Americana Gothic

The Carter Family reissues (Rounder)

Savor whatever sort of refinement you wish in this culture of ours; I say that American art (musical, literary, cinematic, plastic -- hell, even culinary) has distinguished itself with creepiness. Perhaps because the Puritans, our old cultural balls-and-chains, were such a superstitious lot, or perhaps because the country was once an open frontier full of indigenous (and hence pagan) mystery. Who can say? (Or guess, other than cultural studies departments?) All we know is that the eerie is commonplace in our varied craft, deliberate or not. The crawlies emanate from the Delta blues and Aaron Copland, Touch of Evil and "American Gothic," Ding Dongs and Moby Dick; ineffable malice undulates beneath homely facades in both framed art and Etch-A-Sketch. It is true today and was true yesterday: One of the earliest "American" novels (in 1798) was a largely forgotten tome titled Wieland; or, the Transformation, by Charles Brockden Brown. In it, we are treated to all manner of unorthodox occurrence, including spontaneous human combustion and demonic ventriloquism. But perhaps no medium exudes more of this wonderful age-old must, and wrings so much horripilation from such slight and familiar gestures, as traditional American music.

If you haven't heard of them, the Carter Family were just that: Alvin Pleasant Carter; his wife, Sara; and their sister-in-law Maybelle. (A.P.'s brother and Maybelle's husband had the positively Faulknerian name of Eck, but he wasn't in the band.) All three sang; Sara played an autoharp, Maybelle picked a guitar. A.P. played fiddle on occasion, grudgingly. The Carters were authentic before the word had its modern-day connotation, or needed it. They were impoverished hill-country people who came down from the Clinch Mountain ridge in southwest Virginia in a beat-up Model A to meet up with Ralph Peer and his mobile recording studio in 1927. None of the three were particularly educated, in music or anything else. Liner-note writer Charles Wolfe quotes Peer describing his first meeting with the Carters: "They wander in. ... He's dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there -- calico clothes on." And yet the Carter Family became one of the most popular "country music" combos of the late '20s and early '30s, putting out numerous records on Victor, and influencing just about everybody since in the fields of country, western, or folk, from Woody Guthrie and the Louvin Brothers to Johnny Cash and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Alex Chilton and Uncle Tupelo. (And remember that it was a Carter Family song, "No Depression," that gave the Americana movement one of its names.)

We have to call the music of the Carter Family "country music" -- quotes and all -- since the meaning of the term has changed. Nashville was but a stagnant, mosquito-breeding mudpatch when this sort of music was first played in North America. The Carter Family's songs are mostly traditional (even when credit is given to A.P. Carter or "Peer Int'l Corp") -- and traditional in those days meant songs and themes that went back hundreds of years. When the sophisticates in Boston were still powdering their wigs, packing snuff, and kissing royal ass, tunes that sounded very much like "Wildwood Flower" were being performed by the rustic folk, whether or not they dressed in overalls and calico at the time. And even songs that weren't strictly traditional -- such as "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," which started as a 19th-century parlor song -- ended up sounding traditional in the hands of folk musicians.

And though this sense of history -- along with baser concerns like disease, poverty, insularity, and stagnation -- may well lend the Carter Family discs some of their glorious creepiness, there is more to it than that. Today, the records give us an added sense of creepiness just from the antiquated techniques used to record them. Indeed, when chord progressions and vocal melodies are this simple, the music could have come from any time period. Of the six discs released in the series thus far (Anchored in Love, 1927-1928; My Clinch Mountain Home, 1928-1929; When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland, 1929-1930; Worried Man Blues, 1930; Sunshine in the Shadows, 1931-1932; Give Me the Roses While I Live, 1932-1933), the sonic tenor is like that of a lively performance heard through a dense, scratchy wall -- a perfect, active metaphor for a dead and bygone time.

The song titles themselves brood and suggest. Deep realms of subtext lurk. "Keep on the Sunny Side" implies that there is another. "Anchored in Love" carries with it connotations of ballast, weight, and death by drowning. "Lonesome Pine Special" is literally about the sound of a train, but it also sounds like a 6-foot box. The gospel title "Sunshine in the Shadows" is a blunt paradox. And "Will the Roses Bloom in Heaven," "Give Me the Roses While I Live," and "When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland" all bear with them the feel of the funereal. The traditional role of roses in funerals is to ward off the stink of death. Often, the Carter Family's music has a similar purpose: Compare the danceable three/four-time major-key strums on "The Cyclone of Rye Cove" to its lamentation about a child-killing tornado (a true story):

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