By Wayne Erbsen
Kentucky-born, blind street singer Dick Burnett had every reason to compose I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow. An orphan by the time he was 12, Burnett was almost murdered in 1907 when he was robbed and shot in the face with a shotgun. Though he survived, Burnett was now a blind man. To earn a livelihood for his wife and child, he took to the streets with a banjo, a fiddle, and a tin cup tied to his leg. To add to his income, he produced little song books, which he later called “song ballets.” In about 1913, he put out a little booklet entitled Songs Sung By R.D. Burnett—The Blind Man—Monticello, Kentucky. Among the four songs in this book was one called Farewell Song, which he wrote about 1912, and which we now know as Man of Constant Sorrow. Burnett taught the song to his neighbor, Emry Arthur, who recorded it on January 1, 1928. According to George Shuffler, Ralph Stanley learned it from his father, who “got it in Kentucky.”
Even if you’re a beginning guitar player who’s not familiar with guitar tab, the tab below should be easy to follow. The horizontal lines represent the strings, and the numbers on a line tells you what fret to play on that string. The little lines below each line of the tab are the beats you count. The chords are shown above each line. Try it. It’s easy!
Man of Constant Sorrow
Man of Constant Sorrow
I am a man of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my days,
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The state where I was born and raised.
For six long years I’ve been in trouble,
No pleasure here on earth I’ve found,
For in this world I’m bound to ramble,
I have no friends to help me now.
You may bury me in some deep valley,
For many years where I may lay,
Then you may learn to love another,
While I am 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.
Allow me to toot my own horn for a moment. After teaching guitar for 50 years, I’ve published three books for beginning guitar. Here’s more about them.
The most recent is Easy Two-Chord Songs for Guitar. If you want to play the guitar, but don’t want to play a zillion chords, this is the book for you! The book includes helpful illustrations plus music, tab, and lyrics to 33 familiar bluegrass, old-time, folk and gospel songs, each with only TWO CHORDS. The book’s spiral binding allows it to lay flat while you play. It comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Painless Guitar – A Fun & Easy Guide for the Complete Beginner is for the total and absolute beginner. My co-author Ted Parrish and I call it “painless” because we have simplified learning the guitar down to its most basic level. Frankly, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. You’ll learn how to play the melody and chords to 31 folk, bluegrass, old time and gospel songs. You’ll have access to online audio files so you can hear how things are supposed to sound.
If you’re a little further along than a complete novice, I suggest Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. This 80-page book takes the beginner on a musical adventure that includes more than 40 well-known flatpicking guitar tunes including Arkansas Traveler, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, House of the Rising Sun, In the Pines, Man of Constant Sorrow, Red River Valley, Wildwood Flower, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The book has a spiral binding and comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.