Monday, January 23, 2023

Dick Burnett, the Blind Minstrel of Monticello

"The Farewell Song" was first printed in the songbook, "Songs Sung by R. D. Burnett," a blind man from Monticello, Kentucky, in 1913. You might know the song as "Man of Constant Sorrow," from the 2000 movie, "O Brother Where Art Thou." The film's soundtrack was more successful than the film. "Man of Constant Sorrow," sung in the movie by Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss and Union Station, won the 2001 CMA award for best single as well as a Grammy Award for best Country Collaboration with Vocals. It was also named Song of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2001.

Dick Burnett is generally considered the author of the song, although he himself wasn't so sure about it. In a 1973 interview, he said, "I think I got it from somebody...I dunno, it may be my song." The composition year is most likely the same as the songbooks' publication year, 1913, judging from the line: "Oh, six long years I've been blind, friends." You see, Burnett was left blind from a gunshot wound in 1907. He was walking home from his job at a barbershop at Stearns one evening, when he was robbed at gunpoint. Rather than lose his money, he rushed the robber and was struck in the face by a shotgun blast.

Burnett, who was born at Elk Springs Valley in 1883, had learned how to play several stringed instruments at an early age; dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, guitar, etc. Unable to work anymore, he decided to become a musician to earn money for his wife and small child. He began traveling from town to town, playing on the street for nickels and dimes with a tin cup tied to his leg (see photo). Usually, he was accompanied by his musical sidekick Leonard Rutherford, who came to live with the Burnett family when only a small boy.

Burnett was willing to teach Rutherford how to play the fiddle if he would help him get around. As Rutherford improved, it became profitable for the two men to branch out, traveling first by horse, bus and railroad. Eventually, Burnett bought a car and Rutherford learned to drive it. In Burnett's words, they travelled "from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, playing every town this side of Nashville."

But, life was hard for them. For that reason, in 1929, Burnett's wife, Georgia, ran for jailer of Wayne County. "I wish to announce myself as a candidate for jailor," she wrote in the Wayne County Outlook. "My husband is a blind man and his only way of supporting his family is by playing music, in which he has found it very difficult to do. For this cause, I am asking the support of all the voters of Wayne County." She did not win.

Burnett and Rutherford recorded several songs for Columbia Records between 1926 and 1928. They recorded "The Farewell Song" in 1927, but the recording was not released and for some reason the master recording was destroyed. Although the song is in his 1913 catalog, it's too bad, he didn't copyright it as his. Imagine how much money could have been earned in his name.

In 2003, “Man of Constant Sorrow” was voted the 20th greatest song of all time in CMT’s 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.

"I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all of my days
I'll bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was born and raised"

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