Week 9 Music Notes

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Robert Cantwell, in his Bluegrass Breakdown, describes the Carter Family’s recordings as representing “the essential spirit of Southern rural music.” Even now, the Carters’ music, and the values it embodies, define much of what we still recognize as a southern ethos. Home and hearth, mother and family, God and His church (with the promise of heaven as a release from the world’s cares): these were the foundations of the Carters’ world view in the 1930s and ’40s, and remain so for many Americans, especially those with a southern connection. So although the Carters don’t sell too many CDs these days, plenty of current country music artists reflect the Carters’ values, and they are more popular than ever. Last week, sixteen million people watched George Strait accept the Country Music Association single of the year award for his hit I Saw God Today. Nothing in it would embarrass or surprise A. P., Sara, or Maybelle.

The Carter influence persists, and in many forms: on this CD we have singing Carter relatives, covers of Carter songs, and contemporary artists whose music retains the old-time feel the Carters made famous.

Keep On the Sunny Side was the Carter Family’s theme song during their time at the border radio station XERA, and remains the song most associated with them. This version was at the Carters’ first ARC Records session on May 8, 1935, and all the Carter Family performances on this CD were recorded during that same week, as they remade many early Victor hits for their new label. A. P. Carter took writing credit for this song, as he did for most of the songs the Carters recorded, but most of them were either collected by him or, as here, were his own arrangements of already copyrighted songs. On the Rock Where Moses Stood is a traditional black gospel song that had been recorded by at least one black quartet during the 1920s.

Bill Monroe is rightly honored as the father of bluegrass music, but his debt to the Carter Family is clear. Cryin’ Holy Unto My Lord gives us a perfect view of how Monroe reworked traditional material and turned old time music like that of the Carters into something very different, something much more modern. It’s hard to believe that his and the Carters’ versions of the old spiritual were recorded only five years apart.

The Carter Family first recorded The Storms Are on the Ocean at the historic Bristol Sessions in 1927. Here they take it more slowly, and Sara’s voice seems to have deepened a good deal.  June Carter Cash performed with her mother Maybelle and sisters Anita and June for many years, and no doubt sang all the Carter songs hundreds of times. She never sang them more movingly than on her final CD, June Carter Cash: Wildwood Flower, which she completed only weeks before her death in 2003.

Emmylou Harris is one of the giants of American music, and her work deserves a study group of its own. For this week, we must content ourselves with her 1980 recording (from the excellent Roses in the Snow) of the Carter’s Gold Watch and Chain. The song was copyrighted as Is There No Kiss for Me Tonight, Love?, by Thomas Westendorf, and is a typical example of the parlor song genre which survived in the South long after its extinction elsewhere.

Gillian Welch is featured on the PBS Website you were assigned to visit this week. I hope you’ll spend some time listening to her take on the Carter’s work. Welch has called her own musical style “American Primitive,” and it’s hard to disagree. Orphan Girl appears on her 1996 debut CD, Revival.

Let the Mystery Be is from Iris Dement’s wonderful first CD, Infamous Angel. She was born in Arkansas, the youngest of fourteen children, and grew up singing gospel music. Her songs deal with those old familiar Carter family topics, but updated and with a woman’s point of view. I think Sara Carter would have loved singing them.

Wildwood Flower is another of the Carters’ most beloved songs, and has long been considered the best example of Maybelle Carter’s distinctive guitar style. Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger interviewed Mother Maybelle, as she came to be known, in 1963, and the Wildwood Flower discussion is drawn from that interview. Next, of course, the song itself. Maybelle’s guitar solo here is perhaps the most imitated in American music. Maybelle plays autoharp and sings lead on the next Wildwood Flower, recorded as part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s groundbreaking Will the Circle Be Unbroken, recorded in 1971. That’s Earl Scruggs on guitar (!), and the Dirt Band recruited Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and many more to sing and play on this project.

Rosanne Cash, John’s daughter and June Carter’s stepdaughter, closes the CD with the beautiful Wildwood Flower she contributed to Charlie Haden’s new CD, Rambling Boy. Rosanne is, of course, a singer, songwriter and prose writer of deserved renown in her own right.

Enjoy the music and I’ll see you on Tuesday!

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2 Responses to “Week 9 Music Notes”

  1. George Y Cha Says:

    Hi All,

    “Home and hearth, mother and family, God and his church (with the promise of heaven as a release from the world’s cares” – how appropriate an alternative to the troubles that we are facing today.

    The snipts of the songs on AOL are great background music as I attend to my daily chores. Thank you Don, for bringing a reality check to my life.

    See you all next week.

    George Y Cha

    George Y Cha

  2. Dan Watt Says:

    I’ve loved the Carter Family ever since I first heard them on the anthology when I was about 20. I also got a couple of Camden (RCA’s reissue label) LPs of Carter family songs. At different times, I’ve learned several of them. After hearing Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie sing “The Storms are on the Ocean” at the Cornell Folk Festival in 1962, I was hooked on that song. Molly and I sang it as a duet at our “Quaker Hootenanny” wedding.

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