SONG: Can the Circle Be Unbroken
ARTIST: The Carter Family
Listen to it here:
“Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)” is a folk song that was reworked by A.P. Carter from the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. The song deals with the death, funeral, and mourning of the narrator’s mother.
It was first made famous by the Carter Family in the recording we are listening to, which was released as a single in 1935, but has been covered by practically everyone and their dogs (see list below for a sampling). This song has become such a staple of Americana that it was inducted into the music Hall of Fame in 1998.
One thing that sets the Carter Family version apart from every other version out there is that the Carter Family sprinkles in some ¾ measures here and there near the end of each verse and twice in the chorus. It’s a really cool effect once you hear it!
The Carter Family is a real-deal traditional American Folk group. They lived in a small log cabin, and had a HUGE influence on bluegrass, country, gospel, pop, and rock, as well as the big 1960s folk revival. They were the first ever vocal group to become country music stars, and one of the first to record commercially produced country music. They were active in recording from 1927 – 1956.
The original group consisted of Sara Carter, her husband A.P. Carter, and her sister Maybelle Carter. To complicate this family tree even more, Maybelle was married to A.P’s brother Ezra Carter, and was also Sara’s first cousin…..?
Within the group, Sara sang lead vocals and played rhythm guitar, Maybelle sang harmony and played lead guitar. A.P. sometimes didn’t perform at all, or he sang some harmony and background vocals. The group recorded for a bunch of different labels including Victor, RCA, ARC group, Columbia, and Okeh.
In 1970, The Doors performed their version live in Chicago, changing the lyrics to “oh, the circle has been broken, me oh my Lord, me oh my.”
This song has been performed by Bob Dylan, The Band, The Staple Singers, Joan Baez, The Chieftains, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, The Black Crowes, John Lee Hooker, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Spirit of the West, Mavis Staples, Johnny Cash, Gregg Allman, Jeff Buckley, and Moby.
Many of Sara and Maybelle’s children grew up to be musicians, such as June Carter Cash (wife to Johnny Cash), Helen Carter, and Anita Carter.
This song hits right in the nostalgia bone! We definitely had this one on the Sony 5-disc changer many a weekend morning, but correct me if I’m wrong Holly, but I think we listened to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version. It definitely sounds like a folksy family band, all sitting on the front porch (there’s an old lady in a long dress in a rocking chair, I’m sure of it), singing the song, everybody already aware of which harmony is theirs to sing. The occasional ¾ bar kind of threw me for a bit of a loop, and I don’t think I like it – this song is such a stomp and clap along to that the meter change makes it feel a little clunky. I really like the song (even if it is about a funeral), but this version isn’t it. Sorry Carter Family.
This is the first of likely many songs on this list that brings me straight back to my childhood. I definitely remember many Saturday mornings with this song coming on. Not this version, though. This is the first time I’ve heard The Carter Family version. I had no idea growing up how incredibly sad this song is. Listening to the lyrics, it came as a big surprise. The Carter Family sounds like classic American folk music, plain and simple. Energetic rhythm guitar, drawling nasal voices, a clear story being told through the music. I really like it because of its historical importance, and I enjoyed The Carter Family’s sound, but I wouldn’t rush out to listen to more. I also found the ending to be such a cop out. It just kind of…..stops.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Holly and Kelly’s childhood version by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:
This sultry gospel version by The Staple Singers:
And of course, Willie Nelson:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: