Archive for the ‘Carter Family’ Category

The Carter Family Documentary That Was Kicked and Started

January 6, 2016

carter_ap_image03A long but interesting story about the Carter Family documentary….

Source: The Carter Family Documentary That Was Kicked and Started

While it’s a little hard to admit that every now and then I can lose my focus and get sidetracked, there are those occasions when I take on a particular subject only to end up somewhere else. For example, about a month ago I sat down to write a short essay about the Carter Family, and by the time I got to the second paragraph I had shifted the focus to the African-American influence in roots music, featuring videos from Uncle John Scruggs to Grandmaster Flash. But after spending several months of researching and reading books about Sara, Maybelle and A.P. Carter, listening to hours of audio recordings and radio transcriptions, and watching an excellent documentary titled The Winding Stream you’d think I would be prepared this time around not to stray from the path. Wrong.

As much as I’d love to retell the story of the Carter Family for those who may not know how they’ve left an everlasting imprint on American music, it is the journey of award-winning independent producer, director and writer Beth Harrington and the way she brought the Carter’s story to the screen that has currently captured my interest. It’s too good of a tale to not be told. And better still, most of it will be in her own words. God bless digital footprints.

On November 15, 2010 a Kickstarter campaign was created to help fund a feature-length documentary. At the top of the page it’s described as an “epic story of the dynasty at the heart of American roots music – The Carter and Cash families.” Here is an excerpt of the introduction:

My name is Beth Harrington, and I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for more than 30 years. I’m also a former musician – a singer in the band Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. So there you have it, my two loves – music and documentary film.

A few years ago, I successfully combined these loves on a film called Welcome to the Club – The Woman of Rockabilly. It was really well-received, so much so that it got nominated for a Grammy Award. Needless to say, this encouraged me to move ahead on my next music documentary, The Winding Stream which has the subtitle “The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music.”

I’d been aware of the Original Carter Family – the biggest “old-timey” music act of their day – and their musical legacy for a long time. But working on Welcome to the Club and meeting Rosanne Cash (who narrated that film) made me think it was time to do a film about this music dynasty that stretched from the 1920s to the present. I wanted to explore how the Carters practically “invented” country music and how legions of musicians – from Woody Guthrie to Elvis to Johnny Cash to Joan Baez to Jeff Tweedy, to name a few – all feel a debt of gratitude to them. And, as a result, how the tradition instituted by the Original Carters has carried on in their family and in the culture at large.

And I realized that, even though small parts of this family’s epic story had been told before, no one had presented this big picture. No one had shown the connection to the Carter Sisters, to Johnny Cash, to the folk movement and to the Americana movement. And no one had told the story using both original recordings AND contemporary roots music artists performing (and discussing) the music.

I started shooting The Winding Stream in 2003 and, with Rosanne Cash’s help, one of the first interviews I did was with her dad, Johnny Cash. Sadly, it was to be one of his last interviews; he passed away only three weeks after we’d spoken with him. This forced the realization that I needed to step up production because we were losing some of the key players in this story. I felt a real urgency to get these interviews on tape. I spent a lot of my own money doing so. And I’m very glad I did. But I knew I would need more.

What stuck out for me when I first read those words was the year that Beth noted she first started to shoot this film: 2003. Seven years later she was seeking money to complete editing, sound design, music and footage rights, animation, graphics and titles. That right there is the definition of vision, focus and tenacity.

For those of you who’ve either started or contributed to a Kickstarter or any other crowdsourcing project, it’s a leap of faith that you’ll get to your goal. Sometimes there’s just not enough money donated to keep it going, and there are other times that the original idea turns out to be either flawed, abandoned or simply unable to be completed for any infinite number of reasons.

But there was something I noticed about The Winding Stream campaign that was different than most, aside from the fact that the picture was actually completed and released: in five years Beth has published forty-two updates to her supporters. What follows is a look into what it took to get this film to the finish line. I’ll share a few of her updates with a little selective editing, and dispense with quotation marks since y’all know it’s Beth’s writing.


Update #4, December 8 2010: Hi everyone. Well, as you may know by now, we’ve reached our Kickstarter goal! I’m moved and grateful to all of you who contributed to this campaign. And you did it in three weeks. Thank you so very much!

Update #15, March 21, 2011: Just a quick note to let you all know that we’ve been putting the funds we raised with your help to very good use. Just back from Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia (yup, it’s a city in two states) and we got five critical interviews done, plus a musical performance with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Wildly successful trip.  Probably a Nashville shoot still in our future and one in California and we’ll be close to done shooting.

Update #17, February 28, 2012: I realize it’s been a while since I’ve updated you on things connected to The Winding Stream so here’s a little updateWe’re well into post-production now which means there is a glimmer at the end of the tunnel (not exactly a light yet, but soon). Since last I wrote we’ve received two grants – one from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Roy W. Dean Foundation which have helped us considerably and are big honors, needless to say. We’re in the running again for funding from the Independent Television Service and should know in a while if we get that. We’ve started to show excerpts from the film now – once at a fundraiser here in Washington State and more recently at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, MT. Both times the reactions have been very positive which has buoyed our spirits a lot as we move along.

Update #18, April 29, 2012: We’re writing to let you know about some new developments with The Winding Stream. We’re moving into full post-production soon with our pal, editor Greg Snider at the helm. And we’ve found a wonderful animator to do cool photo-animations for us, Mike Olson. I’m at work on the companion book to the film, and we’ve had interest from cable channels, film festivals and theatrical and DVD distributors for when the film is done. Our hope is to wrap it all up by the end of the year.

May 3, 2012: A second round of Kickstarter funding begins.

Update #25, June 21, 2012: In the last 9 years I have amassed a treasure trove of what I consider to be important interviews with people who were witness to some of our most important shared cultural history. The early days of radio, the infancy of the record industry, the growth of interest in what would later be called “country” and “folk” music. People like Johnny Cash, Janette and Joe Carter, Mike Seeger, Charles Wolfe and others knew the Original Carter Family and were among the last living witnesses to the Carters’ role in all this. The people I just named have all passed away in the time we’ve been working on this film. I started to view completion of this film as a sacred trust. These folks had taken the time to share this with me.

This material couldn’t just languish on a shelf. It had to be made into the film I’d promised. So we stuck with it. Through years when everyone turned us down. Through times when we scraped by with tiny amounts of money that would get us one more interview. Through lots and lots of days of colleagues and friends — er, actually, that’s redundant; my colleagues on The Winding Stream are my steadfast friends –donating their time and talent and energy to this. Through many sleepless nights when I did think that I was – indeed – plum crazy to persist.

June 27, 2012: Funding for the second Kickstarter campaign is met.

Update #28: January 7, 2013: Hi everybody! Wanted to let you all know how much progress we’ve made on The Winding Stream! We have a final cut of the film and are now clearing rights for the music and archival images. If all goes well, we should have a completed film very soon. Thanks again for helping us get this far!

Update #29, February 1, 2014: Stopping by to let you know that great things are happening for The Winding Stream. We just recently learned that this labor of love- that’s taken more than a decade and the efforts of numerous talented people to complete – has been chosen for this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin.

Update #33, August 7, 2014: Monday’s NYC premiere of The Winding Stream at Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center was a big hit. We had a full-house and the New York audience embraced the film. We’d also like to announce that The Winding Stream won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Woods Hole Film Festival. This is our fourth festival award and we’re very grateful to be recognized this way. Thanks to all of our Kickstarter backers! You helped make this possible.

Updare #37, December 12, 2014: We have a big, exciting challenge! As you may know, we need to finish paying for music and archival footage and rights before we can open the film theatrically, air it on public television, or make it available on platforms like iTunes and cable on demand. We want to make all this happen as soon as possible to build off our festival momentum. We once needed $85,000. But incredibly we have recently received a grant from the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation for half that!

Update #39, September 2, 2015: Hi Friends – I wanted to let you all know that we’ve entered the next phase of the life of The Winding Stream! Theatrical! Thanks to the efforts of our partners at Argot Pictures, we are now taking the film to art houses across the country. We are also thrilled to say that the good folks at Omnivore Recordings are releasing a soundtrack album from the film! That drops on October 16.

Alright…so as you can tell, I’ve been completely swept away by Beth, her team and this unbelievably enchanting film. On a musical highway that’s ninety years long and still stretches out before us, there are unlimited on and off ramps that this filmmaker could have chosen. With a subtitle that reads ‘The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music’, she brings to life a family tree with endless branches. By using the voices of those still living and the ones who’ve passed on, and enhancing that experience with film, video, photographs and animation, the music and stories are presented with the delicacy and historical context one could have only hoped for.

There is a tendency to receive and process information in bite-sized pieces in this technologically supercharged world we live in. And I’m sure Beth would agree that it would be a mistake to believe that the tales of this great musical family can be told in a mere ninety-two minutes, despite over a decade in the making. (I’d love to see what didn’t make the final cut.) I think of The Winding Stream as a doorway to discovery, and hope that people will be inspired to seek out not only the music which has endured over the years and is readily available, but also take the time to learn more about the folks who absolutely define any such notion of what you might think the term Americana means. This is a story for the ages.

For those of you in the New York area, I plan to attend a screening at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville (the most appropriately named town ever) on February 11, and there’ll be some fine live music from the Shovel Ready String Band. Buy your tickets before they sell out and if you happen to see me, please say hi.


Scenes from a Marriage (The Peers and the Carters)

March 31, 2015


edited from Barry Mazor (“Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music”):

The act that represented the very image of rural domesticity for so many was being privately pulled apart by domestic tensions.  Sara Carter was tiring of A.P. Carter’s constant absence on song-hunting trips, and his remoteness and lack of involvement in everyday farm and family life when he did come home.

A.P.’s more fun-loving, naturally affectionate, and present cousin, Coy Bayes, had increasingly been attracting he attention, until the worried extended family forced Coy to leave the area entirely.  A despondent Sara absented herself from the farm and her children, moving in with relatives.

A.P. and Sara were now very much separated, as Peer would learn when he brought up getting music and family members together for recording in April 1933;  Sara was refusing to join in, preferring to avoid A.P. altogether.

Anita Peer [wife of Ralph Peer, who recorded the Carter Family for the Victor Talking Machine Company] wrote to Sara Carter,

“Of course it is really none of my business, but I just wondered if there was anything I could do to help things along.  I realize it would be distinctively awkward for both you and A.P. to work again, but on the other hand, the ‘Carter Family’  has become well known and there is the chance to make some more money, even in these days of depression.

I have been divorced once myself, as I think I told you, so I can sympathize with you perfectly…Even if you never live together again you could get together for professional purposes like the movie stars do.  Practically all of them are divorced, or should be…”

In 1936 Ralph Peer wrote to Sara Carter,

“What are your plans now as to A.P.?  He has written me that you are suing for divorce…He apparently wanted me to exert some pressure upon you, but I told him that this was a matter that people had to settle for themselves, and something in which I did not want to interfere…From a business standpoint, it is important that the Carter Family should not be too broken up.”



Sunny Side of Life

January 4, 2015





Sunny Side of Life (Appalshop Films)

Directed by: Scott Faulkner, Anthony Slone, and Jack Wright
Running Time: 58:00

During the 1920s and ’30s, the records and radio shows of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle spread the music of the southern mountains around the world and earned the Carter family international fame.

Sunny Side of Life celebrates the legacy of this country music dynasty by focusing on the Carter Family Fold in Maces Spring, Virginia–an old-time music hall founded in 1975 by Janette, Joe, and Gladys, the children of A.P. and Sara Carter.

Sunny Side of Life features Saturday night performances at the Fold by such artists as the Home Folks, Red Clay Ramblers, and Hot Mud Family, as well as lots of flatfooting and clogging by the audience.

The film includes a history of the Carter Family and an examination of the way old-time music continues to be integrated into the life of this community.

“Surpasses any documentary I have seen in articulating the emotional ties which lie at the heart of old-time country music and the Appalachian experience.” -Richard Blaustein, Director, Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, East Tennessee State University

Carter Family Graphic Novel

October 23, 2012


The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Songis a rich and compelling original graphic novel that tells the story of the Carter Family — the first superstar group of country music—who made hundreds of recordings and sold millions of records. Many of their hit songs, such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” have influenced countless musicians and remain timeless country standards.

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song is not only a unique illustrated biography, but a moving account that reveals the family’s rise to success, their struggles along the way, and their impact on contemporary music. Illustrated with exacting detail and written in the Southern dialect of the time, its dynamic narrative is pure Americana. It is also a story of success and failure, of poverty and wealth, of racism and tolerance, of creativity and business, and of the power of music and love.

Includes bonus CD with original Carter Family music


Lasky’s visuals are flat, solid, simply yet elegantly composed, and deceptively static considering the amount of emotional information and actual velocity they convey. (At two points in the book the pair move the story forward with palette-cleansing segments in the style of contemporary comic strips.) The Carters seemed to be constantly in motion, whether walking miles down Virginia country roads to visit family (Lasky’s autumnal colors may be the finest in all comicdom); taking a horse and carriage to Bristol, Tennessee, for A.P. and Sara’s seminal recording session; hitting the road in a broken-down car as a constantly exhausted traveling act; driving to New Jersey for yet more recording sessions; or commuting to southern Texas for months-long stints as regulars on powerful Mexican radio station XERA.

The cause of A.P. and Sara’s eventual divorce is the hapless bandleader’s devotion to “song catching,” i.e., combing the country, often accompanied by his African-American sidekick Lesley Riddle, in search of material: the old and nearly forgotten folk songs he transcribed, rearranged, recorded, and sometimes rewrote in order to reclaim them as his own. What more elegant songwriting credit has anyone taken than the verse A.P. added to the song whose title serves as this book’s subtitle: “But now I’m upon my scaffold / My time’s not very long / You may forget the singer / But don’t forget this song.” The Carters’ saga is also the story of evolving recording and playback technology, and Lasky lovingly depicts cars, instruments, microphones, disks, Victor Talking Machines, and the always-impressive Orthophonic Credenza record player – the latter a gift from the trio’s somewhat larcenous mentor-manager.

The Carter’s story takes a melancholic twist when Sara falls in love with another man. And its most poignant panel may well be Lasky’s translation of Life photographer Eric Schaal’s iconic image of the extended Carter clan in 1942, with A.P. standing slightly apart from brother Eck and the rest. As often as Lasky’s art inevitably reminds one of R. Crumb light, he conveys a sadness and delicacy of mood the master might envy.

Engine 143

October 8, 2012



The Wreck of the FFV

“The report reached the city this morning that train No. 4, (the vestibuled) had been derailed a short distance east of Hinton, and the investigation by the ADVERTISER shows that there was an accident to this train, but not so bad as at first rumored.

At about 5 o’clock this morning the train ran into a rock, which had rolled on the track from the mountain above, two miles east of Hinton. The train was running at good speed, and the collision caused the engine and express and postal cars to be derailed. The engine was badly damaged, and in overturning caught the engineer, George Alley, of Clifton Forge, well known here, in some of the machinery, breaking his right arm and scalding him so severely that he died six hours after the accident occurred.

Two firemen, who were on the engine were also scalded but sustained no other injuries. No one else, either of the crew or passengers, was injured, though all of them had a shaking up and a bad scare. No particular damage was done to the passenger cars and at 9:30 the track was cleared and the train started east.”

Since the end of the 19th century, the themes of railroads and trains became a important part of American folk songs, particularly songs about train wrecks. The most famous of them all would be “The wreck of the old 97″, thanks to his numerous  recordings by popular and hillbilly musicians in the 1920′s and 1930′s. “Engine 143″ (also called “The Wreck on the C & O” or “The FFV”) was also a popular “train wreck” song, one that was part of the oral tradition and continued to live through recordings, particularly the one by The Carter Family, which became the most well-known version of the song until today.

It seems that this ballad, that carried the memory of the tragic death of engineer George Alley, was full of little details that were not true at all to the real story. In his study of American railroad songs, “Long Steel Rail”, Norm Cohen enumerates them: “George Alley’s mother did not come to him with a basket on her arm, as she had died years before; George’s hair was straight and black, not golden or curly; Jack Dickenson was not on the engine at the time (and it has not been explained who he was and how he became implicated in the ballad; the engine was numbered 134, not 143; George’s fireman did not have time to wave goodbye to him, nor did he jumped into the river…; George’s mother did not come to his side as he was dying; his last words were very likely “Are they coming?” rather than “Nearer my God to Thee”. The Carter Family’s version, in fact did not carry all the details of the longer ballad but focused more on the heroic death of the engineer.

Sara and Maybelle

October 1, 2011

Sara and Maybelle,” (10 min., 1981.) excerpt from the sublime film  by John Cohen.

If ever a foul mood overtakes you, please watch this video.

Complete Carter Family lyrics online:

Carter Family biography:   Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy In American Music by Mark Zwonitzer