The Original Carter Family
The cover from a Carter Family songbook.
It began on the first two days of August, 1927, with the recording of six songs on the second floor of a warehouse on Bristol’s State Street. Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, Sara Doughtery Carter and Maybelle Kilgore Addington Carter drove in from Maces Spring, Va., and right into the Big Bang of country music. And Virginia Tech has a piece of the history that explosion let loose.
Tech’s special collections has four books and one box of Carter Family history, with a little bit of Johnny Cash thrown in. As anyone who watched Walk the Line knows, Cash married into the first family of country music when he wedded Maybelle’s daughter June in 1968.
The box contains newspaper clippings, sheet music, memoirs written by A.P. and Sara Carters’ daughters Janette Carter and Gladys Millard, Maybelle’s 1975 hunting license, Sara’s union card and a pamphlet written by A.P. that asks and answers 500 questions about the Bible. There are also programs from Johnny Cash’s funeral and Carter Family Memorial Craft Shows. And a seat cushion.
Kira Dietz, processing and acquisitions archivist, says these things fit into the special collections’ goal of documenting the region’s social and cultural history. And the Carter Family had a lot to do with the region’s culture and history. They made regional songs into national hits. They played on border radio – illegally powerful stations that blasted over much of the world when atmospheric conditions were right – spreading the region’s music far from the Taylor-Christian Hat Company where the Carters first sang for Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Those first recordings included songs that would become classics – “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean” – as well as one that may have foreshadowed The Original Carter Family’s future. That was “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a lament contrasting the drudgery and hardship of marriage with the carefree life of an unmarried woman. A.P. and Sara separated in 1933 and divorced in 1939, but the group didn’t break up until 1943.
A.P. went back to the home place. Sara married A.P.’s cousin Coy. Maybelle began touring with her daughters.
A.P. and Sara and their children recorded together in the 1950s. Maybelle and Sara cut a record a decade later. Maybelle and her daughters were singing on Johnny Cash’s television show into the 1970s. A.P. died in 1960, but Maybelle and Sara would live long enough to see the Original Carter Family become the first group inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. June and Johnny lived into the 21st century, but not long enough to see Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon play them on the big screen.
The Carter-Cash collection has created a stir, but Dietz says your family’s stuff may be important even if none of your relatives sold millions of records.
“If your family is from this area, we’re interested in your papers or materials you might have,” Dietz said, “because they document some part of that history.”
And she would like to see you come and take a look at the stuff in that Carter family box.