus, and Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain.” AMG

The soundtrack is “chock-full of ol’-timey fun” ZS as “a great throwback to pickin’, grinnin’, fiddling, and knee-slappin’” ZS music, all a testament to “Burnett’s remarkable skills as a producer.” AMG It serves as “a powerful tribute not only to the time-honored but commercially ignored genres of bluegrass and mountain music.” AMG

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Friday, March 1, 2002

100 years ago: “Arkansaw Traveler” hit #1

The Arkansaw Traveler

Len Spencer

Writer(s): Sandford C. Faulkner, Joe Tasso (see lyrics here)

First Charted: March 1, 1902

Peak: 111 US (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

The origins of “The Arkansas Traveler” (aka “The Arkansaw Traveler”) are unclear. It was an anonymous folk song played by minstrel performers with some of its famous dialogue elements dating back to the planation era in the 1820s and ‘30s. It was first published in 1847 by W.C. Peters under the title “The Arkansas Traveller and Rackinsac Waltz.” WK

Mose Case, an albino African-American singer, guitarist, and stage musician TA has been credited with popularizing the song; WK his version from 1958 TY2 “has been called the gold standard.” TA Early versions of the tune feature comic dialogue “between the ‘Traveler’ and the backwoods fiddler” TA but no actual lyrics. SH The sheet music for Case’s version says “this piece is intended to represent an Easter man’s experience among the inhabitants of Arkansas, showing their hospitality and the mode of obtaining it.” TY2

Standford Faulkner is often cited as the composer, although it is more likely that he simply arranged the song. An 1887 newspaper article said Faulkner heard the tune in 1837 while working on a steamship on the Arkansas River. Waller Wright, a passenger, was playing the tune and Faulkner persuaded him to teach it to him. SH

Marie de los Angelos Jose Tosso (also known as Joe Tasso) TA has also been cited as the composer. He was a concert violinist, teacher and composer born in Mexico to Italian parents. TA In the sixty years that he lived in Cincinnati, the press often attributed “The Akansaw Traveler” to him. He was “renowned for his inimitable rendition of the comic dialogue between the Traveler and the squatter.” OH

Len Spencer recorded the first charted version of the song in 1900. It reached #2. He recorded it again in 1902 and that version spent 11 weeks on top of the charts. A 1922 version by native-Arkansan “Eck” Robertson was named to the National Recording Registry. Fiddlin’ John Carson & the Virginia Reelers charted with the song (#14) in 1924.

It has undergone several revisions with different sets of lyrics. In 1947, “official” lyrics were written by a committee in preparation for naming it as the official state song of Arkansas. The tune has also been used for the children’s novelty song “I’m Bringin’ Home a Baby Bumblebee.”


First posted 12/10/2022.