The Carter Family

TrackFirst Recording
Bury Me Under The Weeping WillowVictor 21074 (1927)
Single Girl, Married GirlVictor 20937 (1927)
Keep On The Sunny SideVictor 21434 (1928)
Wildwood FlowerVictor 40000 (1928)
I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue EyesVictor 40089 (1929)
My Clinch Mountain HomeVictor 40058 (1929)
Wabash CannonballVictor 23731 (1929 released '32)
Worried Man BluesVictor 40317 (1930)
Church In The WildwoodVictor 23776 (released '33)
Can The Circle Be UnbrokenColumbia 20268 (1935)

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

What actually happened in Bristol, Tennessee in the late summer of 1927 is lost to history. Probably for the good so the now accepted and almost to good to be true versions can be seen as the truth. But really, was it possible that the world of music got that lucky? What we do know is a record producer named Ralph Peer was touring the south for the Victor Talking Machine Company looking for performers and songs to release on 78 rpm albums. The recording industry was a new field and they were making up the rules as they went along. Peer especially changed the rules as he had negotiated a deal with the label where he got paid royalties. Unheard of at the time.

What we do know as fact is that in late July/early August of 1927, Peel had 17 artists record for his label, paying them $50 a song plus royalties. What made it so impressive is two of those artists were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. In many ways if American Country Music wasn’t born that day, it at least took its first steps toward being something other than a regional form of music. The week of the Bristol Sessions has come to be known as the Big Bang of Country Music.

A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter and sister-in-law (and Sara’s cousin) Maybelle Carter arrived late the night of August 1st and recorded a handful of songs, and the next morning Peel had them come back to perform a few more. Well, Maybelle and Sara returned; A.P. was busy out trying to buy a tire to put on the car they had borrowed to drive to Maces Spring, Virginia, so they could get home that night.

Carter Family lore has them returning home and treating it as a fun lark until they started receiving royalty checks in early 1928. They sold 300,000 records by the end of 1930. A.P. learned quickly and started collecting songs from throughout the region, arranging them to fit their sound and copyrighting them. Using this system, they recorded a number of other sides during the next dozen or so years, all 78 rpm as this was of course before the LP. A.P. and Sara’s marriage had fallen apart by 1936, in large part as A.P. was always on the road looking for new songs for them to record. From 1938-1943, the Carter Family, sometimes as a trio and often with their kids, became stars of the radio. Starting out on Border Radio, a term that referred to stations just on the Mexico side of the Texas/Mexico border who could ignore U.S. Federal laws and broadcast at what was unheard of power at the time, and finishing up on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina in the fall of 1943. Shortly after, the group disbanded when Sara left for good as she had married A.P.’s cousin and moved to California.

A.P. recorded a few albums with his kids in the 1950s, Maybelle of course played with her daughters well until the late 1970s, with her daughters carrying on until 1996. Sara and Maybelle even recorded an album at one point. Recently, Maybelle’s grandson John Carter Cash and A.P.’s grandson Dale Jett have been performing as the Carter Family. The Carter Fold has had weekly concerts for over 30 years.

But this is A.P., Maybelle and Sara’s story.

My favorite song from that first day of recording was Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow. A.P. Carter is listed as the songwriter, but as there is a copy of the song archived at the University of Missouri from 1906, well … Supposedly, A.P. would travel the south collecting songs and bring them home where the three of them would arrange them, often changing lyrics and creating music for them. Now that seems a bit unethical, but without A.P. these songs probably never would have been saved for us. The song is real, the authenticity flows off the three of them and you can see why Peer chose them as one of the few acts to record. You can hear the awakening of Maybelle’s distinctive playing known as the Carter Scratch already. Hardly fully developed, she would use her thumb to play melody on the bass and middle strings and her index finger to fill out the rhythm. She apparently picked this up from A.P.’s close friend African-American guitarist Lesley Riddle who traveled with A.P. for almost a decade collecting songs. It’s a whole other story but many feel Riddle has never got the credit he deserved in the Carter Family story.

Single Girl, Married Girl is about the differences in the lives of two women. Sara and Maybelle did not want to sing it, and A.P. was out looking for a tire, but Peer loved the song. They re-recorded it in early 1935 during the end of Sara and A.P.’s marriage. It’s much slower and Sara sings at a lower pitch but I think I prefer the original. It’s primal and not at all what you’d hear a woman singing in 1927.

Keep On The Sunny Side was recorded in Camden, New Jersey in 1928. It’s largely remembered now from being the theme of their radio program. And while a copy of a gold record for this song is embedded on A.P.’s tombstone it was published as a song almost thirty years earlier. It was based on a phrase a nephew of the songwriter always used. The nephew, who was confined to a wheelchair, always wanted to be pushed down the sunny side of the street.

A second song from 1928, Wildwood Flower, is a good example of how the Carters collected songs and made them their own. A song published in 1860 known as I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets went, “I’ll twine ’mid the ringlets/ Of my raven black hair,/ The lilies so pale/ And the roses so fair,/ The myrtle so bright/ With an emerald hue,/ And the pale aronatus/ With eyes of bright blue.” In 1928, the Carter Family’s version went, “Oh, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair,/ With the roses so red and the lilies so fair,/ And the myrtle so bright with the emerald dew,/ The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.”

I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes signaled a point where almost everything from then on song wise was credited to A.P.. It’s a good song but it also has serious historical significance in the history of the group. In the early 1930s while he was on the road, A.P. asked his cousin to come by and help Sara so she wasn’t alone with the kids. Well, that ended up just as you’d expect it to. And even though they divorced so as to prevent scandal, Sara’s guy moved out west. In the late 1930s while on Border Radio, Sara would sing this song, according to family lore to her lost love, Coy Bayes. After a while Bayes figured the heck with this and came to Texas to get her. It was their moving back out west to California in 1943 that ended the group.

My Clinch Mountain Home is a bit of an oddity among the group’s recording. A.P. takes a large part of the vocal leads, Sara tries to yodel – probably because of the popularity of Jimmie Rodgers, and it’s a song credited to all three of the members of the group. A.P. has been criticized as a singer over the years, probably because of how good Sara and Maybelle were, but honestly I think he did fine as a lead vocalist. Much better than he has been given credit for.

Wabash Cannonball was first published in 1882, although it was titled The Great Rock Island Route at that point. The song the Carters recorded in 1929, but didn’t release until 1932, was a bit different and again copyrighted by A.P. It was about this time Maybelle stopped playing her Stella guitar and switched to the Gibson L-5 F-hole that really took their music to another level. Now, that distinctive Carter Scratch was all over the songs.

There is something about the line “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song” that always struck me. Worried Man Blues was recorded in 1930 and, like all the other songs I’ve mentioned, has been covered more times than I can count. Although the version by Devo is unique! The Carters had only been recording three years by this point and were huge stars. I can’t even imagine what the three of them must have thought about the direction their lives had taken.

Church In The Wildwood is the only gospel song I have included on the list; if I was writing about Maybelle and her daughters version of the Carter Family it would have been different, but the Original Carter Family as they’ve come to be known didn’t record as much gospel as later versions. It’s a beautiful slow ballad, unlike some of their earlier primal work.

Supposedly, the Carters had recorded Can The Circle Be Unbroken as early as 1933 but didn’t get around to releasing it until a version they recorded a few years later. Like so many other of their songs it was a variation of an older tune that A.P. took credit for. It’s odd that so many of the later versions reverted to the original title, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and also reverted to the straight 4/4 meter throughout instead of the alternating 4/4 and ¾ the Carters used.

I would guess A.P. and Sara’s marriage difficulties limited what they accomplished around this time. While there are a couple of collections, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the nine CD Rounder Records of the Complete Victor Recordings took eight CDs to cover 1927-1934 and one CD to cover 1934-1941.

Regardless, it’s an amazing achievement by three people who simply drive to Bristol, Tennessee one day because they heard there was going to be a man there who would make a copy of them singing.

The Carter Family Fold

Carter Family — A Comprehensive Discography

Carter Family – their songs with lyrics & chords

The Carter Family biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #238

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 30, 2014

    A great list about a hugely influential group.

    Have always had a soft spot for ‘Hello Stranger’ – first heard it in the excellent cover version by The Flatlanders…

  2. David Lewis
    Mar 31, 2014

    I’m not sure that anyone, save perhaps Bill Monroe, has had as much influence as the Carters. Certainly there’s only a handful who come close: Presley, Hank, Beatles. Great list and terrific article.

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Apr 20, 2014

    You mentioned the alternating 4/4 and ¾ meter in ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. It is very effective indeed. It gives the song a joyful and sad feeling at the same time. It is also true, just like you pointed out in a few places in your list, that many of the songs are old mountain hymns etc. Many of them have certainly even a Celtic origin from as far as from Middle Ages… and what happened before that??? – But I don’t mind. Someone had to pick up them and pass them on to following generations.

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