“There’s a dark and a troubled side of life, there’s a bright and a sunny side too. Though we meet with the darkness and strife, the sunny side we also may view.” So begins the song, Keep on the Sunny Side, which was the title track to the 1964 album of the same name by the Carter Family, featuring special guest vocals by Johnny Cash. The song was first released by the Carter family in 1928, although it was written In 1899 by Ada Blenkhorn, a prolific hymn writer who, according to hymtime.com, wrote the lyrics to over 320 christian hymns*.
Ada Jane Blenkhorn was born February 22, 1858 in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, the tenth of eleven children born to William and Sarah (Helm) Blenkhorn. The family immigrated to the United States in 1884 and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Ada was raised a Methodist, and began writing hymns in 1892, at the age of thirty-four. Although she wrote over 300 hymns in her lifetime, at one point she almost considered giving up the art, saying quote “Some years ago I had almost decided to give up hymn writing, but about that time I attended a convention in Ohio. A lady I met said to me, ‘May some soul be converted through a hymn that you shall write, who would not be converted if you do not write it!” Those beautiful and inspiring words seemed an invisible but mighty chain that held me fast and would not let me give up,’ end quote†.
‘Keep on the Sunny Side’ then, remains Ada Blenkhorn’s most well known hymn to this day, likely down to the now legendary Carter Family recording. Blenkhorn was inspired to write it by a phrase that her nephew used to use. He was disabled and always wanted his wheelchair to be pushed down “the sunny side” of the street. It would not be overstated to suggest that her name might have vanished from the history books had it not been for A. P. Carter’s uncle who was a music teacher, and who quite fortuitously, told the family about the song which in turn lead to them recording it in Camden, New Jersey, in 1928, a recording session more of which we will come to later.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” became the Carter Family theme song on the radio in later years, and it lead to the 1964 recording featuring Cash, which we’ve already mentioned. He, four years, later would marry June Carter and thereby join one of the oldest and greatest country music dynasties, arguably entering, if he had not already, into the realms of country royalty. In fact, so connected is the song to the Carter family, that A.P. Carter’s tombstone in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church cemetery, he died in 1960, four years before the recordings with Johnny Cash were made, has a gold record of the song embedded in it.
In many ways, this song can be seen as a metaphor for country music as it exists to this day. Although, originally a hymn, the Carter Family recording took the song in a new direction and made it available to the masses. The song contains all the features we’ve come to associate with a great country song, light vs. dark, a catchy repeating ‘lick’, and a chorus that builds and repeats. Although most versions of the song available have five chords, so we’re not quite in three chords and the truth territory… yet. It is not surprising that it might have acted as a blueprint for future songwriters and performers in the country genre. And it’s this, along with the fact that the Carter Family were one of the first pioneers of what we now call country music, they would have known it as hillbilly music (but more on that in a future episode), that makes it such a perfect topic for Episode 1 of the first series of the Country Lives podcast. I will try to convey some of what made the Carter Family so important to country music, over the course of the rest of this episode.
Now I must confess, another reason for wanting to feature the Carter Family in this first episode of the first series of the podcast is that, at the time of recording, the BBC has recently shown a wonderful documentary series called ‘American Epic’, the first episode of which provides a great deal of background on the music of 1920s America and the story of the Carter Family’s first recording sessions to which this episode is devoted. This was only made possible by the technological developments made in the industrial North of the US. In the early 1920s, newly established record companies, sent their scouts out across the country to find new sounds and styles of music and in doing so discovered, country music’s first singing group in the Carter Family.
The Carter Family, originated from the isolated rural communities of the appalachian mountain range, where unique styles and traditions of music had development over a period of many years. The original group consisted of A.P. Carter, the head of the family, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter, all of whom were brought up singing in the mountain gospel tradition and shape note singing, where notes in different shapes to aid singers and teach singing‡. The region from which the family originated was known as Poor Valley, as A.P. and Sara’s grandson Dale Jett has said, quote “this area has been poor vallely for as long as I’ve known it and I grew up a half a mile from here. It may not look it, but there’s not a lot of work here” end quote§. After A.P. married Sara Dougherty in 1915, Sara’s voice was legendary amongst the rural folk of Poor Valley; she’d often draw a crowd just by standing on her front porch to sing, they settled down and had three children. A.P. formed the Carter Family band in 1927 with his wife and her cousin Maybelle and, due in part to his work as a travelling salesman, they set off around Central Appalachia performing their music as they went. On these trips, A.P. was sometimes joined by his friend Lesley Riddle and together they collected folk songs from the rural communities they visited and from the numerous church services they attended. Some of these songs became so closely associated with A.P. that people started to believe he’d written them, as in the case of ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’¶.
It was around this time that recording companies started to descend on the rural communities of the Southern United States, visiting places such as a Johnson City, Tennessee, in an attempt to capture the rural and traditional music that was so much a part of life in the South. These recording sessions would be advertised in the local paper and word would be spread in churches and school houses, inviting local acts to apply to attend one of the sessions. At this time, It was not unknown for people to travel eight or nine hundred miles each way to attend a recording session, such was the draw of the new medium and the lucrative opportunity for acts to have their music heard by the masses. These people were just happy to play, as the American Epic documentary suggests, they had quote ‘made a phonograph record, and this was second to being President of the United States in their mind’#.
It was to one of these perspective recording sessions, to be held in Bristol, Tennessee, that A.P. Carter would convince his family to apply. But this was no ordinary recording session, being as it was led by the iconic folklorist, Ralph Peer, on behalf of the Victor Recording Label. Peer had a proven track record having already recorded among others the ‘the first hit by a white country musician’ and the most important artist in the history of Jazz, Louis Armstrong**. Peer himself said quote ‘I have a favourite saying, it’s called being in the place where the lightning strikes’ and this was certainly the case when he recorded those early sessions with the Carter Family. After successfully auditioning in what are now known as the Bristol Sessions, A.P and his family received $50 for each song recorded, plus a half-cent royalty on every copy sold of each song for which they had registered a copyright. It may seem like the Carter Family and Ralph Peer were simply in the right place at the right time, at the start of an embryonic recording industry that set out to discover and share the many varied and complex layers of American traditional music. But whatever the case, by the end of 1930, the Carter Family had sold 300,000 records in the United States and the popularisation of what soon became known as ‘country’ music, had begun.
Between that first session in 1927, which would go down in history and lead to Bristol, Tennessee becoming known as the ‘birthplace of country music’, and 1941, the Carter Family would record over three hundred sides for various companies including Victor, American Record Company, Decca and Colombia. At the first Bristol session, the family led off with “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” and then followed that with five more songs, all of which were subsequently released††. In 1928, the family travelled to Camden, New Jersey, at the request of Ralph Peer, where they would record what would become their signature hit. Of the recording session, Peer is reported to have said quote “They wandered in. He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They look like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful!”
A.P and Sara Carter separated in 1932 and divorced the following year. However, they would go on performing music together for almost a decade after this. The original Carter Family disbanded in 1943 and from then on, into the 1960s which Bill C. Malone has called the ‘Boom Period’ for country music, Maybelle Carter went on the road with her three daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters)§§. It was this that would eventually to one of the daughters, June Carter, coming into contact with one Johnny Cash, but that’s a story for another time.
Now we could devote whole episodes of this podcast to biographies of A.P. Maybelle and the other Carter Family members, but I hope this first episode has provided you with a little of the history and an insight into why the Carter Family were so integral to the wider understanding and awareness of what became known as Country Music. In time, we will, of course, return to touch upon the family again, particularly as they are so ingrained in the very fabric of country music. As Bill C. Malone suggests, quote ‘modern country and folk music enthusiasts owe A.P. and the Carter Family a great debt, because they preserved and disseminated such a large body of old-time material that might otherwise have been lost forever¶¶.
- *For a comprehensive list of hym’s which Ada wrote the lyrics to, check out the hymn time website. Hymn Time (no date) Ada J. Blenkhorn. Available at: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/l/e/n/blenkhorn_a.htm (Accessed: 2 February 2020).
- †The Latter Day Saints Hymology website has a detailed biography of Ada, which itself has been drawn from a number of sources including Charles H. Gabriel and J. Spencer Cornwall. Ada Blenkhorn (1858-1927) – Latter-day Saint Hymnology (no date). Available at: https://ldshymnology.wordpress.com/2019/06/30/ada-blenkhorn-1858-1927/ (Accessed: 2 February 2020).
- ‡Further information about Shape Note Singing and its history, can be found on the Library of Congress website. ‘Shape Note Singing | Ritual and Worship | Musical Styles | Articles and Essays | The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America | Digital Collections | Library of Congress’ (no date) Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
- §Dale Jett was interviewed for the BBC Arena documentary, American Epic: The Big Bang. MacMahon, B. (2017) American Epic: The Big Bang. United Kingdom: BBC Four. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rnyxq.
- ¶See Geibel, Adam and R. Frank Lehman, eds. Uplifted Voices (song no. 9). Philadelphia: Geibel and Lehman, 1901.
- #See BBC Arena documentary, American Epic: The Big Bang. MacMahon, B. (2017) American Epic: The Big Bang. United Kingdom: BBC Four. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rnyxq.
- **See BBC Arena documentary, American Epic: The Big Bang. MacMahon, B. (2017) American Epic: The Big Bang. United Kingdom: BBC Four. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rnyxq.
- ††See p.79 of Country Music USA. Malone, B. and Laird, T. (2018) Country Music USA 50th Anniversary Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- ‡‡Lilly, John. “The Carter Family > Review”. Native Ground Music. Archived from the original on September 26, 2009. Retrieved February 19, 2010.
- §§See p.257 of Country Music USA. Malone, B. and Laird, T. (2018) Country Music USA 50th Anniversary Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- ¶¶See p.81 of Country Music USA. Malone, B. and Laird, T. (2018) Country Music USA 50th Anniversary Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.