This past Christmas a dear friend gave me a copy of the 2012 publication, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song, a graphic novel tracing the history of first family of County music. Known for songs such as “Wildwood Flower,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Hello Stranger,” and “Keep on the Sunnyside,” the Carter Family recorded hundreds of tunes in the 1920s through the 1940s, leaving behind a huge collection of traditional music and laying the groundwork for modern country music.
The original Carter Family was made up of A.P (Alvin Pleasant), his wife Sarah Dougherty Carter who played autoharp, and her cousin Maybelle Addington (or Mother Maybelle, as she is most commonly called) on guitar. Sara usually sang the lead and Mother Maybelle filled out the songs with her innovative guitar technique dubbed the Carter Scratch, a style that continues to influence guitarists today. Maybelle eventually married A.P.’s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter, taking on the Carter name as well. The original Carter family disbanded in the 1940s, but Mother Maybelle and her daughters continued performing under the name the Carter Sisters. Eventually the youngest of the sisters, June, married famous Arkansas boy, Johnny Cash.
A comic/graphic novels might seem like a strange medium to tell the story of the Carters, yet authors and illustrators Frank M. Young and David Lasky manage to bring the human stories to the forefront, weaving together the history of the songs with the struggles and successes of the individual family members as they try to make a way for themselves farming and recording in Virginia. As the Carter Family grew in popularity, A.P. traveled the region in search of more songs to record, visiting his cousin Mandy who shared many an old murder ballad and making friends with Lesley “Esley” Riddle, an African American folk singer who taught him “Cannonball” and eventually traveled with A.P. to collect songs around the south. While it A.P.’s name that appears as the songs’ composer, in reality the Carter family repertoire was drawn from the deep musical history of region and people like Lesly Riddle and cousin Mandy who shared the songs with A.P. who then took them back to Sara and Maybelle.
Meandering between the songs and the stories of the family as they struggle with poverty, celebrate the birth of children, and navigate the difficult separation of Sara and A.P., Don’t Forget This Song is also a look at the budding recording industry, the importance of radio shows, and the rise of so-called “hillbilly music.” It also touches on the racism of the era, the difficulty of making a living farming, and subtly explores how traditional music—ballads, folk tunes, and gospel music so old they have no known composer—can speak to the difficulties and joys of each era. The book ends with a page dedicated to Johnny and June and comes with an eleven-track cd of radio recordings and tracks from the original Carter Family.
Are you a fan of the Carters? Did you grow up listening to their music? I’d love to hear about it. Visit me online at boileddownjuice.com where you can also find a few images from the book and a song or two. Thanks for so much reading!
Here’s a few videos of Carter Family songs for your listening pleasure:
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.