Context: This plodding chain-gang chorus opens the film -- and suggests the whole story is an elaborate jailyard song in itself.
Background: Despite the name, James Carter and the Prisoners isn't your traditional band -- it's the informal title of an actual 1950s Mississippi chain gang featuring Carter and a number of other anonymous convicts. Encountered by traveling ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, their worker chant was recorded and entered into his vast field collection (much of which is now available online). Four decades later, Carter was tracked down and paid $20,000 by the Coens for the use of his music in the movie.
The song itself is a traditional fable about a larger-than-life prisoner. Mudcat.org explains:
Lazarus was a worker on a levy camp, in the days when "you worked from can to can't and maybe they paid you and maybe they didn't." One evening at the mess hall he got tired of finding "meat in his greens" (worms in his salad). Then he did something for which [he] must be feeling really pissed off and had to really have some balls. He "walked the table". He stood up on the mess table and stomped everyone's plates with his muddy boots. Knowing he'd face a minimum of a whippiong for his deed, and with revolvers in either hand, he went straight for the pay window, took the money and ran. Our story (the song) begins with the high sherrif telling the deputy to go get "Po' Laz'us".
In concert: The five singers of the Fairfield Four used a slightly more lighthearted take on the song to open the concert.
Other versions: The Bright Light Quartet's harmonious rendition, also from Lomax's collection
Context: Everett, Pete, and Delmar make a break for it during the opening credits.
Background: While the cleaned-up version by Burl Ives is more famous, Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock originally penned the song as an off-color riff on a hobo's idea of paradise, a Cockaigne-esque land of plenty where alcohol ran like water.
In concert: Emcee John Hartford led a fiddle-based version.
Context: The official radio campaign song of Governor Menelaus "Pass the Biscuits" Pappy O'Daniel.
Background: Adapting it from the Ukrainian folk song "Up There On the Mountain," original singer Jimmie Davis later used the tune as his own campaign song when he ran for governor of Louisiana (on a horse named Sunshine). It's now one of the state's official songs.
Other versions: Too many to count, but Wikipedia lists many of them.
Context: An argument is interrupted by a white-robed baptismal procession.
Background: This traditional hymn was possibly written by slaves back in the 1800s before it wound its way to Appalachia. Choralnet.org goes into more detail.
In concert: Alison Krauss performed the song with the backing of a full gospel chorus.
Other versions: A peppy version by Laila Biala on piano.
Context: The popular off-the-cuff single that wins the Soggy Bottom Boys their freedom.
Background: The most conventional hit of the album has its roots in a "Farewell Song" recorded by blind Kentucky folk singer Dick Burnett in 1913, though it almost certainly predates him. Dr. Ralph Stanley discussed the song and his attempts to revive it in this 2009 Diane Rehm interview, where he speculates it may be two or three hundred years old.
(Fun fact: the accompaniment in the film, Tommy Johnson, was a direct reference to the real-life blues virtuoso of the same name, who likewise claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent.)
There were several variations on this piece throughout the movie, including two different instrumental interpretations. Video of the original singers.
In concert: The lyrical version was notably absent, but the late John Hartford performed a haunting wordless solo of his fiddle interpretation, one of his last before cancer rendered him incapable of handling his beloved instrument.
Other versions: Again, many, but some of the most notable: Bob Dylan (his first national TV appearance) - Roscoe Holcomb - Jerry Garcia (via the Pizza Tapes) - Ralph Stanley
Context: Bluesman Tommy plays a melancholy dirge at a pensive campfire.
Background: Adapted from the keening original by Skip James, it reflects on the hard times faced by the nation's poor in the depths of the Great Depression.
Other versions: Another, more ethereal take on the song by James (bio and lyrics in description).
Context: The official campaign song of reform candidate Homer Stokes.
Background + lyrics
Context: A montage of light-hearted scenes from the middle of the film.
Background: Ironically this gospel hymn was adapted from a line in a secular tune musing about jailbreaking from prison life.
Other versions: Lots, including Johnny Cash (with a great singalong version from his TV show) and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings. One version by the Kossoy Sisters was used in the movie in place of the soundtrack version; it's included on the reissue.
Context: A trio of sirens seduces the group by a cold creek.
Background: This eerie tune was said to be based on a combination of an old lullaby with the steady cadence of a prison work song (compare with the rhythm of "Po' Lazarus."
In concert: The three original singers reprised the song together on stage.
Context: The song performed by the Little Warvey Gals at the Stokes rally.
In concert: Reprised by the three sisters.
Context: A brief act at the Stokes rally.
Background: Dating back to 1864, the tune was modified somewhat by the Coxes for their in-film cameo.
In concert: Introduced with good humor by Hartford.
Other versions: Jade Turner live
Context: The chilling KKK rally scene (similar to the infiltration of the witch's castle in The Wizard of Oz).
Background + lyrics
In concert: Bluegrass legend Stanley gives a striking solo performance shrouded in shadow.
Other versions: Jen Titus
Context: A holdover song done to buy time during the ending concert.
Background: A somewhat silly yodeling vaudeville piece with a busy history.
Context: The celebratory ditty aired while hauling George Nelson to his execution.
Background: An instrumental piece by Hoyt Ming with myriad variations; Old Weird America (a blog about Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music) goes into all the details complete with videos and links.
In concert: John Hartford and his fiddle have some fun at Gillian Welch's expense.
Other versions: An older recording from Smith's anthology, an exuberant take from Dr. Scantlin's Red Hot Peppers, plus some YouTube demonstration.
Context: Echoing the movie's intro, a group of workmen sing an execution song in unison as the boys pray for their lives.
Background: The earliest known date for this is David Miller's 1927 record, though it's probably much older.
Other versions: A jazzy cover by the "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Another uptempo version by Mississippi John Hurt, plus Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie/Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen.
Context: Bridges the epilogue and end credits.Other original music featured in the documentary:
In concert: This uplifting song closed out the concert in a mass singalong featuring all the stage's stars.
Other versions: Several, but the most unexpected is likely the Monkees.
"Wild Bill Jones" - Alison Krauss and Union StationWant more? The reissued deluxe edition soundtrack contains a second disc with 14 songs from the film never released on the original album.
"Blue and Lonesome" - Alison Krauss and Union Station
"Green Pastures" - Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch
"John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store" - Chris Thomas King and Colin Linden
"Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?" - The Cox Family
"Dear Someone" by Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and John Hartford (my favorite)
"I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
"Shove That Hog's Foot Further In the Bed" - John Hartford
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