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The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Leigh H. Edwards

A.P. Carter and his friend, black musician Lesley 'Esley' Riddle, would go door to door looking for examples of traditional music, a bold act in Jim Crow America.

The Carter Family

Distributor: Paramount
Subtitle: Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Network: PBS
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-09-20
Amazon affiliate

The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken plays like PBS version of VH1's Behind the Music. A.P. Carter brought us the first commercial country music, captured in the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions. His ambition allowed him to achieve fame and glory but left him alone, a broken man. The irony of the Carter Family trio (made up of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle) is that the "family" was actually estranged for much of their career.

The documentary means to fill us in on the story behind America's First Family of Country Music. That effort is important, and Circle is a vital contribution to music history. But insofar as it focuses so much of its attention on Carter's failed marriage and personal demons, it feels too much like soap opera, too little like cultural commentary on the trio and its music.

The failed love story is a poignant one, and it does inform their music. Driven and moody, A.P. focused on his musical ambitions, which drove Sara away. When he pushed the group to record for Victor Records and Ralph Peer, they earned a living and fame as a result. While Sara loved music, she didn't feel the need to perform. And she hated celebrity. Alienated from A.P., she fell in love with his cousin, Coy Bays, but their families kept them apart (Coy's family moved to California). Sara then left A.P. and their kids in 1933 and went over the mountain to live with her family. In 1936, they divorced but kept recording and performing together, maintaining a carefully managed public image until 1943. Our documentary voiceover (Robert Duvall) tells us that the Carter Family became "America's symbol of family and domesticity" and that they were even set to appear on the cover of Life magazine in 1941, before war changed editorial plans.

Beneath the manufactured image, we find something more banal -- blended, dysfunctional, and nontraditional family arrangements. Sara's love story had a happy ending. In 1938, the group performed on powerful border radio station XERA in Texas, giving them vast exposure. When introducing their song, "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," Sara dedicated it to Coy. He heard her on the radio, drove all night from California to Texas to reach her, and they were married three weeks later. A.P. never fully recovered from the loss.

The narrative of tragedy and triumph is compelling, but this focus overlooks other elements. Like the degree to which Maybelle Carter revolutionized commercial country music with her innovative guitar style, called "The Carter Scratch." We learn more about that musical history in a short featurette on the DVD, "The Carter Scratch and Mother Maybelle's Guitar." We see footage of her guitar being placed in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as musicians like Vince Gill and Gillian Welch fetishize the guitar Maybelle played for 50 years. Musician Mike Seeger explains that she adapted a "banjo feeling" to the guitar, an instrument only just beginning to become popular when she started playing it. Her innovation was to combine rhythm and melody in her playing, what Seeger describes as "thumb bass with rhythm lick in the treble." Others used that style, but Maybelle popularized it and put her own signature on it, giving it what Welch describes as a special, driving "bounce" that makes even tragic lyrics less disturbing because the guitar sound is always moving forward energetically. But Circle barely touches on Maybelle's life or her contributions to the band.

Likewise, we don't learn much about social, cultural, and historical contexts for their music and its impact. Images of the Great Depression appear under their song "No Depression," but we don't know how the song compared to other responses to the Depression. When Sara and Maybelle made a "comeback" during the folk revival in the '60s, a new generation discovered their old time, bluegrass, and traditional country music.

To be sure, Circle does try to place the Carter Family in some historical perspective. We hear testimonies that demonstrate affective responses in their audience. As writer Barry Mazer mentions, Maybelle "happened to have invented the first workable American vernacular" of writing and singing popular country music. We hear that A.P., in his effort to preserve a full catalogue of the Appalachian music of Poor Valley, VA, at the foot of Clinch Mountain, searched for songs from various cultural traditions, including the blues. He found traditional music and made his own arrangements (what he called "fixing it"); his recordings would become the popular versions. He and his friend, black musician Lesley "Esley" Riddle, would go door to door looking for music, a bold act in Jim Crow America.

But instead of hearing more about how these musical influences appear in the Carter Family catalogue, we only hear in passing, from author Mark Zwonitzer, that "It's the mix of this stuff that makes it so wonderful," like in U.S. pop culture and music in general (his book, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music does a better job of deep history and cultural assessment than this documentary does).

While I appreciate having a biographical documentary that memorializes the Carter Family and speaks to their profound, lasting impact on U.S. popular music, I also see a missed opportunity here. The film makes the Carter Family begin and end with A.P.'s life story. The bland Behind the Music approach doesn't do the family justice.

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