Fla. Reporter Tracks Down ‘O Brother’ Warbler

By: Wayne Robins

The Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? may have been very loosely based on The Odyssey, but the postscript reads like a Preston Sturges adaptation of “The Minotaur and the Labyrinth.”

On March 3, newspapers reported that James Carter, a former Mississippi sharecropper now living in Chicago, was unaware that “Po Lazarus,” which he chanted while busting rocks on a prison chain gang 43 years ago, became the lead track of the multimillion-copy-selling O Brother soundtrack that was the surprise winner of album-of-the-year honors at the Grammy Awards last month.

Get Carter? It was a challenge for an investigative reporter, making Chris Grier the man for the job. A computer-assisted-reporting ace for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, Grier was doing a story on Alan Lomax, now retired in Florida.

Revered by music lovers but little known by the public, Lomax traveled the back roads recording regional American music (much of it for the Library of Congress), before these indigenous styles were paved over by network TV and the interstate highway system. Grier’s friend, Don Fleming (best known as a producer for Sonic Youth and Hole), was working with Alan’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, at the Lomax Archive in New York. The Lomax team was tracking down these old artists to give credit and royalties.

“My background is in general assignment, so I know deed records, property records,” Grier told E&P. Using the H-T‘s Autotrack, “the master blaster of online databases,” Grier found Carter through records showing his wife owned a storefront church in Chicago. “I knew he was in prison, but I didn’t know he was no singer,” Carter’s wife told Grier.

Incredulity ended when Fleming, Chairetakis, and Grier turned up at the Carter’s Chicago home with a platinum album — and a check for $20,000 in royalties.

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