Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music

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9780684857633: Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is the first major biography of the Carter Family, the musical pioneers who almost single-handedly established the sounds and traditions that grew into modern folk, country, and bluegrass music -- a style celebrated in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A.P. Carter was a restless man, seemingly in a constant state of motion. On one of his travels across the sparsely settled mountains and valleys that surrounded his home in southern Virginia, he met and married a young girl named Sara Dougherty. Orphaned as a child, Sara was remote by nature but seemed to find release in singing the typically melancholy ballads that were a part of her home tradition.

For fun, A.P., Sara, and her cousin Maybelle (who married A.P.'s brother "Eck" Carter) would play and sing the hymns and ballads known in their Poor Valley community, occasionally adding songs A.P. had collected during his travels. Then, in 1927, they traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for a New York record executive who was hunting "hillbilly" talent and offering an amazing fifty dollars per song for any he recorded. These Bristol recording sessions would become generally accepted as the "Big Bang" of country music, producing two of its first stars: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

By the early 1930s, the Carter Family was the most bankable country music group in America, with total sales of more than a million records. By the late '30s, they were appearing regularly on high-power radio station XERA, which broadcast from coast to coast. A whole generation of country people could gather around the radio and hear the sound of music that came straight from their world. Johnny Cash in Arkansas, Waylon Jennings in Texas, Chet Atkins in Georgia, and Tom T. Hall in Kentucky all listened to the Carter Family. It was their formal schooling, Country Music 101.

Inside the Carter Family, however, things were hardly perfect. Though nobody outside the family knew it, Sara had left her difficult and quixotic husband in 1933. In 1936 she won a divorce. Even throughout the long and painful breakup, the Carters kept performing together, singing an ever-widening range of new songs they wrote or old songs they remade: songs of love, of betrayal, and of the death of fondest hopes. And they kept at it even after Sara married A.P.'s cousin Coy Bays in 1939. After fulfilling a final radio contract in 1943, Sara and Coy moved to California to settle near his family. The original Carter Family never performed or recorded together again.

With Sara gone, A.P. retreated home, opened a general store, and lived out the next two decades in obscurity, the odd man out in a new and reconfigured Carter musical clan. Meanwhile, Maybelle and her daughters (Helen, June, and Anita) went out and got themselves new radio contracts, working in Richmond, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Springfield, Missouri, before ascending to country music's ultimate stage, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Nearly fifty years in the business won Maybelle the title "Mother of Country Music" and the adoration of generations of guitar players and just plain listeners.

The story of the Carter Family is a bittersweet saga of love and fulfillment, sadness and loss. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is more than just a biography of a family; it is also a journey into another time, almost another world. But their story resonates today and lives on in the timeless music they created.

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About the Author:

Mark Zwonitzer is a writer-director whose work appears nationally on public television. He is currently finishing up work on a documentary about the creation of the transcontinental railroad and hopes to begin work soon on a documentary about the Carter Family. He lives in Connecticut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Pleasant

Five separate mountain ridges cut on a southwest diagonal through Scott County, Virginia: Powell's and Stone westernmost, out by the Kentucky border; Clinch Mountain farthest south and east, not far from the Tennessee border; and in between, the Copper Creek and Moccasin ridges. Every big valley rolls and folds into itself, forming valleys within valleys, haunts and hollows that can't be seen from even the highest perch in the county, on top of Clinch Mountain, 3,200 feet up. So you'd have to have a pretty fair knowledge of the richly filigreed landscape, of the right roadless gap to take, to make your way into the deepest hollows. That inaccessibility, with its promise of well-hid treasures, has always been the heart of the romance of the Appalachian Mountains. "A mysterious realm," the writer Horace Kephart called the southern Appalachians, "terra incognita." Kephart was a St. Louis librarian who had traveled widely in Europe and spent years cataloging a gargantuan collection of works by and about a fourteenth-century Italian poet. In 1904, with his penchant for the obscure surprisingly undiminished, Kephart moved to the America's southern mountains and began cataloging the culture of its natives.

Ten years later he brought out his book Our Southern Highlanders and introduced a people as exotic to his fellow academics as South Sea islanders or Eskimos. For a decade Kephart had plumbed the region's language, superstitions, work patterns, diet, and dentistry: "It was here I first heard of 'tooth-jumping,'" wrote Kephart. "Let one of my old neighbors tell it in his own words: 'You take a cut nail (not one o' those round wire nails) and place its squar p'int agin the ridge of the tooth, jest under the edge of the gum. Then jump the tooth out with a hammer. A man who knows how can jump a tooth without it hurtin' half as bad as pullin'. But old Uncle Neddy Cyarter went to jump one of his own teeth out, one time, and missed the nail and mashed his nose with the hammer....Some men git to be as experienced at it as tooth-dentists are at pullin'. They cut around the gum, and then put the nail at jest sich an angle, slantin' downward for an upper tooth or upwards for a lower one, and hit one lick.'

"'Will the tooth come at the first lick?'

"'Ginerally. If it didn't you might as well stick your head in a swarm o' bees and ferget who you are.'"

It's no wonder Horace got caught up in the flat-out oddness of the remotest hollows (the "back of beyond," he called it), but his seminal work in the mountains had the effect of obscuring the regal and practical breadth of Appalachian culture. By 1913, it was way too late for rural to still be thought of as synonymous with backward or isolated. At the time Kephart was doing his fieldwork, a young native of Scott County, Leonidas Reuben Dingus, educated at the free schools near Wood, Virginia, was presenting his own postdoctoral papers, to wit: "Study of Literary Tendencies in the Novellen of Theodore Storm," "A Brief on Schiller's Esthetic Philosophy," and "Beowulf Translated into Alliterative Verse -- Selections." It was with evident pride that Dingus was celebrated as "one of the ripest scholars the county has produced."

A full generation before Kephart arrived, Scott County had ninety-six public schools and two local newspapers, not counting the Toledo Blade, which arrived over the mountains by horseback in Copper Creek every two weeks. There was nobody who wasn't but a few hours' ride from a railroad station, and from there you could get to Kingsport, Nashville, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., or New York. And the railroads could deliver any of the largest or most exotic items to be found in the Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck catalogs. Usually that wasn't necessary, however, for most of what was needed could be got right in Scott County. There were forty corn and flour mills, fourteen sawmills, and two woolen mills, all powered by the creeks and rivers that ran through the valleys. Every wide place in the road, such as Fido, Osborn's Ford, and Nickelsville, had a general merchandise store that stocked everything from fine china to Cracker Jacks. Even the outlying areas were dotted with home manufacturers who could take a body from cradle to grave. You could buy a pram, a wagon, or a coffin, handmade locally.

In Hiltons, James P. Curtis was doing a fine trade in both guns and butter. He'd invented a churn that ran by the motion of a rocking chair, and a more efficient turn plow for the hundreds of dirt farmers scratching a living off of the land. But he is remembered best for his rifles. During the Civil War, Curtis had supplied nearly a thousand Kentucky rifles to the Confederate army. At the turn of the century, his long-shot rifles were still in wide use in the land disputes that had entered the American consciousness as "feuds."

More than anything else in Scott County, land counted. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, nearly four-fifths of Scott County's seventeen thousand residents farmed. Even at $2.26 an acre, no commodity was more precious than land. And it wasn't just the present value of the land that mattered, but the future value. In fact, the fastest growing trades in the county -- as in most of Appalachia -- were land agentry and lawyering. And most of the men practicing these professions were under the employ of the railroads and their subsidiaries, out on the prowl, quietly leasing mineral or timber rights from local farmers. "Inexhaustible beds of iron ore (red and brown hematite) are found in this county," boasted a local business directory in 1889, "and manganese, lead, coal, marble of various kinds, and limestone in abundance....The extension of the Narrow-Gauge road through this county from Bristol in Tennessee, will open up its mineral treasures, which now lie buried awaiting convenient and cheap transportation facilities."

Already, in 1891, the railroads and their affiliates were clear-cutting tens of thousands of acres of forest for crossties and square-set mining timbers. Five separate mines were in full cry, blasting coal and iron out of the ground, filling up freight cars behind the gleaming new Norfolk & Western or Virginia & Southwestern engines, all headed for the more populated and higher-paying parts of America. The railroads were not a paternal force in the valleys, not by a long shot. Neither were the timber companies or the mine owners or the quarry operators. They meant to dig out of the land whatever value it held, and Scott Countians take the hindmost. By 1891, for better or worse, the future had rumbled into the valleys.


From her little one-room log cabin on the other side of Pine Ridge, Mollie Bays Carter couldn't hear the Virginia & Southwestern engines roll through Poor Valley. Not that she didn't have her ears open to them. It was the middle of the night and she was by the fire, still in her day clothes, sitting bolt upright on a cane-backed chair. On her lap she held a shotgun.

Mollie was just nineteen and she still held her beauty, which owed in no small part to the Cherokee in her. Her great-grandfather was a half-blood, and you could see it in Mollie's high cheekbones, her dark eyes, and her straight coal-black hair. She kept her hair long ("A woman's hair is her glory," they taught her at the Friendly Grove Methodist Church). When she let it down, it would fall well below her narrow waist. But Mollie rarely let her hair down. She plaited it every day and kept it tied in a fat bun on top of her tiny head. Above all, Mollie was a Christian woman and modest in her appearance.

In the cabin that night, she was alone except for her infant son, Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, who was born just weeks before, on December 15, 1891. That's why she was up in the middle of the night. Earlier that day, Mollie had spied a panther skulking around the farm. There was no glass in the windows of her cabin; she'd just hung sackcloth over them. That might keep out the wind, but it wasn't going to keep out a hungry panther. So Mollie sat alert and awake all night long, in frightened defense of her newborn son.

Where her husband, Bob, was she couldn't have said for sure. Robert Carter was part of a long line of roaming mountain men, from Daniel Boone (who had been so constitutionally unsettled that he had, at age eighty, still searched out new trails) to the novelist Thomas Wolfe (who would occasionally, and without purpose, walk the entire circumference of Manhattan Island). Bob Carter was a far-wanderer, a gangly, long-legged man, and, truth be told, a bit flaky. He never was much for work, and there were times when Mollie would look up and Bob was just plain gone. No telling where...or for how long.

One thing he liked to do was visit the sick. Bob could sit bedside for hours, praying over the afflicted. If somebody in the Valley was dying of cancer, neighbors might help plant the corn or bring in the harvest, but most made a point to stay well outside the plagued house, reckoning any sickness could be catching. Not Robert Carter. Later, during the big influenza epidemic of 1917, he was so stalwart and so fearless that he would earn the nickname "Flu-proof Bob." Another thing Bob liked to do was inquire about local happenings. He was an enthusiastic gatherer of news; some said gossip. One neighbor lady who was a bit peeved by some of Bob's more personal reporting took to calling him by the local newspaper name. ("Well, here comes the Scott Banner," she'd say, loud enough for him to hear as he approached. "He's got all the news.") But Bob never let the taunts slow him down. Comfort and news were Bob Carter's business, and that business kept him on the move. Later in the marriage, Mollie learned to read the signs. When Bob began chopping wood and stacking it high, she knew he was about to leave. The higher the stack, the longer he'd be gone.

"Bob, are you leaving your family again?" a neighbor once admonished.

"Well, if you can take any better care of them than I can," he shot back, "go on ahead."

"Uncle Bob would be walking by our homeplace and say, 'Well, where's your dad?'" his nephew Vernon Bays remembers. "He would ask a dozen questions: 'When did he leave?' 'When's he gonna be back?' 'What'd he go there for?' and he never stopped walking. Just walking and asking questions and bringing news."

Bob might be gone from home a day, or -- say, he went to visit his cousin Amanda Groves -- he might be gone a week. Mandy Groves was a striking woman, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, with flaming red hair she kept pulled back so it didn't fly into an unruly frizz. Mandy was nosy, too, and witchlike. She never forgot anything. She could give chapter and verse on what happened on a specific day forty years before. Neighbors who had no record of their birth date would go to see Mandy, and she'd know. You were born July 6, thirty-eight years ago. That's the day they brought the wheat in over at Wolfe's. Looked like a storm all day, but never did rain. Well, there was nothing Mandy didn't know, and Bob could put his feet under her table and get all the goings-on. Besides, over by Mandy there was always some land squabble. Her own husband, Abraham, once plugged Jerry McMurray with a bullet from the silver-plated rifle Old Man Curtis had made for him. So there was plenty of interest at Mandy's house.

In later years, when Bob was on the circuit, Mollie might be able to track him by telephone. There were only a few phones in Poor Valley, or over in Little Poor Valley, but somebody would have seen him, and they'd tell him to get on home, that Mollie said it was time to strip the tobacco. But way back in 1891, on that cold, dark night, Mollie Bays Carter had no way of knowing precisely where her new husband was. Maybe Bob had walked down the Little Valley to Hiltons, and then another half dozen miles along the Appalachian Trail to the county seat, where he could alert the sheriff of the "addition to the family" and record the birth of his new son, Alvin Pleasant Carter, in the Scott County registrar's books. Or maybe he was off to visit an uncle, see about work. It was hard to know.

From the beginning, Mollie Bays knew Bob Carter was going to be a project. She'd first seen him about 1888, not long after her family moved across Clinch Mountain and into Poor Valley so that they could be nearer the new railroad. She'd gone to a square dance, where she'd seen Bob playing the fiddle. And not only could he fiddle, but he could hit the back-step, too. He was more than six feet tall, fair-skinned, strong-jawed, and only a bit sunken in the chest. His hair was wavy and brown, shading to auburn. Whenever Mollie told the story of their meeting, she'd talk about watching him on the dance floor with his patent-leather lace-up boots with the blue bands around the tops and his "stri-ped britches." She always said he was the prettiest thing she'd ever seen and that she fell in love with him the minute she saw him.

But there were things about Robert Carter that could have given her pause. Bob had seen some of the world already, having just returned from a railroad job in Richmond, Indiana. And Mollie had pretty good reason to believe that Bob Carter had seen the business end of a whiskey bottle as well. ("Most Carters of that generation," says a family historian, "didn't hesitate to take a good sip of whiskey.") There was also the thorny question of his provenance. His Little Valley neighbors all said Bob was "base-born," a phrase, like many in the region, meant to muddy the actual meaning, a way of talking about things that kept outsiders in the dark. There were other such phrasings: If a man was "in his back," he was, in fact, drunk as a skunk; if in wartime he had gone "scoutin'," he was, in fact, hiding up on the mountain, dodging conscription. So the locals might have called him base-born, but to put it in the plain English of the day, Bob Carter was somebody's bastard son.

Bob's grandfather had been the first Carter to come over to the south side of Clinch Mountain. Dulaney Carter was the son of a well-off landowner from Rye Cove, twenty miles northwest of Poor Valley, and a descendant of one of the earliest and most esteemed settlers in Scott County. He had also married well. His bride, Rebecca Smith, was the daughter of John "Dutch" Smith, who'd got a land grant for exemplary service in the Revolutionary War. So when Dulaney arrived in Poor Valley in 1833, he was doubly staked, which was why when they spoke of him, his own children would say that Dulaney had managed to drink up two fortunes. "The bottle," says his great-grandson, "got the better of him. He had nothing when he died, and he left his children with nothing."

Dulaney's second child, Nancy Carter, had it particularly rough. She was a big-boned woman, with a streak of independence as wide as the Delaware and a weakness for pipe smoking and men. At twenty, she'd married a teenager named William Anderson Bays. They had four children together before he went off to fight for the Confederacy in the War Between the States. Billy Bays didn't return from the war for nearly a full year after Lee's surrender, ...

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