Most of my friends who read this are probably saying, “Who on earth are the Carter Family?” Even for me, growing up in Tennessee and exposed to the Grand Ole Opry and other country music from an early age, I didn’t know who they were and what their influence was. Then I got a DVD from the library of a PBS special, “The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
My family is musical on both sides. In Mother’s family, Aunt Geneva played the harmonica and Uncle Fatty (Jesse) played the guitar. My grandmother on the Jones side played banjo and autoharp. I never heard her play or sing, because she died when I was small. But I often heard Aunt Geneva and Uncle Fatty. I thought they got their songs from the radio, and that some of them were old songs from our part of the country.
After watching this show, I now know that the songs they sang did come from the radio and from records–of the Carter Family, and later of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. A. P. Carter started in the late ’20s with his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle, recording old songs from the Virginia mountains where they lived, close to the Tennessee border. Then over the years he went further and further afield, looking for more material.
Old songs that went back hundreds of years, and blues and field hollers, were all fodder for them. A. P. arranged the songs and sang harmony; Sara sang lead, and Maybelle invented a new style of guitar picking unlike anything that had been before.
When Mother sang “I’m thinking tonight of my Blue Eyes,” that was a Carter Family song. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” were all in my family’s repertoire, and all Carter Family songs.
Now the Carters are called folk musicians and roots music. During the folk revival of the ’60s Joan Baez recorded some of their songs. Maybelle’s picking inspired Doc Watson and others who took her style into the mainstream of country music.
But for me those songs bring back a rainy Sunday afternoon in Aunt Lou and Uncle Floyd’s “parlor” sitting around the coal-burning stove. Aunt Geneva is playing the melody of “Wildwood Flower,” then Uncle Fatty picks it in Maybelle Carter’s style, picking the melody and strumming chords at the same time. Then they sing, Mother and Aunt Lou joining in and patting their feet. Daddy and Uncle Floyd sang too, but softly, for the others were better singers, and they wanted to hear them.
I wish I could hear their voices again. Maybe it’s time to get out my old Sears Silvertone guitar. Or better still, listen to Roseanne Cash (June Carter’s stepdaughter and Johnny Cash’s daughter) sing “Long Black Veil.” She has that lonesome mountain sound, brought into the modern world.