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I REMEMBER THE CARTER FAMILY BY JUNE CARTER
One of the first memories of my life was a magic box that had four very tall legs which made the box about one inch out of my reach. The box was very shiny with a piece of beautiful silk material across the front, but the thing that made a tiny, little girl stay glued to the front of it was that it played beautiful music; sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow, but the voices were the same, and the sound the same. I just couldn't understand how my mother could be in that little magic box, playing the guitar and singing with Uncle "Doc", and and Aunt Sara. All you had to do was crank the box and there they were. I always knew that they were just behind the sillk material, and that by now they were tiny little people, and I wanted to yank off the material, reach in, take my mother in my hand and rescue her from having to sing everytime someone turned the crank.
This was the way I remember hearing "The Carter Family". It was quite a while before my grandma Carter, Mollie Carter, could make me believe that the magic box was a phonograph and that was only a record that played behind the silk material. I listened to the songs that they sang and sometimes cried abou the "Fate Of Dewey Lee," or the "Cyclone Of Rycove." But the next minute I'd laugh about "The Little Shod Shanty" or over the "Garden Wall."
My life was a mixture of pickin' up kindlin', bright shiny fox fire in the woods, good pure spring water, going to milk the cow, wormin' tobacco, howing [sic] corn, pickin' huckleberrys, finding a good tea berry in the summer time or an apple that wasn't shriveled in the winter time, gathering hickory nuts, having a penny left over from the eggs at the store, riding in the back of Uncle Ermin's wagon, walking across the "knob" or listening to my mother play the guitar.
The sound of civilization was the whistle of the freight train that ran down the middle of Poor Valley. Society with its taxes, worries, wars were outside the valley. The worry of every God-fearing person in the valley, was only that death was certain and the fear of the devil was the worst worry. At five, we went to Mount Vernon Church. even today, it looks like something out of a story book. It stands high on a hill nestled in tall majestic pine trees, and when I visit there, I still hear in my memory the voice of my grandmother, the high falsetto that seemed three times louder than the choir ringing out "The Land Of THe Uncloudy Day," which demanded that you go to church, honor your elders, that you pray on your knees, and that God would bless you.
To Bob and Mollie Carter were born eight children. The eldest of these, Alvin Pleasant, "Uncle Doc" as he was known to us. He was a tall dominant man, he walked a lot, he sang when he took the notion, he ran sawmills, he collected songs, he gave you candy, he drove a car that always had flat tires, he was a Aunt Sara;s [sic] husband, he was kind, he laughed to himself a lot, walked the railroad track (defying everything my mother said) carried patchin' in his pockets and he wrote songs. Today behing Mount Vernon Church, there is a simple rose marble stone, in the center a gold record reads "A.P. Carter...Keep On The Sunny Side."
The Carter children, Jim, Grant, Ermine, Ezra J., my father, twin Virgie, Etta and Aunt Sylvia were indeed some of the kindest gentlest people who have ever lived in or near Maces Springs, Virginia. There were all born in a log cabin in what is known as Little Valley. This valley is now the home of my Uncle Ermine and Aunt Ora. There's always country ham there, pork tenderloin, sorghum molasses, and all the good things that raised the Carter Family.
Around 1914 my Uncle Doc took a trip to the other side of Clinch Mountain, to the world of Copper Creek, Old Muddy Mossican and Addington Frame. There live the Kilgores, Doughertys, McConnells and Addingtons. This is a land of small streams, limestone rocks, rolling hills, big two story English homes, wooden rail fences, cisterns, cellars full of cabbages and potatoes and lots of good English and Irish people. This was the home of my mother, Maybelle Addington, and her first cousin, Sara Dougherty. My mother was one of ten children born to Margaret and Hugh Jack Addington. They ran a rollin' mill and operated a general store. Sara Dougherty was raised by my aunt "Nick," and Uncle Mill Nicholas. Her mother died when she was small. To the best of my knowledge she married my Uncle "Doc", June 19, 1915 and moved back to Maces Springs. The Addington family is English originating in London. Mother is a direct descendent of William Addington, born in London, 1750 locating first to Culpepper County in 1774 was appointed commissary to General Washington during the war between Great Britain and the colonies. He was present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and settled on Clinch River with 12 other families around 1782.
The land was good with deer, bear and wild turkey in abundance. My mother's great great grandfather and family came to south western Virginia, along with the Kilgores, from which my grandmother descended. I mention all of this, because with the Doughertys, Kilgores, and Addingtons, came many an English and Irish ballad which was later sung by the Carter Family. The line of Addingtons remaining in England, produced one Henry Addington who in 1800 became Premier of England.
My Uncle "Doc" and Aunt Sara had three children, Gladys, Jeanette and Joe. Aunt Sara was a woman hard to explain. She was tall, buxom, blackeyed, and always beautiful. She was a thoroughbred. She sang in a very low, almost male sounding voice, and she sang a lot because she loved it so.
Sometimes times were good, sometimes they were hard, and Uncle Doc sold his fruit trees, wrote his songs and went away for weeks collecting songs and the sunnyside wasn't always sunny. In March of 1926 my father crossed the mountain and brought back my little blue eyed mother as his wife. She could play the guitar and the banjo because there was always a lot of dances on the other side of the mountain and she sometimes played with her brothers until dawn. I guess it just had to happen that mother and her guitar, and Aunt Sara with her autoharp should just start to sing together.
So the Carter Family as a singing group started to sing on front porches in very small living rooms, at church and ice cream suppers. Uncle Doc heard that someone in Bristol, Virginia was offering to record singers if they had songs and could sing. So A.P., Sara and Maybelle met Ralph S. Peer who recorded the first Carter Fmaily record on August 1, 1927. The first two sides being "The Weeping Willow Tree" and "Single Girl, Married Girl." There was only one take to the side, as the masters were cut in wax, and mother said it was unheard of that you had to cut away several inches of wax for "another take." Something about my mother, my kind gentle little blue eyed mother, who cut her first record at 17 the later part of August, and gave birth to my sister Helen on Sept. 12 in a one room log cabin with a leanto kitchen, without the aid of even an aspirin tablet or the help of a doctor. Helen's birth certificate reads, Attending physician, Mollie Carter, midwife.
Several recordings later, on June 23, 1929 a little farther around the mountain in a new house built for my mother, by my fahter, rang out a mighty squawl. From the hand of my grandmother, Mollie Carter hung a wrinkled red faced, big mouthed little baby girl. Birth certificate read, "Valerie June Carter...Health...Good".
On March 31, 1933 mother was afforded the luxury of an aspirin tablet. A little farther around the mountain in another house yet, with the help of grandma and Dr. Meade from Mendota, my mother fought for her life to give birth to my youngest sister, Anita. Helen and I had been sent away for the night and in the morning we came home to find a mighty fat 10 and one half pound baby girl. Everyone worried about mother for awhile, her lips were blue, and she was pale like chalk. And daddy didn't go anywhere, but Anita cried and got fatter by the hour. It was from this time on that I remember little things about the Carter Family.
The house of A.P. and Sara Carter by this time was not the happiest house in the valley. Uncle "Doc" booked the school houses all through Virginia, North and South Carolina, West Viriginia and Kentucky and the Carter Family played the old stages without the benefit of sound. I remember the concerts as if they were yesterday. The old coal oil lamps lined the front of the stage, and the stage was set with just two chairs. All the songs that they sang had a reason. A.P. Carter became A.P. Carter to me after I saw their first show. It was somewhere in North Carolina, and I felt very small. My mother and Aunt Sara sat down in the two chairs, mother with her guitar and Aunt Sara with her autoharp. A.P. stood alone. He walked slow stood with his eyes just over you, and demanded your attention without saying one word. You could hear a pin drop. They sang the songs of the "Wabash Cannon Ball," "Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes," "The Worried Man Blues," "Jimmy Brown The News Boy," "Homestead on the Farm," "Wildwood Flower," and "You Are My Flower," "Jealous Hearted Me," and "On The Rock Where Moses Stood."
A.P. told a story with every song, why it was written, where it came from or the reason for its being. He talked with authority and he knew what he was saying. They sang of love, of their love for the mountains and Virginia, war songs, slave songs, songs from the coal fields, and the old gospel story songs such as "Little Moses."
These people on the stage must surely be someone, not just Mommie, and Uncle Doc and Aunt Sara. My sister Helen could sing. And she could play the guitar. She could sing high, low, or even harmony, with cousin Jeanette. She could play lead on the guitar. She was the most marvelous thing I'd ever seen, and tiny little Anita, you wouldn't have believed her, she could reach F above high C, she was beautiful, she had Shirley Temple curls, and she could reach her highest notes best with the help of a healthy pinch which she planted on Helen or myself depending on who was nearest at the time. She was something else. She was a spoiled brat. Luckily, she was destined to not remain this way.
I had really accomplished a lot for myself at this time. I had never opened my mouth to sing one word, but I had dammed up the little creek behind our house, I had five tadpoles with tails and legs, several good crawfish, and I could move my stomach anywhere I wanted it to go. I had full control over my stomach, I really did. I carried a gravel flipper in my hind pocket, was pretty good with a twenty two, had ridden upsidedown in an open cockpit plane, with my father, could hang on like a leach to his belt behind him on his motorcylce, had survived a twenty foot leap through the elements into a not too soft cornfield, leaving one slightly bruised father, and one rather broken motorcycle.
And my father, that's a story. He is a man God surely has put his hand on. He knows the secret. He has the ability to read a book from cover to cover without putting it down. He devours books, he is a walking encyclopedia. I remember that he walked twelve miles a day to get his education, and he is still studying. He is an ardent student of the Bible and sometimes puts lectures down on tape. As far as I know, they've never gotten out of his living room. When I was a little girl he was always catching the train going to Washington, he had a Civil Service job, he was a railway mail clerk. There wasn't much money in the valley at the time, but he always managed to have some project going to pay out his salary to the fathers of needy families. We had a grist mill and gave away many a bushel of meal. No one ever went away hungry. We had no TVA then, so daddy put in a small power plant behind our house so we could have electricity. The dam would overflow and a candle would have been brighter, but he rememdied that in no time flat. He dammed up the Holston River. He gave away electricity, he built a road to the top of the mountain. We didn't have much money, but you could see good at our house.
In contrast to the folk songs my mother sang, she played classical music by the hour. If you happened to drive through the valley on a Sunday afternoon, you were blessed with the sound of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky blasting away from the big white house with the box woods, and tall spruce pines, that hugged the side of Clinch Mountain. This was my home until I was 17, with a few interludes of pickin' and singing around the country. I used to think that that tall house could cure all heartaches, or hurts that life had to offer, and that just a walk to daddy's mountain place put me near enough to God that sun would never touch me.
But down in the valley, things weren't so good at A.P. And Sara's house. They were separated, but they continued to sing together and work together. As far as I can remember it was the first separation that ever occurred in the valley so we never talked about it. Their songs seemed to mean more, and their records sold more, and more but they were both good people and life went on.
The Carter Family worked just what they needed to work, and refused to go on the road and stay there. But in 1938, they left the valley, and went to work in Del Rio, Texas. And so began a new way of life for simple mountain people. In time I even gave up my gravel flipper.
The early years of my childgood made me "sound" in one sense of the word. I was very happy, my mother and father were very happy together, they never quarreled. I remember Maces Springs School with its pot bellied stove, walking in the snow for a mile to school with my toes stuck together from the cold, warming my hands in my hair, the horrified look on my mother's face when I came home from school with lice in my hair. All kinds of people went to that school, some with dirty faces, feet and dirty hair and fingernails. Some with biscuits and ham, some with biscuits and jam, and a few who were able to afford light bread, of all the things, and sandwich spread and then those with no bread at all or no shoes to wear in the winter time.
I loved and played with them all. Sometimes I took what they had to offer, their light bread or lice in my hair, which ever they had to offer at the time. I remember my mother putting kerosene in my hair, and I was a little more careful about gettin' things after that.
My mother was wonderful. She had her own motorcycle, she could ride it, she could do anything. She left in 1938 to go to Texas to sing on the radio. She took Anita with her, and left Helen and I in the care of Grandma Addington the unsung hero of the Carter Family, and my father's youngest sister, Aunt Sylvia.
Aunt Sylvia who traveled from one end of the country to the other with mother and Uncle A.P., when Aunt Sara wasn't there to go. She never sang on any of the original recordings but she sang many a song with the old family. She looked after us, loved us, stayed with grandma and grandpa until they died, married Uncle Hal Edwards at the age of 37 and within a year gave birth to twin boys, Bob and Jim. They live in Elkton, Kentucky. At night we'd listen to the world's largest broadcasting station from Mexico, and we'd hear the old family sing. Sometimes we could hear Anita, too. I used to wonder how she made the high notes without someone to pinch on.
The Carter Family recorded their last session for Columbia on October 14, 1941 in Chicago, Ill. In the years before they were always recording, sometimes twenty or thirty songs a day. They recorded with Jimmy Rodgers, and I remember once that mother said Jimmy was too sick to play his guitar so she played it for him. I would guess that there were around three hundred songs knows as "Carter Family songs," and some of them still unsung. The sound of the family came from the guitar, the two fingered style, of my mother or the two guitars, with Aunt Sara or the blend of the autoharp.
The story goes that a slightly inebriated Tom Pall Glazer, and Hank Thompson were in a battle of wits in Las Vegas over the greatest guitar player in the business. Tom Pall yelling Chet Atkins, and Hank Thompson the champion for Merle Travis. After much debate, a phone call was placed to Travis to settle the argument. When asked "Who's the greatest guitar player?" Travis replied, "Mother Maybelle Carter." There were no more questions.
Some people in the folk field have been very kind about the Carter Family and their contribution to folk music. Many contend that much of the basic folk songs of the century would have never been written if it had not been for the Carter Family. My sincere thanks to Dr. Ed Kahn, Mike Seeger, Lou Gotlieb, Archie Green and Bob Shelton for the kindness shown to my Aunt Sara and my mother.
Aunt Sara was divorced from A.P. in 1938 and remarried happily to Coy Bayes in 1939. They live in Angles Camp, Calif., where Coy takes care of the fair grounds. He was always good as an electrician and mechanic. They have a trailer, a camper, and a small airplace that you can taxi up to their front door. They hunt a lot but Aunt Sara nevers sings professionally anymore. Sometimes she visits us in Nashville and goes home to Virginia to visit with her children once a year. A.P. Carter never married again. They say that he loved Aunt Sara until he died on November 7, 1960.
In 1939 mother came home for Helen and I. We were to go to Texas and sing with the old family. Helen was in her glory, she could sing and she could play. Everybody just sat and looked at me. There wasn't much demand for an accomplished stomach mover on the radio, and I sure couldn't play my gravel flipper. Mother had just two weeks to do something with me. They couldn't decide what. I sang my first note with the aid of a good strong pinch from Anita, she and Helen were singing harmony all around me and I was somewhere in between, give two or three notes one way or the other. Mother threw an autoharp in my lap, put a couple of picks on my fingers and I was on my way with absolutely no talent.
I had my own clever device for detecting when I was sharp or flat or on the wrong note. Mother, Helen and Anita all three blessed with perfect pitch, could produce the most tragic looks known to man. They aimed them at me.
Within two weeks I knew 12 songs, could play the autoharp without losing my picks, had said goodbye to my crowdads, and clutching my gravel flipper said goodbye to the most contented life I was to ever know. We left Poor Valley in my mother's new Packard car, I cried a little for my cousin Fern, she was the daughter of Uncle Ermine and Aunt Ora, she was my pal with her own gravel flipper, she was my friend in the woods, we picked huckleberrys and prayed together and all I had left of her was the old gravel flipper almost the same as hers, cut from the same tree, just a small bit of Clinch Mountain to cling to. I wasn't very big, I was 10 and I was scared. It was a long way back to Mexico and the world was big, big, big...