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The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken | Article

Success and Great Depression

The Carter Family Museum

With the Carter Family,, music publisher Ralph Peer realized he had hit pay dirt. By 1930 Carter Family records had sold more than 700,000 copies across the country, and more music was in the works. The Carters crisscrossed the country, traveling to New Jersey in 1929 and 1933 for additional recording sessions, and to Louisville in 1931 to record with Jimmie Rodgers. In 1935 Peer moved them to the ARC label, and in 1936 and 1937 they recorded nearly sixty songs for Decca.

Collecting Songs
What fueled the Carter engine was the perfectly complementary talents of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. A.P. provided the songs, traveling in ever widening circles in Appalachia to collect lyrics and melodies, then along with Sara and Maybelle "working them up" into something new and more modern. A.P. struck up an acquaintance with a black man from Kingsport, Tennessee, named Lesley "Esley" Riddle, and the two traveled the countryside together collecting songs -- no mean feat in the Jim Crow south. By 1930 the Carters had broadened their repertoire to include such modern sounding songs as The Birds Were Singing of You, as well as African American church music.

Maybelle and Sara
Maybelle, on her guitar, was the second part of the equation. Maybelle Carter's scratch would become on the most widely imitated guitar style in music. "She happened to have invented the first really workable American vernacular everyday this is how we sing," says Barry Mazor, "this is how we play instrumental style. We couldn't overestimate how influential it was." Sara, leading in her alto voice and playing the autoharp, was the final piece of the equation, but she was not as enthusiastic a participant as the other two. While she always loved music, she had little interest in the life of a professional performer. What she saw instead was an opportunity to earn some money to feed her family, and from that chance she could not shrink.

Born Rambler
The Carters' success, like that of so many others, was not without cost. A.P. was a natural born rambler, and collecting songs gave him an excuse to spend days and weeks at a time on the road. When he was home, he did precious little to help around the house, and when he went, he seldom left enough money to provide for Sara and the children. "She'd be cutting down wood, pulling mining timbers out of the mountains -- and Daddy out somewhere trying to learn a song," their son Joe recalls. "He never stopped to think what effect it might have on his family."

Illicit Love
Yet A.P. was not totally oblivious to the hardships that Sara endured while he was on the road, and he asked his cousin Coy Bays to help out by driving Sara around while he was away. Sara and Coy became close, and eventually they fell in love with each other. When the affair became known, Coy's parents, Charlie and Mary Bays, decided that it would be best if they got Coy out of the valley, and the Bays family set out for California.

The Music Goes On
Crushed by Coy's departure, Sara left A.P.'s house and moved back to Rich Valley, leaving the children with their father. In September 1936, after three years of trying to reconcile with her husband, she finally sued A.P. for divorce. He did not even show up at court to defend himself. Ralph Peer and his wife, Anita, convinced the estranged couple that while their domestic life might be in shambles, there was no reason they should not continue to play music together on a professional basis, and so the Original Carter Family continued to record new songs.

The Great Depression
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
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."

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