Tag Archives: Carter Family

It Still Moves by Amanda Petrusich

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Published by Faber & Faber in 2008, It Still Moves is one part road trip dairy, one part cultural study, and one part musicological thesis.  The author Amanda Petrusich a contributing writer for Pitchfork.com and tons of other music publications.  She has also written one other book:  Pink Moon (about the classic Nick Drake album of the same name) as a part of the 33 1/3 series by Continuum Books.  I found her writing to be well thought out, organized, and meticulously researched.  She uses a well planned road trip to a string of important musical destinations as a vehicle to parcel the more historical/factual info in as a story.   The travel portion of the book does come off as a little forced at times, as she very obviously tried to make the best of a few of the less than inspirational experiences at a few of the featured locations.  Overall the book does a wonderful job at delivering a full/wide view of American Music, hitting all the cornerstones of what “Americana” is thought of, including The Blues, Country, Folk, and the more recent interpretations and combinations of the those styles.

The book is composed of 17 parts including an introduction and epilogue.

Here is a rough guide to what they cover:

  • Intro – Just that, acts to identify what the book is going to try to accomplish which is mainly to discover just what “Americana” is.
  • Chapter 1 – Examination of the American Highway, and how that relates to American music.
  • Chapter 2 – Focuses on the history of the Blues kicked off with a visit to Beale Street in Memphis Tennessee.
  • Chapter 3 – Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the birth of Rock N Roll also in Memphis.
  • Chapter 4 – Elvis Presley and his impact on popular music with a visit to Graceland.
  • Chapter 5 – Further examination of the Blues through travels to Clarksdale Mississippi.
  • Chapter 6 – Country music by way of Nashville Tennessee.
  • Chapter 7 – Alternative Country
  • Chapter 8 – Continued travels through Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Chapter 9 – Minstrel shows and early radio.
  • Chapter 10 – Appalachian folk music, The Carter Family, and early Country music.
  • Chapter 11 – Americana by way of Cracker Barrel.
  • Chapter 12 – John Lomax, Leadbelly, Moses Asch, and Folkways Records.
  • Chapter 13 – Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Smithsonian Folkways.
  • Chapter 14 – Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and the Folk revival of the 1960s.
  • Chapter 15 – Independent Folk.
  • Epilogue – Continued ruminations on the definition of Americana.

The driving question here is “What is Americana?”, which I think is an important one to ask.   Although I’m not sure the book fully answers it, then again I’m not sure any book can or should try.  Americana, at least when it relates to music, is just one of those terms that is too complicated to define.  Whenever you are trying to precisely define a label that is used as a shortcut to describe an art form you inevitably will get your self into trouble.  It is a journal full of pitfalls, contradictions,  and personal opinion.  Although I personally often fall back on the genre/sub-genre/style labels in my writing, I try not to be restrictive with my labels when setting something in stone.  Take Neil Young for instance, can you really say he is strictly a “country-rock” artist?  If you do, you are completely omitting all of his work that does not exactly fit into that label.  I prefer to keep it simple and classify things in general terms like Pop/Rock.

Just for fun here is a link to the Webster Dictionary definition of Americana.

I would also like to offer a playlist of music that is directly mentioned in the book or inspired by the books subject.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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What a great film.  The Cohen Brothers at their best in my opinion.  It’s a wonderfully clever retelling of Homer’s Iliad in the style of a 3 Stooges movie set in an alternate universe during a time period much like Depression/Dust Bowl era America.  But as this is not a film blog, I digress and transition into talking about one of the films main tools used in transporting the viewer into the past.  That being music of course.

Now there is the obvious – the soundtrack is pretty damn good.  A fact that is indisputably evident by its critical and commercial success; it’s a little polished for my taste but I really dig the spirit of the project.  The film’s music was written/produced/selected by T-Bone Burnett, who is best known for producing a bunch of pretty successful records by artists most would recognize, but is also a folk revival focused singer/songwriter who has released a few solo records.  T-Bone did a great job transporting us into the past while still keeping the sound fresh.  He did this by re-recording quite a few folk classics by current artists; for example you’ve got an artist like Chris Thomas King doing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” which was originally written and recorded by Delta Blues Legend Skip James.  There is a few songs that are included in their original versions on the soundtrack, most notably Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from 1939.

Personally, the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of the film is how they interweave the folklore and history that surrounds the music into the movie.  Here are a few examples.

In the film real life singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King plays a character by the name of Tommy Johnson who is on the run from the law and had just sold his soul to the devil on at the crossroads.  Sound familiar?..  Yes, its just the devilishly clever Cohens working in that old blues fable about the quintessential Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson into their film.

During a political event in the film there is a musical act identified as The Brightsiders, singing “Keep On The Sunny Side”.  The group is made up of 2 women and 1 man and is later joined by 3 girls for the song “In The Highways”.  Both tunes are songs by the Carter Family for which the film is so obviously making tribute.

Lastly, I’d like to point out the interesting amalgamation which makes up the character know in the film as Pappy O’daniel.  In the film he is the host of a radio show entitled “Pappy O’daniel’s Flour Hour” which is a reference to a more recent radio program called King Biscuit Flower Hour.  KBFH is based on the original old timey blues radio program called King Biscuit Time which started in 1941 and continues today on WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.  In the film the character is the Governor of Mississippi, and turns out to be loosely based two different real life radio personality/politicians:  Texas Governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’daniel and former Louisiana Governer Jimmie Davis.

Besides the soundtrack, for those that are interested there are a bunch of cash-in projects that came out shortly after the movie and soundtrack became such a hit.  Among those is a live concert featuring the same artists called Down From The Mountain.  Also there are a few compilations featuring selections from female Bluegrass musicians called O Sister! and a few budget imports CD compilations that compile the songs in their original incarnations.

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The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (DVD)

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This is the one and only documentary that I could find on The Carter Family.  Produced as part of the American Experience series on PBS in 2005, it is a 1 hour straight forward chronological document of the history of the original Carter Family narrated by actor Robert Duvall.  The film leans heavily on interviews with writers, family members, and other famous musicians (including Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, Joan Baez, and Rodney Crowell.)  You will also see archival footage and photos spiced up with the “Ken Burns Style” pan and zoom technique.  The film also throws in filmed reenactments which thankfully are done tastefully and are hardly noticeable.  Definitely a great introduction to Country Music’s first family.

I picked up a bunch of great nuggets of music knowledge… here is a few tidbits to wet your appetite.

  • The “Original Carter Family” is made up of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and A.P.’s sister in law Maybelle (later would include some of Maybelle’s daughters).  The film does not cover the second incarnation of the Carter Family which featured just Maybelle and her daughters.
  • Sara and A.P. married in 1915 but didn’t start recording until they were discovered by a Victor Records representative by the name of Ralph Peer in 1927.
  • When A.P. discovered he could make money recording and copywriting songs began to travel door to door all over the rural south collecting the peoples songs and then re-arranged them.  Not necessary the most honest way to make a living when you look at it, but I guess if he hadn’t done it, a lot of America’s early folk music would be lost.
  • The Carter Family recorded and performed roughly from 1927 to 1943 and became widely known and popular across America.  Their public image was of a solid wholesome family unit, when in reality Sara and A.P. had been having marital troubles ever since the mid twenties.  In 1936 unbeknownst to their fans they separated but continued to perform together.  In 1943 Sara filed for divorce which also split up the original lineup.

Go to the American Experience – Carter Family website to see info on the film and take advantage of web extras.

Here is a few tracks from The Carter Family for your listening pleasure (if you don’t see the embedded playlist, follow this link.)

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