Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Carter Family and Shaky Hands

Music documentaries tend to piss me off. For example, let’s talk about this American Experience TV show run on PBS this past week on “The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Now, I love the Carter Family, and I always have. So, I was pretty excited to sit down and see them praised on national TV for a full hour.

But, let’s start with this. The best reason to love the Carter Family is the music, not the influence. I mean, yeah, sure, don’t pretend the influence, which is as great as any 20th century figure this side of Louis Armstrong, isn’t there, but talk about what makes the music so great. In this documentary, only Barry Mazor (No Depression contributing editor and the curator of Twangclips, the annual collection of music film history at St. Louis’s Twangfest, coming up in early June) and Gillian Welch (singer/songwriter with a decided Appalachian feel) give much of an effort to talk about the music itself.

In fact, Welch’s demonstration of the difference between playing the bare chords of “Wildwood Flower” (aka the way I did it back in my band days, when the other guitarist in 60 Hz Hm did the good parts) and playing the melodic approach to them that Maybelle Carter took, was the kind of thing that should be done more often. It’s pretty basic musical information, to be sure, but it’s rarely recognized by average listeners because nobody takes the time to point it out. And then, when she pointed out the bounce of Maybelle’s strumming, we found yet another way to listen to these records. That’s one of the benefits of analyzing music; it should give you something new on which to focus your attention.

Then there’s the question of hiring actors to play the Carters in soft-focused recreations of events in their lives. Really, was the guy walking along the railroad tracks with his hand twitching such a strong visual that it couldn’t have been replaced with some more Depression-era rural footage? And, the lip-synching in the studio stuff was kind of spooky, although I guess it was interesting to see A.P. Carter leading his partners by keeping the rhythm with his hands. Worst of all, though, was probably A.P. at the typewriter, his hands shaking again as he tweaked the lyrics of old mountain songs to fit the contemporary demands of copyright.

A.P. Carter did us a few valuable services, no question about that. He single-handedly collected a body of folk songs that would otherwise have been completely lost to the ages, and many of them turned out to be things I couldn’t imagine living without. Like “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” to name just a few of the most obvious. He also figured out that his wife and her cousin were enormously talented, and that pushing them into show business could make them all wealthier than they ever dreamed, which is great for us now because we have hundreds of recordings to enjoy.

But, he did this on the backs of the people who gave him the songs. Nothing in this documentary mentioned payment for them, merely his untiring search for more material. And, there was a black man who helped him, shown briefly in the documentary, but I can’t remember his name precisely because that guy never got any credit (and presumably no royalties) for his role in the act. On top of this, he didn’t make Sarah, his wife, happy.

The story of the documentary was from A.P.’s point of view, and it attempted to portray him as a visionary determined to succeed, while throwing in some tragedy at the end when his very success was achieved at the cost of his happiness. (Along side this, there was the ironic tale of the Carters being bumped from the cover of Life magazine, the most widely read weekly in the country at the time, by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, thus preventing further musical dominance for the group.) I’m sorry, but I don’t know that A.P. Carter was driven by much more than an interest in making some money without having to work too hard. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I don’t buy his interest in preserving his family legacy, which seemed to be the implication of this program.

Sarah’s voice and Maybelle’s guitar were the strokes of genius in the Carter Family. A.P. Carter was responsible for giving them songs and giving us the records. The legacy has been huge – much of country music was built on the Carter bedrock. I’d have liked to get more insight into why that legacy happened, what was it that made the Carters songs get preserved, while most of their contemporaries have faded into the dust? Oh, and as always, I’d like to hear more full-length performances without talking over them. Admittedly, the original Carters weren’t filmed together, but the live material that was shown – including a rare 1960s reunion between Sarah and Maybelle – should have been given to us in its entirety. Maybe they could have sacrificed the talking head who pointed out that “A.P. needed music probably the same way he needed air to breathe.” That’s the kind of line that makes it into too many documentaries about music.

I’m glad there’s some attention being paid to these old records again on account of this show, though. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have seen this. The Carter Family’s music is absolutely glorious, and this documentary only hinted at that fact.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Twisty said...

AP Carter was, like so many super-revered music dudes (Chuck, Ike, James Brown, et al), a prick.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Oh, great, thought-provoking stuff! It reminds me that you should see Robert Gordon's documentary about Jack Clement, if only for the moment when Johnny Cash lays down on A.P. Carter's grave "to have a smoke with him."

6:44 PM  

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