James Carter, 77; Singer in Chain Gang Found Fame

Times Staff Writer

James Carter, who led a Mississippi chain gang in singing a work song that was recorded by a famed musicologist and, 40 years later, became part of the top-selling “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album, has died. He was 77.

Carter, who had been in poor health and suffered a stroke, died Nov. 26 in a hospital in Oak Park, Ill.

The son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Carter served in the Navy during World War II. He then married his childhood sweetheart and, after holding down a variety of jobs, wound up in the Mississippi state prison system -- reportedly four times.


He was doing time on a weapons possession offense in 1959 when Alan Lomax, the pioneering collector of American folk songs, showed up at the prison in Parchman, Miss., with his tape recorder.

To establish a work rhythm and maintain morale during the long days of hard labor chopping wood and working in the fields and on the railroad lines, the prisoners sang.

One of the songs Lomax recorded that hot September day was “Po’ Lazarus,” a melancholy tune about a man who is hunted and gunned down by a sheriff with a .44-caliber revolver. The rhythmic thump of the prisoners’ axes provided the only accompaniment. Although Lomax recorded other work songs sung by the prisoners in Mississippi, “Po’ Lazarus” left a lasting impression.

“They were 50 black men who were working under the whip and the gun and they had the soul to make the most wonderful song I’d ever heard,” Lomax told National Public Radio in 2002, shortly before his death.

Carter was paroled in December 1967 and joined his wife, Rosie, in Chicago, where he held a number of jobs over the years, including as a shipping clerk and a custodian.

Carter would have remained in obscurity if not for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Joel and Ethan Coen’s offbeat Depression-era film, starring George Clooney, is about escaped Mississippi convicts.


When music producer T Bone Burnett began working on the soundtrack for the 2000 film, he remembered having heard “Po’ Lazarus” in the Lomax archives in New York City.

“It just made a deep impression,” he told the New York Times last year. “It was such a beautiful version, a soulful version of a great song.”

“Po’ Lazarus” was used as the opening song on the soundtrack, and the album became a surprise hit that by early 2002 had sold 4 million copies.

As sales of the soundtrack climbed, the Lomax archives began searching for Carter to make sure that, as the lead singer of “Po’ Lazarus,” he received the royalties that were due him.

After a months-long search of prison and public records looking for former Mississippi prison inmate 2464, they found Carter in Chicago, where his wife has been the longtime owner of a storefront church.

In February 2002, Lomax archives licensing director Don Fleming and Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, who manages her father’s archives, went to Chicago and presented Carter with his first royalty check -- for $20,000 -- and a platinum CD bearing his name.


They found Carter just in time for the Grammy Awards, and he took his first-ever plane ride to Los Angeles with his family for the ceremony.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” won album of the year, as well as a Grammy for best compilation soundtrack album, and Carter found himself thrust into the limelight.

He told National Public Radio last year that “Po’ Lazarus” wasn’t his favorite work song when he was in prison, but said he was happy he had sung it.

“I’m proud of it now because it gave me a piece of money I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t sung,” he said. “It put a smile on my family’s face. That’s the big thing.”

Carter received royalties not only as lead singer on the Lomax recording of the old work song. Because “Po’ Lazarus” is now in the public domain, songwriter royalties go to the performer after the copyright expires.

Elizabeth Scott, one of Carter’s daughters, told the New York Times this week that her father had received at least $100,000 in royalties. Part of the money, his family said, purchased a church van and part went to a food bank at the church.


Scott also told the Chicago Tribune this week that she believed that the album and the ensuing hoopla had brought her father “closer to the Lord.”

“The odds of this happening to somebody are very, very slim,” she said. “And the good thing is that they were able to find him, and he was able to be recognized while he was still living.”

In addition to Scott and his wife, Carter is survived by two other daughters, Cora Macklin and Hattie Tucker; and nine grandchildren.