The Carter Family is a pioneer in American music history, creating its roots by collecting and adapting gospel tracks, old-time ballads, and sentimental songs. One of the Carter Family’s biggest contributions was their reworked version of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” The song, which was released in 1935, gained widespread appeal, becoming the biggest seller of 1935. It also earned a spot in their most well-known songs.
Meaning Behind The Song
The 1908 hymn “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” also known as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By),” was crafted by Ada R. Habershon (lyrics) with Charles H. Gabriel (music). It talked about death and grieving but described a rather ambiguous scene, singing, how there are loved ones whose dear forms we often miss. It then continued, asking, “When you close your earthly story / Will you join them in their bliss?”
The patriarch of the Carter Family, A.P. Carter, reworked it and made it more intimate by setting the song at a funeral with the mother as the departed loved one. That simple change rendered a gutting scene. Aside from that, he also significantly altered a part of the chorus. Instead of “By and by, by and by,” they added “Lord” after the first “By and By.”
The song structure made it sound so comforting. In between the story of the mother’s death and the grieving feeling that came with it was the thought that there was a better home awaiting in the sky.
The Carter Family (composed of A.P. Carter on guitar, his wife Sara Carter on autoharp, and her cousin Maybelle Carter also on guitar) wasn’t the first to adapt and record the song. Before them, Carson Robison, Frank Luther, and the McCravy Brothers already did. It wasn’t until then that the song was recognized.
After their version, a long list of artists covered the song, including Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Greg Allman, to name a few. As the industry grew with new generations coming in, the song became a staple in The Carter Family repertoire.
Maybelle passed the song down to her three daughters, Anita, Helen, and June. After that, when June had her own family and a daughter. The young Carlene watched them practice at home before she was officially initiated and got her turn to sing the song. Their legacy lives on.
Listen to the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” below.
the carter family