Story of the Song #2: ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’
“I was standing by my window, on a cold and cloudy day, when I saw that hearse come rolling, for to carry my mother away.”
When folk musician A.P. Carter rewrote lyrics written for English Christian hymnist Ada R. Habershon’s 1907 gospel song ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ for his traditional American music group The Carter Family almost thirty years later, little did he know he was enabling the song’s journey to immortality. Building upon the same musical structure and melody as the original, a melody composed by Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, Carter reworked the lyrics to reflect the singer’s feelings towards the death of his or her mother. In doing so, he changed the emotional depth of the song from one of ambiguity to something more personal and profound.
BUSY BEING BORN
Ada R. Habershon’s initial lyric was infused with a Christian morality almost certainly inherited from the thousands of gospel songs she’s said to have previously written in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “When you close your earthly story, will you join them in their bliss,” is the question she asked of her listeners in the broadside’s first verse. Sheet music for the hymn first started to appear in print around 1908 and the tune soon became a standard used in congregational gatherings when something uplifting was required and quickly became the revival favourite it still is to this day.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
In whatever form the song has taken over the years (hymn, country classic, folk favourite, trad. arr. tune), ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ remains a gospel lament. True, the original lyrics also held a soft focus on grieving, but it was A.P and The Carter Family who put that grieving centre stage. The resonance achieved in The Carter’s retitled ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)’ in 1935 is due in no small part to song writing’s greatest magic trick: using plain language to place an ache in the middle of a memorable melody.
Once Virginia-born Alvin Pleasant Carter located the lonesome whistle of the original and gave the story its universal truth with that unflinching first verse, country music followers were hooked. Of course, the verses A.P. wrote continued to pile on the misery, the song’s funereal tale talking of “slow processions”, grave sites and singing hymns that the singer’s late mother taught… but the hurt is always followed with the promise of that “better home awaiting in the sky”.
It wasn’t just country music’s first family who located the ache of the famous song, however. They got their first, but bluegrass big-bangers Bill and Charlie Monroe followed very quickly in 1936 – before such diverse Americana pioneers as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joan Baez, The Neville Brothers, The Staples Singers, Bob Dylan & The Band and The Allman Brothers all recorded or played live versions in the decades that followed.
Modern day country heroes have brought the song into the new Millennium and it continues to show up in the set-lists of roots performers across the world. Got an awards ceremony that needs closing with a rousing sing-along? Then ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ is what you’re looking for. Our favourite latter-day ensemble version took place during a concert in New York City to celebrate the release of The Cohen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davies’ feature film. 2013’s ‘Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a must-see concert film for any roots music lovers, highlighted by Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings and The Punch Brothers awe-inspiring take…
DID YOU KNOW?
The song has always been part of Johnny Cash’s repertoire, but it took on new meaning for him and his touring family when he married June Carter, daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter (A.P. Carter’s sister-in-law), in 1968. Cash had always infused his recordings and concerts with gospel music and continued to release so-called sacred albums throughout his career.
However, once June Carter-Cash joined the show, the song took on new verve and meaning and, despite always being a Nashville outsider, Cash relished his new role within country music’s first family. A new last verse even started appearing during his in-concert performances: “We sang the songs of childhood, hymns of faith that made us strong, ones that mother Maybelle taught us, hear the angels sing along.” Watch Johnny, June, Pops Staples and more turn the tune into a Cash classic live on ‘Later… with Jools Holland’ back in 1994…
Read Story of the Song #1: ‘In The Pines’ here.