Bluegrass Roots-The Carter Family
In my last post, and several others, I mentioned the Carter Family as a fertile source of repertoire for bluegrass artists. Harry Smith included four Carter Family songs in his Anthology of American Folk Music and the modern anthologists included the flip sides of those songs last year on The Harry Smith B-Sides. Bluegrass musicians and many others from the Monroe Brothers to the present have recorded Carter Family songs, reinterpreting them to suit their own styles. The Carter Family is known as the “First Family of Country Music”; their songs have endured for nearly a century. This post focuses on some of the Carter Family’s songs that are well known in bluegrass and on some lesser known favorites.
The Carter Family of Mace’s Springs in southwestern Virginia consisted of Sara Carter, who sang most of the leads in the group, and played the autoharp, Alvin Pleasant (“A.P.”) Carter, Sara’s husband (they divorced in 1936), who wrote or reworked or found much of the Carter repertoire and “bassed in” occasionally, and Maybelle Carter, Sara’s cousin, who was married to A.P.’s brother. Maybelle was best known for her innovative and influential guitar playing, featuring what came to be known as the “Carter scratch,” fusing melody and rhythm in one guitar. Maybelle also played autoharp and steel guitar.
The Carter Family first recorded in August 1927 at sessions organized by Victor Talking Machine Co. talent scout Ralph Peer in Bristol, a city that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border. At the same sessions, Peer recorded Jimmy Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” another enormously influential singer and songwriter. Because the Carters and Jimmy Rodgers first recorded there, the Bristol sessions are known to country music fans and historians as the “big bang” that created country music. Sara, Maybelle, and A.P., known as the original Carter Family, made their last recordings together in 1941.
At the Bristol sessions, the first song the Carters recorded was “Bury Me Under The Willow,” now a bluegrass standard, on which all three of them sang. Peer was quite taken with Sara’s high, clear, and soulful singing: “[A]s soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it.” This debut recording also introduced Maybelle’s powerful guitar style and A.P.’s quavering bass voice. In their subsequent recordings, the Carters didn’t deviate very much from this basic formula, which brought them immediate and lasting popularity. Maybelle played steel on “Little Darling Pal Of Mine,” whose melody Woody Guthrie borrowed for “This Land Is Your Land.” Maybelle’s guitar playing on “Wildwood Flower” became a tutorial for all aspiring country and bluegrass guitarists. The Carters also recorded many sacred songs-their first was “Anchored In Love,” featuring an unusually involved vocal arrangement.
Recordings like this, and hundreds more, made the Carter Family’s reputation and help explain why their music has such staying power. First and foremost were the songs themselves. Although mostly credited to A.P., many of the songs were based on old parlor tunes (“Wildwood Flower”), or hymns (“Anchored In Love,” written by James Lowe), or traditional songs or song fragments that A.P. unearthed in his many rambles through the mountains near his home. For several years A.P. was accompanied on many song gathering trips by Lesley Riddle, an African-American guitarist who wrote or co-wrote several of the Carter Family’s songs and also helped Maybelle with some guitar licks. And regardless of their source, the songs were brought vividly to life by the Carter Family’s heartfelt singing and distinctive picking, which has continued to inspire countless musicians over the 80 years since the original trio stopped recording.
Bluegrass musicians seized on Carter Family songs even before there was bluegrass. The Monroe Brothers recorded a number of Carter Family tunes. One of the most affecting was “Let Us Be Lovers Again” (recently covered by Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins). Others followed. Earl Scruggs recorded “Little Darling Pal of Mine” as a now-iconic banjo instrumental. Flatt and Scruggs recorded an entire album of Carter Family songs, including “Worried Man Blues.” They and the Nashville Bluegrass Band covered “My Native Home.” The Stanley Brothers recorded “Weeping Willow” and “Are You Tired Of Me My Darling.” Bill Clifton, an early “citybilly” bluegrasser who was close to A.P. Carter in A.P.’s last years (A.P. died in 1960), covered “My Dixie Darling” and “Cannonball Blues.” More recently, Emmylou Harris recorded “Hello Stranger” and Foghorn Stringband recorded “Sow ‘em On The Mountain.”
After the original Carter Family’s recording career ended, Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Helen, Anita, and June, as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. They were Grand Ole Opry stalwarts for many years. Maybelle also mentored and helped many younger musicians, including Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, who later married June Carter. Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters were part of Johnny Cash’s touring show for many years. In the 1970s the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band included Maybelle on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (also a song recorded by the Carter Family), a landmark three-record set that featured many of country music’s early stars. This recording introduced Maybelle’s singing and guitar and autoharp skills to a new generation. June Carter’s children and other Carter Family descendants have carried on the Carters’ rich musical tradition to the present.
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The first records I ever heard before I turned 5 years old were Carter Family 78s. As soon as I learned to play guitar at age 8 I worked hard to learn how to pick tunes like Mother Maybelle, including rigging up my little guitar for steel playing like she did on Foggy Mt. Top.
For those really interested in the Carters, I heartily recommend the first major biography “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone — The Carter Family”. It is no fluff job, it’s the real thing! AP Carter’s Granny had a baby while her husband was off in the Civil War — clearly not his. Her friends all pried to know who the father was. She replied something like “Law…when you run through a briar patch you can’t tell which one scratched you!” Fascinating reading.