top of page

The Legend Lives On: The Life and Legacy of Dick Burnett, the Writer of "Man of Constant Sorrow"

In the vast realm of American folk music, there are songs that have transcended time and captivated generations with their timeless appeal. Among these gems is the haunting ballad "Man of Constant Sorrow." Many recognize this tune from the iconic rendition performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys in the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" However, it is important to shed light on the brilliant mind behind this enduring masterpiece—Dick Burnett, a gifted songwriter hailing from Monticello, Kentucky. Today, we delve into the life and legacy of the enigmatic figure who penned one of folk music's most beloved songs.

Early Life and Musical Roots:

Born Richard Burnett in 1883, in Monticello, Kentucky, Dick Burnett grew up surrounded by the rich musical traditions of the Appalachian region. With his family deeply entrenched in the local folk music scene, it was only natural for Burnett to develop a passion for music from a young age. He was drawn to the sounds of the banjo, guitar, and fiddle, and honed his skills by learning to play these instruments proficiently.

"Man of Constant Sorrow" and Its Journey:

While Burnett composed numerous songs throughout his lifetime, none would achieve the level of fame and recognition as "Man of Constant Sorrow." Often referred to as his magnum opus, this poignant composition struck a chord with listeners around the world. The song beautifully conveys the trials and tribulations of a man plagued by a life of sorrow, and its melancholic melody paired with heartfelt lyrics resonated with audiences of all backgrounds.

Interestingly, "Man of Constant Sorrow" experienced a circuitous path to fame. Burnett initially recorded the song in 1913, which was subsequently released as a 78 RPM record. However, it wasn't until the mid-1950s that the song gained significant attention. It was during this period that Burnett's friend, musician and folklorist John Cohen, came across the record and introduced it to the burgeoning folk music scene. From there, the song spread like wildfire, gaining popularity among musicians and fans alike.

Legacy and Impact:

Dick Burnett's contribution to the world of folk music cannot be overstated. Although he might not have witnessed the song's meteoric rise to prominence, his name will forever be synonymous with "Man of Constant Sorrow." The composition has been covered by countless artists, including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Rod Stewart, among others, solidifying its place as an American musical treasure.

Moreover, "Man of Constant Sorrow" played a significant role in sparking a folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s. Its inclusion in the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" reintroduced the song to a whole new generation and reignited interest in traditional American folk music. The film's soundtrack, featuring the Soggy Bottom Boys' rendition of the song, went on to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002, further cementing Burnett's contribution to the musical landscape.

Dick Burnett, the humble songwriter from Monticello, Kentucky, gifted the world with a timeless masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. "Man of Constant Sorrow" remains a symbol of the enduring power of folk music, weaving stories of sorrow and resilience into the fabric of our collective cultural heritage. Though his life may have been fraught with obscurity, his music continues to touch the hearts of millions. As long as people sing the words to "Man of Constant Sorrow," Dick Burnett's legacy will live on, reminding us of the transformative power of music and the


bottom of page