The Carter Family

On border Radio - 1939: Vol 3

Arhoolie 413

This CD features the original Carter Family - A P Carter (Vocals - also Guitar on the 'AP' tracks), Sara Carter (Vocals, Guitar and Autoharp) and Maybelle Carter (Vocals and Guitar).  It also has contributions from Jeanette, Helen, June and Anita Carter (Vocals, Guitar and Autoharp).  Introductions and station announcements are delivered by Brother Bill Gould (English) and Benny Medina (English and Spanish).  Running time: 66.23 minutes.  Produced and edited by Chris Strachwitz, it contains the following items:

Theme / Cannon Ball Blues (Family); The Story of Charlie and Nellie (Family); One Little Word (AP) / Alabama Gal (Instrumental - Sara and Maybelle); You Are My Sunshine (Jeanette) / Happy or Lonesome (Family); Oh, Susanna (Anita) * This song is attributed to Anita, though the announcer addresses her as 'June' / On My Way to Canaan's Land (Family); Going Back to Texas (Family) / Great Speckled Bird (Helen, June and Anita); Oh, Death (Jeanette) / Don't Bury Me on the Lone Prairie (Family); When the Spring Roses are Blooming (AP) / Chinese Breakdown (Instrumental - Sara and Maybelle); Way Down Yonder in the Cumberland Mountains (Helen, June and Anita) / Let the Church Roll On (Family) ; Broken Engagement (Sara & Maybelle) / I Shall not be Moved (Helen, June and Anita); Dark Haired True Lover (Jeanette) / In Your Care (Family); Theme / Station ID; Theme / The Old Ladies' Home (Family); The Winding Stream (Family); Miners' Blues (Sarah and Maybelle) / Columbus Stockade (Helen, June and Anita); No Home (Jeanette) / Prisoner's Dream (Family); Something Got a Hold of Me (AP) / Spirit of Love (Instrumental - Sara and Maybelle); Worried Man Blues (Family); Giddyup Go (Anita) / Sittin' on Top of the World (Family); My Virginia Rose (AP); Cyclone of Rye Cove (Family); Wade in the Water (Jeanette) / Charlie Brooks (Family); Anchored in Love (Family); I've Been Working on the Railroad (Helen, June and Anita) / I'll be Satisfied (Family); Theme out & Station ID.

A tabloid journalist (whose name escapes me at present) once said that the big challenge in writing about royalty was to find some middle ground between sycophancy and cynicism.  There are similar problems in writing about legendary figures in the entertainment industry, who now fill some of the emotional space once occupied by royalty.  If everything sensible that can be said about them has been said already, and you don't fancy churning out one more chunk of adulatory waffle, what else is there to try but a spot of demolition?  Cover pictureNow if American country music has a royal family, then the Carters must be it.  Their stature is monumental, their influence inescapable, their lives and works documented and analysed in minute detail.  (See, for example, their entry in the Guinness Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, which reveals - along with much else - that Maybelle was seven months pregnant when Ralph Peer first recorded the group for the Victor record company in August 1927.)   So what can we do beyond giving them another round of applause, or alternatively, complaining that they have been overrated?  Now Chris Strachwitz has given us an opportunity to think again about the Carters - and their environment - by issuing a mass of previously neglected material on CD. 

The history of these recordings is a saga in itself.  We owe them to 'Doctor' John Brinkley - a purveyor of wonder cures who was frowned on by more orthodox medical authorities.  Brinkley bought a radio station in Kansas to advertise his wares, but in 1930 the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew its license.  In 1931, he began using a powerful transmitter just across the Mexican border, where the government was more accommodating.  To attract potential customers in the southern US, his station employed many so-called 'hill-billy' entertainers, including the Carter family, who by then were enormously popular.  For legal and technical reasons, the Carters were recorded in San Antonio, Texas, on acetate disks which were sent over the border for broadcasting.  A number of these disks have survived, in a somewhat battered state.  Arhoolie has made their contents available - suitably edited, and with the sound digitally enhanced - supported by some informative notes. 

What do these records add to our appreciation of the Carter family?  Well, they present its best-known members (AP, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle) performing some familiar songs, in slightly different versions from those on their commercially issued recordings.  There are also a number of tracks featuring material unavailable elsewhere.  These include solo songs from AP - and while he sang alone on other recordings, these are the only known examples where he accompanies himself on guitar.  Sara and Maybelle deliver a number of vocal and instrumental duets - and although they sang as a duo elsewhere, these instrumental pieces are unique.  Finally, there are the earliest known recordings of the next generation of Carters - Sara and AP's daughter Jeanette (sixteen years old at the time), and Maybelle's daughters Anita, June and Helen (aged six, ten and twelve).  So much for the programme details - what about the music itself?

Most of the songs here are significantly shorter than the standard three minutes - presumably that was the station's policy - but they make their point none the less.  The original trio is as unmistakable and (for me) as irresistible as ever.  The laid-back lead vocals, the deceptively simple harmonies, and the unpretentious but effective instrumental back-up blend happily together, without any sign of effort.  play Sound ClipAnchored in Love has a slightly more complex structure than most of their gospel material, but they still take it in their stride, as if this were just a fireside get-together.  (sound clip - Anchored in Love)  On the vocal tracks, Maybelle's guitar plays a supporting role, but on the instrumental pieces she reveals her talent as a lead player, tearing through Chinese Breakdown with infectious zest.  At sixteen years old, Jeanette Carter was still struggling to find a voice of her own.  You Are My Sunshine doesn't quite make the grade, but several other tracks - Dark Haired True Lover, for example - show considerable ability.  And the three youngest Carters, despite the technical limitations to be expected in performers of their age, make a very cheerful noise, and generally give a creditable account of themselves. 

The musical content of these tracks is enough to justify issuing them for fans to enjoy, and scholars to analyse.  But there's more yet.  They also give us a clearer picture of the context in which this music flourished.  We get a selection of Brother Bill's introductions and announcements, with plugs for long-forgotten performers who shared the four-hour 'Good Neighbour Get Together' with the Carters.  Bill also pitches for the local tourist industry, assuring US listeners that in Mexico there are "modern restaurants hotels and stores, but a block down the street ... you'll feel as though you're in another world ... mysterious, exciting and romantic!"   Equally revealing are the brief comments on the songs.  After Something got a Hold on Me, which describes an unbeliever visiting a revival meeting, Brother Bill adds gravely "...I wonder if some of you folks listening in haven't had that same kind of experience ... you went to mock and scoff, but something got a hold of you ..."   And when Bill asks about the origins of Cyclone of Rye Cove, AP replies laconically "That was a tragedy song that I composed about a cyclone that came through Scott County Virginia and killed probably twenty ... twenty-five little school children ... wounded several others".   There's no hint of any survivors finding the yellow brick road afterwards - the Carters' world seems far closer to The Grapes of Wrath than to The Wizard of Oz

But hold on a cotton-picking minute!  These old-time songs and howdy-neighbour sentiments were supporting a thoroughly modern commercial enterprise.  The soft-focus, sepia-toned world of the Carters was just as much a part of the entertainment industry as the Technicolor dream world of Hollywood.  Hard-headed business men used radio to sell new products by associating them with traditional forms of entertainment.  They reminded audiences of the pioneer virtues of faith, stoicism and neighbourliness, without which their grandparents would have perished in the wilderness.  But they also linked these homely values with the aspirations of an emerging consumer society.  The descendants of pioneer folk now listened to 'hill-billy' music on the radio or the gramophone, drove to the grocery store or dance-hall in a Ford, and might even contemplate a vacation in Mexico.  It seems that the faster the times change, the more we use nostalgia for the past as a buffer against the shock of the new.

The Carters themselves stand between the old era and the new.  I wouldn't doubt the sincerity of AP's religious beliefs - he rejected a potentially lucrative recording offer from the Brunswick label because it would have required him to play 'sinful' music.  But he was also a shrewd entrepreneur, who copyrighted many songs to which his claims were questionable.  And while the Carters' core repertoire always remained firmly rooted in the old-time tradition, some tracks here suggest that they listened to, and learned from, a wider range of material.  play Sound ClipThe melodic shape of Maybelle's guitar fills on Miners' Blues (sound clip) recalls Blind Lemon Jefferson's distinctive descending runs play Sound Clip(though Maybelle's rhythm remains solidly foursquare, without any of Lemon's elusive suppleness).  Jeanette's emotional - almost anguished - delivery of Oh, Death (sound clip) and Wade in the Water hints at an acquaintance with black gospel music.  play Sound ClipAnd even little Anita's winsome manner on Giddyup Go (sound clip) sounds as though it might owe something to the example of Shirley Temple, then at the peak of her career as a Hollywood child-star.  Maybe the yellow brick road wasn't so far away, after all?

Whether we study it as a historical document, or enjoy it for its own sake, we can't deny that the Carter family's music-making has left a mark on our culture.  It had a massive influence on Woody Guthrie, and hence on all his spiritual children and grandchildren - from the skifflers of the 'fifties, and the folk-protest singers of the 'sixties, right on down to the introverted singer-songwriters of the navel-gazing 'nineties.  And the family itself is a central thread in the tapestry of American - and global - popular music.  In 1955, Maybelle and her three daughters were touring in a country music extravaganza headlined by Hank Snow.  Peter Guralnick tells us in Last Train to Memphis (Little, Brown & Co 1994, pages 170-175) that despite Mother Maybelle's watchful care, Anita was seriously romanced by one of the up-and-coming acts on the bill - a young fellow named Elvis Presley.  And although this particular romance rang no wedding bells, Johnny Cash - Elvis's one-time partner in the so-called Million-Dollar Quartet - later proposed marriage to June Carter on stage during a concert.  She accepted, and the dynasty still continues.  Long may it flourish.

Mike Sutton - 21.8.99

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