James Carter
(Filed: 04/12/2003)

James Carter, who has died aged 76, was the former jailbird whose soulful rendition of Po' Lazarus opened the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

In 1959 the folk music collector Alan Lomax had visited the notoriously brutal Mississippi State Penitentiary and recorded Carter leading an a capella version of the plantation work song (about a man hunted down by a sheriff), while Carter was chopping wood and cutting cotton in a chain gang.

Nearly 40 years later, the music producer T-Bone Burnett heard the recording while going through the Lomax archives in New York. Two years after that, Joel and Ethan Coen asked Burnett to produce the O Brother soundtrack, and he put Carter's Po' Lazarus first on the list; it was the only track in the film that was an original recording.

The soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? - a shaggy-dog story loosely based on The Odyssey, and set in the Deep South during the Depression - featured a superb selection of obscure blues, bluegrass and gospel music, performed by such artists as Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Union Station and Emmylou Harris. It won five Grammy Awards, was named album of the year, and had sold five million copies by the spring of 2002, when Carter - who had been presumed dead - was finally tracked down.

Alan Lomax had been appalled at the treatment of the black prisoners, and was careful to note down the names and social security numbers of those he recorded; the files of the Mississippi parole board eventually located Carter in Chicago. At his tenement flat there on the West Side he was visited by Alan Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, together with the director of licensing at the Lomax archives, Don Fleming, who was responsible for distributing the royalties.

They presented him with a platinum album and a $20,000 royalty cheque as a first instalment (he was also entitled to songwriting royalties, which go to the performer once the copyright expires, and was expected to earn hundreds of thousands more).

Carter admitted that he had never heard of the album or the film, and barely recalled singing the song. When he was told that it was outselling the latest CDs of Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, he paused, rolled a cigarette, then said: "You tell Michael that I'll slow down so that he can catch up."

A week later he flew to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards ceremony; it was the first time that he had boarded a plane.

James Carter was born in December 1926 at Sunflower, Mississippi, into a sharecropping family which was still denied the vote. Aged 18 he signed up for the Navy, and served in cruisers in the Pacific during the Second World War.

After the war he got married, but soon fell foul of the law, eventually serving four prison terms for theft, robbery and possessing offensive weapons. He admitted later that he had strayed - "You been places, you fight, then you get home and you are bitter" - but claimed the actual charges were trumped up by the sheriff, and the sentences to hard labour unjustified. "Down there [in Mississippi] the law can be one of those things that sink you," he explained. "Oh, the abuse we took. That place was the headquarters of racial segregation. We was no better than slaves."

The chain gangs sang through the day to establish a work rhythm and keep up morale. Their music, inherited from ancestors who had worked on the plantations, and kept alive only in the prisons, was considered to be the closest of all American folk music to its African roots.

It was during his final term at Mississippi State's Camp B - where the guards still used bullwhips, and where prisoners were leased at bargain rates to railway companies - that Carter was visited and recorded by Lomax.

After his final release, in about 1967, he fled the segregated South for Chicago, where he and his wife raised a family and he worked as a shipping clerk, among other jobs. Carter never sang the plantation songs in later years, because they brought back unhappy memories. He died on November 26.

He married, in 1947, Rosie Lee, later a preacher at her store-front Holy Temple Church of God. She recalled: "He was a handsome man, oh yes. I always believed in him. I prayed for him. He had a good heart."

They had three daughters, one of whom became a real estate broker, another a Chicago police officer.