In 1959, James Carter was working on a chain gang in Mississippi. A folklorist who was documenting life in the South, made a recording of Carter leading his fellow inmates in song while they labored under the blazing Mississippi sun.
The song, really more of a rhythmic, haunting chant, is called "Po Lazarus." It's about a fugitive on the run from the law.
On that day 43 years ago, Carter could never have imagined that the song would lead to a $20,000 royalty check and six Grammy awards.
"You sang and built spirit and moved on," he said Saturday. "It was a long time ago."
Found in Archives
The song was recorded by Alan Lomax, who kept it in the archives at his foundation. A record producer named T-Bone Burnett first heard it while looking through the archives about five years ago. A few years later, Burnett was commissioned to produce the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
On the album, "Po Lazarus" is attributed simply to "James Carter and the Prisoners." Until a month ago, nobody involved with the movie knew where James Carter was, or if he was even alive.
Burnett, a staffer from the Lomax Foundation, and a reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune who was working on a story about Lomax managed to track down Carter using the newspaper's databases and the Freedom of Information Act.
They found out Carter had been incarcerated in Mississippi four times — twice for stealing, once for violating parole and again for a weapons violation.
They traced him to Chicago, where's he's been living since 1967. After prison, Carter worked as a shipping clerk.
Outsold Mariah, Michael
He's 76 now, and has his share of health problems. He still smokes a lot. But he doesn't act like a man who has a song on an album that's gone platinum four times over — an album that has outsold the latest CDs from Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson.
But he was very happy to get his first royalty check this week, indeed he said, "that's the best part of the whole situation."
He doesn't get out of the house much these days, but the record's producers convinced him to fly to Los Angeles last week with his family for the Grammys.
The rather incredible chain of events in Carter's life has remarkable parallels to the movie that uses his song.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loose adaptation of Homer's epic The Odyssey set in depression-era Mississippi. It's the story of a man's journey back to his wife and family, his search for treasure along the way and his struggle to make it home.
In the movie, three convicts, led by the actor George Clooney, escape from a chain gang and end up recording a song in a tiny radio station. While they're on the run, the song becomes a hit. The escapees don't realize their success until the end.
James Carter knows how they feel. Millions of people have heard his voice now — although it took him 43 years to be discovered.