Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Winding Stream," a new documentary on The Carter Family

The Carter Family: Maybelle, A.P., and Sara

Oh give to me a winding stream

It must not be too wide

Where waving leaves from maple trees

Do meet from either side

The water must be deep enough

to float a small canoe

With no one else but you

Do not disturb my waking dream

the splendor of that winding stream

Flower in my canoe, his eyes

they looked me through

That someone there with golden hair

is very much like you

The "winding stream" of country music has at it source the Carter family of Maces Springs, Virginia: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister Maybelle. They recorded their first 78 rpm record at an audition in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, then traveled to Camden, NJ in 1928 for the Victor Talking Machine company. Their songs were released just at the time when radio was becoming the popular entertainment medium, and The Carter Family became the first stars of what became known as country music: by 1931 they had sold an astonishing 300,000 records in the U.S.

The popularity of the Carter family name is stronger than ever, thanks to the efforts of many musicians who have revived the tradition and kept it alive. The music of succeeding family members themselves has shown an amazing versatility: Johnny and June Carter Cash, Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash all carried on in the family tradition, each with a unique approach to country music.

Beth Harrington's documentary, The Winding Stream, recounts the Carter Family story in interviews and film clips, photographs and fond memories: Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and others re-live the Carter story and perform songs that have become part of the music's legend: "Wildwood Flower," "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," "Keep on the Sunny Side" -- all songs that A.P., Sara and Maybelle recorded for Victor in their first Camden studio session in 1928.

What made these songs unique, as Harrington writes, wasn't that the Carters simply recreated existing tunes. A.P. Carter was a song composer as well as a collector, and his ability to craft new tunes from old country melodies caught the public imagination. Along with Maybelle's featured guitar-playing (its simplicity and sound were rarely heard on records at the time) and Sara's "eerie Gothic" vocals, the music was a new sound available to everyone with a Victrola 78-rpm phonograph machine in their home.

Very quickly, the Carters became a sensation. The family's songs of longing and loss, love and hope were a new twist on old themes that would inspire others like Jimmie Rodgers and then Hank Williams, whose own songs made country music a staple on radio stations across the country.

The Winding Stream documentary -- its name is taken from a song written by A.P. in 1930 -- traces this history not just for country music fans but for a wider audience, who may not recognize the Carters' impact on folk and rock music as well. Carter Family songs have been covered in an array of styles from Dylan to Jeff Buckley, The Black Crowes to John Lee Hooker (both the Crowes and Hooker have performed "Can the Circle Be Unbroken" -- a fact that A.P. himself would likely find amusing, if a bit too loud for his ears).

Beth Harrington

Beth Harrington's previous documentaries cover an array of topics, several created for Oregon Public Broadcasting: Beervana is a light-hearted look at Oregon's craft-brewed beer industry. Blinking Madonna is a study of a Boston-area group of Catholics who see a statue of the Virgin Mary blink its eyes, and the ensuing press coverage that follows. The Grammy-nominated Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly (2003) features Wanda Jackson, whose new 2011 album was produced by Jack White of the White Stripes.

The Winding Stream 90-minute documentary is still in need of money to complete the project. In January a successful Kickstarter benefit went a good way to raise funding. The Winding Stream website includes current updates on the documentary as well a link where contributions can be made through Paypal or by mail to the fiscal sponsor, Center for Independent Documentary, 680 South Main Street. Sharon, MA 02067.

A few sources on Carter Family members and extended family are available for readers interested in learning more. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg tells a thorough history of the Original Carter Family in anecdotes and research, with no hiding the fact that the family had many problems that underlay the popularity of the music, from divorce and love affairs to Johnny Cash's battle with alcohol and drugs. Yet it's a testament to the longevity of the music that these stories (some told for the first time) make the Carter family history one that resonates with many of its fans.

Most recently, Rosanne Cash's 2010 memoir Composed is her own story of becoming a songwriter. Self-described as a "pudgy, withdrawn girl .. a counterfeit with a strange, hidden life," the young Rosanne is afraid of being compared to her famous father, Johnny Cash. She travels to Munich to record her own demo songs, and her coming-of-age story is a new telling of the Cash family story (she is the daughter of Cash's first wife, Vivian) from a perspective that is poignant, loving, and sometimes heart-breaking.

No comments: