James Carter Dies

Singer rediscovered through "O Brother"

December 2, 2003 12:00 AM ET

James Carter -- whose lost-and-found tale was among the most heartening among those sparked by the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack -- died on November 26th after suffering a massive stroke; he was seventy-seven.

Carter had forgotten about the day forty years ago when Alan Lomax brought a recording device to Camp B at the Mississippi State Penitentiary and recorded the singer leading a crew of inmates through an a capella version of "Po Lazarus" punctuated with the sounds of the men chopping cotton. After producer T-Bone Burnett included that field recording on his O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, it yielded a $20,000 royalty check for Carter last year, likely the first real money Carter ever made by singing and hardly the last, as he also received songwriting publishing for the song, yielded to a singer after a lyric becomes public domain.

Carter was the son of a sharecropper and born in Sunflower, Mississippi, in 1926. He left home as a teenager and repeatedly ran afoul of the law. For better or worse, his recidivism led to his crossing of paths with Lomax in 1959. Upon his release from prison, believed to be around 1967, he served as a Marine and ultimately settled down and raised a family in Chicago, which is where Burnett and Lomax's daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis (who supervises her father's vast archive) -- who initially assumed him dead -- tracked him down.

"It's a song with tremendous soul," Burnette told Rolling Stone last year. "And this recording was so pure and spare. It was a beautiful recording."

A memorial service for Carter will be held on Thursday at the Living World Christian Center in Forest Park, Illinois. He is survived by his wife, three daughters and nine grandchildren.

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