Old-timers get a new lease of life

Don't Get above Your Raisin' - Bluegrass Odyssey - Will You Miss Me when I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music
July 11, 2003

Since the debut in 1984 of Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced a string of films such as Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996), each of which has been the kind that critics inevitably dub "quirky" or "offbeat".

Yet each tapped into something in the American experience that rang true.

Probably not even the Coens could have guessed what they would tap into with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), their quirky and offbeat take on Homer's Odyssey, set in the depression-era American south.

The cultural vein they hit was an appreciation of, and a seeming longing for, old-time American music. The soundtrack of the film, featuring class country songs such as Man of Constant Sorrow, scooped five Grammy awards, including album of the year and country male vocalist of the year for Ralph Stanley, the 75-year-old patriarch of old-time music.

The O Brother phenomenon was a fan-driven explosion of interest in a nearly forgotten kind of American music. The country music establishment, which generally dismissed the old-time tunes, was most stunned by its success. To the many critics of contemporary country music, official Nashville's reaction was more evidence that contemporary country music had sold its soul. The critics were gleeful that, in spite of the industry, O Brother has shown a new generation just how good country music can be and why its roots are worth recovering.

This is not to suggest that those roots run to some idyllic moment when simple mountain folk sat around playing and singing well-preserved Elizabethan ballads, although there was some of that, as Cecil Sharp demonstrated so long ago. The fact is, as Bill Malone shows in Don't Get above Your Raisin', the true origins of American country music are the southern working-class values of the early 20th century. "While many cultures contributed to the making of southern folk music," Malone argues, "it was the people of the South who fashioned it into forms that reflected their own experiences and styles of expression."

What spawned country music was a complex blend of Protestant evangelical Christianity, a raucous rebelliousness, increasingly middle-class economic aspirations, an enduring attachment to home and family, and the inevitable move from farms demanded by industrialisation. Malone puts all this in perspective in a way that takes country music seriously as an important part of American cultural history. He shows that the music is not mere "hillbilly" nonsense that can be dismissed easily by those who deem themselves sophisticated. Rather, country music is the result of a "simple decent culture" wrestling with the permanent and fundamental "contradictions implicit in our lives". It is in the unblinking acknowledgement of such tensions as that between passion and piety - between Saturday night and Sunday morning - that gives the music its universality.

As Nashville has moved relentlessly to widen the appeal of its greatest export, something has been lost, with the line between country and popular music growing increasingly indistinct. Not only is one hard pressed to hear the music of such founders as the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, but it is nearly impossible to hear even the superstars of just a generation ago, big names such as Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard. In many ways, contemporary country music has indeed done gone and got above its raisin'.

To glimpse what has been lost, one need look no further than Will You Miss Me when I'm Gone?, the splendid new study of the Carter Family. A. P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and her cousin, Maybelle Addington Carter (who had married A. P.'s brother, Ezra) of Maces Springs, Virginia, were one of the groups lured to Bristol, Tennessee, in the summer of 19 by Ralph Peer, the talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company. On August 1 19, in Peer's makeshift studio, the Carters cut an old song they had known since childhood, Bury Me beneath the Weeping Willow, and thereby helped change the course of American music.

They were not the first, of course. Country music had been recorded since Peer had discovered Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923; Vernon Dalhart's recording of Wreck of the Old 97 in 1924 had become the first million-selling country record; and the Grand Ole Opry had begun broadcasting on Nashville-based radio station WSM in October 1925. Still, what came out of the Bristol sessions pulled it all together into what would become the country-music industry.

It is said of A. P. Carter that he was more a collector than a composer of songs. And indeed, he tramped the hills and hollers around his Clinch Mountain home picking up songs wherever he could find them. Some were old standards that had been passed down; others were of more recent vintage, parlour songs and hymns from the various books available. Whatever the source, A. P. sought the best tunes he could find. With Peer's guidance, he arranged them, copyrighted them and made them a part of what history would know simply as the songs of the Carter Family. Among them are classics of American music, such tunes as Can the Circle be Unbroken?, Keep on the Sunny Side, The Wabash Cannonball and what many consider to be the greatest song in country music, Wildwood Flower. All told, A. P. Carter's name is on roughly 300 songs.

Although the Carter Family disbanded in 1943, they managed to put their mark on the music that would follow. The next several generations of country artists learnt the Carter Family songbook as they listened to their radios all over the small towns of the American South, dreaming the dreams the Carters inspired of forsaking cotton fields and coal mines for the glamour of being a singer.

The Carters themselves produced a new generation as well. Maybelle (soon to be universally known as Mother Maybelle) and her three daughters continued to perform, eventually joining the Grand Ole Opry as regulars. When daughter June married Johnny Cash, the Carters found their way to television and an audience undreamed of by A. P. back in the old days. By the 1960s, a new generation was turning to traditional American music as the folk music revival took off, and in 1963 Maybelle Carter performed at the Newport Folk Festival.

While the music of the Carters and others of their generation has been largely denied its rightful place in today's industry, it has continued to be a powerful force in American music beneath the commercial surface.

Old-time music is encouraged and supported by such organisations as the International Bluegrass Music Association and the British Bluegrass Music Association; it is recovered in new collections by record companies such as Rounder; it is celebrated in such publications as Bluegrass Unlimited and the Old-Time Herald; and it continues to be heard in clubs such as the Birchmere in suburban Washington DC, the Bottom Line in New York City and Cecil Sharp House in London, in programmes hosted by the London Old-Time Music and Bluegrass Club.

You can even travel to the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, in the shadow of Clinch Mountain, where each Saturday night Janette Carter, daughter of A. P. and Sara, presents programmes of old-time music just like she promised her Daddy she would.

There are also festivals around the world, great and small, where the music can be enjoyed, and nothing gives the feel of this world like Carl Fleischhauer's and Neil Rosenberg's Bluegrass Odyssey. Covering the 20 years from 1966 to 1986, this collection of photographs and accompanying reminiscences of two ardent fans provides as good an introduction as one could imagine to this intimate musical world that so many are only now discovering. Here are the greats such as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, the Osborne Brothers, Ralph Stanley and Hazel Dickens playing in barber shops, fields and celebrated concert halls; here are the devoted fans who travel long distances to sit in their own folding chairs in fields where "no alcohol" is a pledge generally kept (keeping A. P. Carter's promise that his shows would be "morally good"). Here, in short, is a vibrant appreciation for both the roots of old-time music and its continuing vitality. One comes away from Bluegrass Odyssey feeling like you have been part of that trip.

Peering at the world of old-time music that Fleischhauer and Rosenberg have captured, there are those who will worry that the great success of O Brother and its offspring will see old-time music corrupted by what those on Music Row in Nashville will undoubtedly see as the commercial possibilities. But one suspects that the music and those who make it will probably be able to survive being used as much as it and they have survived being ignored.

Gary McDowell, Institute of United States Studies, University of London.

Don't Get above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class

Author - Bill C. Malone
ISBN - 0 252 02678 0
Publisher - University of Illinois Press
Price - £21.00
Pages - 392

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