I prepared this next episode of "Sing Out the Darkness - Virtual Edition" a few days ago. I recorded the song and wrote what follows last Monday. Waking up today, Thursday morning, after witnessing Donald Trump's attempted coup and terrorist assault he unleashed on our nation's capitol, I thought the seeming simplistic idealism of the song I had chosen just might not fit the time in which we now find ourselves. But then I remembered the quote I have on the door to my music room, from Sojourner Truth, the former slave who became a central leader of the abolitionist movement and later the women's movement from the 1840s until her death in 1883:
And so I have now decided that this episode's song is both timely and one that I will keep singing as we all continue to struggle in the "good fight" to preserve and protect our liberties. Endure. - Peter
The Song: “Keep on the Sunny Side” - by the Carter Family
Hopefully this song will guide us in the coming year.
For those of you who may not know the history of The Carter Family, many have said that they are the true foundation of what became both country and folk music. In August 1927, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and her pregnant 18-year-old cousin Maybelle spent 8 hours traveling 25 miles, fording three creeks, while having three flat tires in a borrowed car. The were traveling from their home of Mace Springs in the Poor Valley of Western Virginia to the big city of Bristol, Tennessee. A.P. was responding to an ad in the local paper that the Victor Talking Machine company would have a representative in Bristol that week, recording local musicians who wanted to audition for Victor .
As a result of the 6 songs they recorded on August 1 and 2, 1927, they were signed to the Victor Company and became the first stars of a genre of music which would later become known as County Music. Their first recordings, along with those of Jimmy Rogers, who also auditioned for Victor in Bristol that week, became known as the foundational “Big Bang” of Country Music. Before the Carter Family, there was not reference to this type of music as “country”. If it was called anything, it was referred to as “hillbilly” music.
It is not a stretch to say the songs of the Carter Family were also the foundation for the later folk revival of the 1940s -1960s. The Carter Family songs such as “It Takes a Worried Man (Worried Man Blues)”, “Wildwood Flower” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, deeply influenced the music and lives of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and countless more.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” became the Carter Family’s signature song. A.P. had known this song since he was a boy, as it likely appeared in his church hymnal, originally written in 1898. When some of my generation rediscovered the music of the Carter Family though the seminal recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, the second song on that album was “Keep on the Sunny Side”, led by Mother Maybelle Carter. It is a great version.
Here is a link to the original recording made by the Carter Family for Victor on their third recording session, in New Jersey in May 1928. Sara was the distinctive high lead singer. Maybelle is playing her signature guitar style which later became known as “The Carter Scratch”. (A.P. would wander in and out, providing low vocal harmony as he was so moved.)
And let us trust in our Savior always
He’ll keep us everyone in His care.
As we sing, may the clouds drift away
Let our voices as one fill the air.
(I believe Pete Seeger would have called this “the Folk Process”)
In July 2015, Judy and I took a week-long trip down what is now called “The Crooked Road, a designated route in Western Virginia that takes you though many of the towns and locations where Country Music and bluegrass music first arose. We attended the 41th annual Carter Family Fold musical gathering in Maces Spring, where AP was born, and Carter family members still live. We traveled down the little rural road, named the AP Carter Highway, to the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church and the Carter family burial plot, just a couple miles south of Maces Spring. On a very hot July day, I sang the song to A.P.’s grave:
Embedded into both A.P. and Sara’s gravestones is a replica in bronze of the Victor record, “Keep on the Sunny Side”:
Sara’s grave: (While Sara is buried here with the Carter family, she and A.P. divorced in 1936, after which she married A.P.'s first cousin, Coy Bayes. Sara moved to California where she lived for the rest of her life. Amazingly, she continued to perform and record as The Carter family with A.P. and Maybelle until 1943. In the 1960s and early 1970s she had occasional reunions and made some recordings with Maybelle):
Here is my recording of "Keep on the Sunny Side" (Click "Download File" to listen):