Richard Burnett, of the duo Burnett and Rutherford, is sometimes credited as the composer of the “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which he called “Farewell Song.” He was born in 1883, married in 1905, and blinded in 1907. The second stanza of his “Farewell Song” mentions the singer has been blind six years, which would date it at 1913. In later years, Richard Burnett was asked about the song. He himself could not remember, at that time, if he had composed it, or copied it, or — perhaps most likely — adapted it from something traditional.
Charles Wolfe: What about this “Farewell Song” — “I am a man of constant sorrow” — did you write it?’
Richard Burnett: No, I think I got the ballet [sic] from somebody — I dunno. It may be my song…”
According to Charles Wolfe, the melody of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” was based on an old Baptist hymn, “The Wandering Boy.”
Another recording artist Emry Arthur, who was friends with Burnett, also claimed to have written, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Emry was the first to record the song in 1928 for Vocalion.
Ed Haley recorded a sublime fiddle version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Haley was born in 1883 on Hart’s Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. He was a blind professional fiddler, and never recorded commercially during his lifetime; he was afraid that the record companies would take advantage of a blind man. However, there were recordings made by Haley’s son Ralph on a home disc-cutting machine. When Ralph died, the recordings were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is believed that the 106 sides which remain are only about one third of those recorded.
Ed Haley’s solo fiddle version of the tune can be heard here: