Paul Bryant's Reviews > Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? by Mark Zwonitzer
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's review
Sep 26, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: lifestyles-of-the-weird-and-famous, folk-music, music-biographies
Recommended for: every old timey or country fan

There’s too much to say about the Carter Family. I could start with their oddball personalities : the chirpy, pocketsized indomitable Maybelle, the spaced-out Alvin Pleasant (note great middle name - how nice to have been called Paul Pleasant Bryant or Paul Niceenoughwhenyougettoknowhim Bryant), and the dour, flinty Sara. Of all the photographs of the Carter Family, there’s only one where Sara is smiling and even on that one, it’s not a grin, just a mild softening of the features, a fleeting holiday from the thousand yard stare she gave to every camera. She looked like fun was something she was occasionally told about by people she didn't trust. But like Ralph Peer said, “As soon as she started to sing, I knew it was gonna be all right.”
The Carter Family were the Beatles of the first wave of country music and Jimmy Rodgers was the Elvis. They were both discovered in the same remarkable recording trip to Bristol, Tennessee in March 1927 by Ralph Peer, that most accidental of benefactors to the world of folk music. Which must have been like turning up to a folk club in Skelmersdale on a Thursday evening and signing up two floor singers who then go on to make you a million quid. Each. In 1927 money!

But whilst Jimmie Rodgers was all over the musical map, recording with string bands, jazz bands, Hawaiian bands, musical bloody saws, anybody who wandered into the studio, the Carters ploughed just the one single straight deep furrow, from 1927 to 1943, when the original trio disbanded. To Jimmie Rodgers' evident hedonistic get-while-the-getting's-good weltenshauung they firmly opposed their strict Calvinism.

They had an extreme division of labour within the group. Sara played rhythm guitar and autoharp and sang lead, Maybelle played lead on a guitar nearly as big as she was, occasionally using slide, and she sang backup; and A.P. took a rare very trembly lead but mostly “bassed in” on the choruses. A P (that's what they called him) 's actual job was to give the women the songs to sing, so he went out a-rambling and collected them all from the actual folk. And then copyrighted them all under his name (this was Mr Peer’s idea). Wherever the songs came from, even if it was right out of a published songbook, A.P. claimed to have written them. (The Ralph Peer effect requires a whole article in itself, but this “bring me material I can copyright” demand of his was the origin of the alternative to Tin Pan Alley and was also one of the largest sized nails in the coffin of the oral transmission of folk music.)

So all those “Carter Family” songs, like My Dixie Darling, Keep on the Sunny Side, No Depression in Heaven, I’m Thinking tonight of my Blue Eyes, and so on, hundreds of them, are theirs because they recorded them first. Not because A P wrote them. Okay, he may have written maybe two.

Their music is therefore a patchwork of hymns, sentimental Victorian parlour songs, folk ballads, humorous sketches, broadsides and gospel songs, folk flotsam and politely antique jetsam, all melted down and recast into the magic of the strong clear voices and dexterous filigree playing of Maybelle and Sara, and of course, when all three harmonise together on something like River of Jordan or Lonesome Valley it’s like a tree you never notice at the end of your street until the day you do notice it, amazed at the sunlight in the leaves.

So anyway, this book tells the whole complicated story of the Carters, and since no one ever did that before, it's essential for anyone who loves them and old American music in general.

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05/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Monica (last edited Sep 27, 2008 02:39AM) (new) - added it

Monica You've Been a Friend to Me. Bless you, Paul. Maybe the Biography Channel or PBS have something on The Carters. I'm off to google land.

message 2: by J (new) - rated it 4 stars

J Monica: What Ginnie said. Wondrous stuff.

Paul: Of all the photographs of the Carter Family, there’s only one where Sara is smiling. And even on that one, it’s not a grin, just a mild softening of the features, a fleeting holiday from the thousand yard stare she gave to every camera. She looked like fun was something she was occasionally told about by people she didn't trust. Yes, exactly!

Lovely review.

message 3: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Great review!

message 4: by Trish (last edited Apr 12, 2011 07:30PM) (new) - added it

Trish Glad you like American music. It's special.

message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye What was the relationship between Ralph Peer and the Lomaxes and the Archive of American Folk Song?
Was Peer strictly commercial, rather than an archivist?
Were they rivals?
Have you investigated any earlier music publishers and sheet music copyright history?
I suppose, pre-phonograph (1877), music copyright was effectively the lyrics and the sheet music/notations.
With recording came the copyright in the performance or the recording.
Remember that a lot of people used to own a piano and would buy sheet music, so they could have sing-alongs and more recently glee clubs.
This music was participatory, rather than just passively listening to phonographs.

Paul Bryant Yes indeed - Peer and Lomax were the twin axes of early American folk and country. Lomax father & son completely ignored all the Peer-producted product of the 20s and 30s, assuming it was all commercial crap. Alan Lomax then stumpled across some of it in the 40s and his head exploded - he realised that Peer and his commercial cronies had recorded some of the best folk music going from the most authentic artists. Peer had discovered the two markets of hillbillies and blacks and he didn't care for any of it, but he realised it sold. We all owe him a huge debt, greasy slimeball as he may have been. Hail Peer! Hail Lomax!

I have been listening to a ton of stuff from the 1950s as I mentioned and the British charts were festooned with piano party pop medleys and instrumentals - Winifred Atwell, Russ Conway, Joe Henderson, pianos everywhere, big hits. So as late as the 50s people were buying sheet music for learning songs on the old joanna. The charts were sheet music charts only until 1952. Then eventually they were sales of records charts.

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Paul.
Are there any books that deal with the twin axes or did you learn this from the Carter Family bio?
I think I have a Lomax book.
I think I recently sent you a link to the Library of Congress website, because it had been in the news.
Did you get it or already know about it?

message 8: by Paul (last edited Jun 08, 2011 01:52PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Well, here's my essay on Alan Lomax - mif it reads like an article for a folk mag that's because it was.

I learned most about Peer from a Jimmie Rodgers bio, but he does loom large in the Carter Family saga too. It's fascinating - it's like the good angel & bad angel of early American music. Peer was the grandfather of Nashville and Lomax was the extremely hands-on male midwife of the great 50s folk revival.

Yes, i knew about the LofC. In fact the internet is stuffed with interesting blogs on all of this stuff, which I do not have the time for, alas.

message 9: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, it's a great review.

message 10: by MJ (new)

MJ Nicholls Then Dylan stole from A.P. (who stole from whoever) then everyone else stole from Dylan. 'Tis the American tradition, no? Great review, I can't get enough of the Carter clan.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Absolutely, MJ. The story of Bob "If I was a Master Thief Perhaps I'd Rob Them" Dylan and his various plagiarisms-or-not is complex - you've read my review of Chronicles. I thought I'd summed up the pilfering magpie nature of his songs in some other review by I can't find it. Given all the tomes they write on Dylan I'm surprised someone hasn't written a whole book on the subject of what constitutes the folk process and if there is such a thing as plagiarism.

message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Was it in the review of the book about music publishing, notation and how copyright in music emerged, or something about photos?

I am fascinated by your thoughts on the oral tradition and the primacy of performance, which didn't really envisage copyright or intellectual property, because it was ephemeral and couldn't be preserved (until it could be recorded).

message 13: by MJ (new)

MJ Nicholls That is a good idea, I might steal it from you.

message 14: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye It was Paul's, not mine, and because it wasn't ephemeral, I only steal it offline.

message 15: by MJ (last edited Jan 16, 2012 01:37PM) (new)

MJ Nicholls Ian wrote: "It was Paul's, not mine, and because it wasn't ephemeral, I only steal it offline."

I know, I meant Paul's idea, but you sneaked in with a comment before me. Jonathan Lethem's essay 'The Ecstasy of Influence' discusses all manner of artistic plagiarism by actually making his essay out of quotes and cribbings! The text of it is still online somewhere.

message 16: by Paul (last edited Jan 16, 2012 01:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant you mean this one...

that's about how people stole the music, the styles and the arrangements off each other. But there's something to be said about how Dylan stole everybody's words AS WELL AS the music.

message 17: by Ian (last edited Jan 16, 2012 04:18PM) (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye That's the one.

Do you think he has a photographic memory or does he sit there with a book in front of him and type out passages that he likes?

Or does he have a "research assistant" who might one day spill the beans? ("I was Bobby's Plagiarist.")

message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant very good question. I think he has notebooks and when he writes a song (in the last 15 years, let's say) he goes through them and assembles the lyrics like a jigsaw. Then he steals the tune from somewhere else and changes 2 notes. Then his band comes up with a nice little riff or something. And boom...there you have all of Modern Life.

message 19: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Can’t believe these things would ever fade from your mind.

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