Skip PBS navigation bar, and jump to content.
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

spacer above content
People & Events

return to index

  The Carter Family's Music in the Great Depression Previous
5 of 7

Depression refugee family from Tulsa, Oklahoma Though the Great Depression didn't officially begin until after the stock market crash of 1929, the timing of the Carters' appearance on the national stage could not have been better. While the 1920s were a boom decade on Wall Street, farmers and unskilled workers were left largely behind, and the hollows of Appalachia were among the poorest parts of the country. The depression that followed Black Tuesday lasted until the eve of World War II, cutting American economic output nearly in half and putting one-quarter of the labor force -- some 15 million people -- out of work. When the Dust Bowl hit in the early 1930s, driving millions more from their drought-wasted farms across the Midwest and Great Plains, it was only one more misery for an already miserable people to endure.

Tales of Human Loss
With their focus on the random, personal tragedies that characterized life in 1920s Appalachia, the Carters' songs were right for the times. Poor Orphan Child, recorded during the first Bristol session, tells the story of a young child who is left alone after both of his parents die: "I hear a low faint voice of death call full and mamma's dead. And it comes from the poor orphan child that must be clothed and fed." The song continues to describe the "poor little boys and girls, who once had loved their loving hands to smooth their golden curls," and concludes with a plea to God to "Bless every hand that leaves them aid and bless the orphan home." Everyone who grew to adulthood with both parents knew that, but for luck, the orphan child's story could have been his or her own story, and so it was with the Carters' other tales of human loss of every kind.

A Blissful Escape
Maybelle, Sara and A.P. in Poor Valley, VA The Carters also reflected on the epic national tragedy in such songs as No Depression in Heaven, which describes death as a blissful escape from the cares of a sad, sad world:

I fear the hearts of men are failing,
for these are latter days we know.
The Great Depression now is spreading.
God's words declared it would be so.
I'm going where there's no depression,
to the lovely land that's free from care.
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble.
My home's in heaven, I'm going there.

The Price of Admission
June Carter Cash, Maybelle's daughter (who would later marry performer Johnny Cash), tells the story of a gig the Carters played in Hugo, Oklahoma, around 1940: "There was a big crowd outside the building where we were playing, but when we got inside, there couldn't have been more than fifty people in that building. We looked outside, and the place was just covered with people. But they had no money to come in. Well, Uncle A.P. went down and opened up the doors and let everybody in, and we sung."

  The Carter Family's Music in the Great Depression Previous
5 of 7

page created on 5.5.05 back to top
Site Navigation

The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: