Let Me Tell You A Story First
Those who know me well know I am no lover of country music, so what in the world inspired me to write about this old country song? First published as an American folk song by Dick Burnett in 1913, I first heard this song in the cult classic O Brother, Where Art Thou directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen. Sung by the protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney), and his odd, unlikely trio of his Soggy Bottom Boys, I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow could arguably be the film’s anthem.
I’ve built fond memories with both the film and its anthem with my dad. This is one of the few films we can watch without getting tired of it not only for its comedic value and as a literary parody of The Odyssey, but especially its enjoyable music as we are both musicians. One fond memory my dad and I share is on a photography trip on which we embarked in 2009 just before I graduated high school. On this road trip, we journeyed to Hot Springs, Arkansas and spent some significant time in Texas, including the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the Alamo (the latter of which was a bit underwhelming). Either before or after we spent some time in the Guadalupe Mountains, we had dinner at The Big Texan. They’re famous for their 72 oz. steak where, if you eat the entire steak in under 1 hour, you enter their long hall of fame history and you will have eaten for free; but if you fail, you have to pay the entire $72.
My dad and I did not participate in this Texan pastime; we each had our own much smaller steaks. Yet the experience I treasure there was not the delicious country rare steak I consumed, but in the fortuitous pair of older gentlemen going around and requesting classic country songs from guests. O Brother, Where Art Thou was released in 2000, but even though this was 9 years after the fact, my dad and I had just watched the film for the umpteenth time recently (as in a couple weeks recently).
When the violin and vocalist duo came over to our table asking for a request, my dad and I both looked at each other, I gave him a nod, and he said, “Do you know Man of Constant Sorrow?” And, in fact, they did! For them, it was a country classic. Neither my dad nor I are country music lovers, so we don’t know much about the genre, let alone how well-known this song is. Thus, the gentlemen busted out the song on violin and tenor voice as if they play it all the time.
So, needless to say, this song has a sentimental place in my heart; not only with the movie it’s become associated with as I’ve watched it with my father many times, but also that memory at The Big Texan we both share.
The Gospel in the Song
You can imagine my surprise when, as a seminary student, upon further reflection on the lyrics I discovered the Gospel that’s inherent in the song. The tune to the song is really catchy. A lot of the time, I think, when a song has a really catchy tune, we don’t stop to think about the actual lyrics and the meaning behind them, whether for good or ill. I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow is one of those songs.
I’m not going to discuss the song verse by verse, but here’s all the lyrics to the song, minus the parts that repeat the soloist. Try not to sing it through your head (I know, it’s really hard!), but try to read it as you would a poem. Note the words I put in bold print:
I am a man of constant sorrow.
I’ve seen trouble all my day.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised. [or as it’s sung, “where I was borned and raised!”]
For six long years I’ve been in trouble.
No pleasures here on earth I found.
For in this world I’m bound to ramble;
I have no friends to help me now.
It’s fare thee well, my old lover.
I never expect to see you again,
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad.
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay.
Then you may learn to love another
While I’m sleeping in my grave.
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger.
My face you’ll never see no more.
But there is one promise that is given:
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.
This song has quite the psalmic personality to it. Like some of the psalms, it’s a sad poem, but then it ends in sudden hope (the Gospel). Throughout the song, the songwriter, Burnett—and in this fictional case, Everett McGill—sings about his constant sorrow and his many troubles. He experiences the sorrow of saying farewell to Kentucky, possibly his homeland. He experiences the sorrow of an unnamed trouble, lack of pleasure in things on earth, saying farewell to his lover (a double farewell!), watching her fall in love with another man, and never seeing her again. Yet despite all this sorrow, much as the penitent and imprecatory psalms do, he ends his hope in the Gospel of the Lord: “But there is one promise that is given: I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.”
Many of the psalms speak of abstract “troubles,” much as Burnett does here. Psalm 27:5 immediately comes to mind, “For [the LORD] will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will lift me high upon a rock.” Another includes an exhortation from God Himself, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15).
In both these psalms, each psalmist also ends with hope in the Lord. “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:13-14)! This has striking similarities to what Job says despite his immense suffering, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Psalm 50 also ends with this Gospel hope, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23)!
Aside from the Psalms, which is within the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, Man of Constant Sorrow also has a brief but significant correlation to Ecclesiastes, another book of wisdom. In the song, Burnett writes, “No pleasures here on earth I found.” This is nearly identical to Qoheleth’s language in Ecclesiastes, for example:
- “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher [Qoheleth], vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:2-3).
- “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem… I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:12, 14).
- “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity” (2:1).
And many other examples. Having gained much wisdom from the Lord, which is arguably Solomon (1 Kings 3:1-15), he comes to discover that all things under the sun are vanity! That is, for nothing! When faced with the eternal significance of God’s glory, all things are, indeed, vanity. It sounds nihilistic until you read his closing, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). Of course, this is Law, yet for the Christian that day of judgement will be Gospel, for we have already been judged in Christ—He who has taken the punishment of our sins upon Him in God’s wrath and has imparted His perfect righteousness to us. This is what Martin Luther calls the “blessed exchange”—the Lord happily exchanges His righteousness for our sins.
The Beautiful Gospel
“But there is one promise that is given: I’ll meet you on God’s golden shores.” This closing verse is what makes the song so beautiful and, indeed, psalmic. Burnett spends the entire song detailing his sorrows, but then he ends it with the beautiful image of God’s golden shores, bringing to mind the ushering in of the new creation upon Christ’s glorious return, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” (Revelation 22:1-2).
This song has striking similarities to the imprecatory psalms especially, such as Psalm 13. Throughout the entirety of the psalm, David writes of his own sorrow. He feels that God is distant, that He has forgotten him, that He purposefully hides from him. “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day,” he bemoans (v. 2). Yet just as Burnett suddenly ends with the golden shores of God’s new creation to come at the ushering in of His kingdom, so David suddenly ends the psalm with hope in that same salvation, “But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me” (vv. 5-6).
This psalm, other imprecatory psalms, and Man of Constant Sorrow teach us the most important thing to know and to believe during our constant sorrows: Although sorrow may be constant—although we may be walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4)—with the psalmists and the man of constant sorrow, we know that we shall appear on the other side of the dark valley of sorrows to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6), where we shall find golden shores and a crystal river with the tree of life planted beside it for all to eat from. Amen. Thanks be to God.