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The Carter family: pioneer country music singers

When the Carter Family made their first country music recordings for Victor Records, in 1927, they created a musical style that persists to this day.

Nestled in the shadow of Clinch Mountain, in the crossroads hamlet of Maces Spring, Virginia, sits one of the most rustic concert theaters in the world. It is made of rough-cut lumber with sides that swing open on hinges to admit summer breezes. In winter, the entire building is heated by wood and coal-fed iron stoves. The seating is a medley of old chairs taken from abandoned theaters, and discarded church pews. Carpeting consists of remnants and sample squares, in an infinite variety of colors and designs. It looks like the entire building was thrown together from a jumble of second thoughts.

Beside the theater is a tiny white clapboard building surrounded by spreading trees. Inside are stacks of ancient 78 rpm phonograph records, thousands of faded pictures and dozens of dogeared scrapbooks. Clothing is sealed behind glass wall cases -- the expensive dress worn by June Carter Cash on a visit to Jimmy Carter s White House and a dress suit worn by her husband, Johnny, on the same night. In stark contrast is a pair of ragged britches with broken suspenders that are attached to the waistband with a rusty nail.

The little museum was once a general store and it s proprietor was one of the true legends of country music -- A.P. Carter. He opened his business in the 1940s simply because he wanted something to do. A.P. was also the threadbare owner of the pants with the broken suspenders.

The theater and museum, now called the Carter Fold, are operated by A.P. s daughter and son, Jeanette and Joe. Although Joe designed and built the theater, Jeanette is the prime mover behind the Fold. She wanted to build a living memorial to her father, her mother Sara, and her Aunt Maybelle -- members of the first modern country singing group.

The Carter Family was not the first country music group and certainly not the first to make records. But the Carter Family, according to some scholars, heralded the beginning of modern country music -- a major break from the string bands that had recorded up to that time.

Ralph Peer (first working for Okeh Records, then for Victor) had been recording so-called hillbilly groups for five years, mostly around Atlanta. But in 1927, he decided to take his recording equipment to Bristol, Tennessee on a talent search. To flush local singers out of the hills he advertised in local newspapers that he would audition all comers. About three dozen singers and groups answered the call, including the Carters and another country legend-to-be, Jimmie Rodgers.

The Carters had already been singing in local churches, schoolhouses and auditoriums for years. On a hot July day the Carter Family recorded six of their songs for Peer including The Wandering Boy and Single Girl, Married Girl . The records sold well and Victor offered the Carters a long term contract.

Over the next 15 years. the Carters cut over 300 sides for nearly every major record company in the business. Sara, A.P. s wife, sang lead and played the autoharp. Maybelle, a tiny woman who had married A.P. s brother Ezra, sang harmony and played a jazz-style guitar that was almost as big as she was. A.P. sang bass.

A.P. constantly searched out new material for the group. He would disappear for days, roaming the Virginia mountains, seeking new songs. Then he would arrange each new song to his family s style and copyright it -- even the folk songs. This is why his name appears on songs that he could not have possibly written -- Wildwood Flower or Wreck of the Old 97 . But he did pen new songs of his own like My Clinch Mountain Home and The Cyclone At Rye Cove .

Throughout their recording career, the Carter Family never changed their musical style. Rising stars like Roy Acuff and Gene Autry modernized Carter material but the Carter Family remained the same, thereby losing ground to new performers. The first modern country singers were standing stone still while the rest of the world passed them by.

On top of all this, A.P. and Sara separated in 1932 (they divorced seven years later) and Maybelle and her husband had moved to Washington, D.C. The trio seldom saw each other except at recording sessions. The Carter Family was definitely on the downswing by the late 30s.

The group s popularity was temporarily revitalized when they signed a contract with powerful radio station XERF in Del Rio, Texas. The increased exposure gave the Carters a brief surge in popularity. The group continued to record until 1943 when Sara decided to retire and move to California with her new husband. Maybelle, in the meantime, joined her three daughters and began making records on her own. A.P., who could not hold his own as a solo act, retired to Maces Spring and opened his general store.

In 1952, A.P. and Sara, along with their grown children Jeanette and Joe, reformed the Carter Family to record about 100 songs for Acme Records of Kentucky, but the project failed. The act broke up for a second time in 1956.

When A.P. Carter died in 1960, several record companies including Columbia and RCA Victor reissued LP collections of the original Carter Family sides. New interest in the group surfaced and scholars began looking seriously at their contribution to country music. In the meantime, a new generation of warblers -- Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Doc Watson among them -- began issuing their own versions of Carter Family songs.

Now on Saturday nights, hundreds of fans crowd the Carter Fold in Maces Spring to celebrate not only A.P., Sara and Maybelle, but traditional performances of country music as well. Both Joe and Jeanette participate in the concerts, and Carter memorabilia and records are sold in front of the stage each night.

The Carter Family made comparatively little money during their career because A.P. insisted on playing smaller dates. And, after 1932, the family was hardly together except for recording sessions. Even though most of their records sold well, royalties were low and the records seldom made them much money.

When A.P. returned to Virginia for the last time, there was barely enough money left to pay the bills and he was forced to live with Jeanette and her husband. Perhaps, if he had been willing to change a bit more with the times, he would have been able to afford new pair of suspenders in his old age instead of having to hold up his britches with a rusty nail.

On Raga Charukeshi

Some weeks ago there was a request on the Usenet newsgroup, rec.music.indian.classical, for details on Raga Charukeshi, a relatively recent import into Hindustani music from the Carnatic paramparA. This abstract is filed in response to that query. The discussion will be short and fast and our treatment wholly confined to the manner in which the scale is treated in the Hindustani system. Since the rAga is a fairly recent entrant it is still in a state of gestation in the Hindustani mind. Which means there is no one dominant interpretation. Four different viewpoints will be considered to initiate the exercise of drawing out points of convergence and divergence in the respective melodic behaviours. I intend to remark only on a few highlights; the remainder of the work is left to the excited, agile reader to figure out.

A serious comparative study of the treatment of common congruent scales in the Hindustani and Carnatic systems is highly desirable and remains to be done. The very few attempts hitherto, when they have not been undertaken by the thoroughly incompetent, have been at the mercy of the utterly unremarkable.

Raga Charukeshi is a janya of the 26th melakartA of the same name with the following set (M =shuddha madhyam): S R G M P d n.

Faced with a 'new' scale set, there are several ways to go about constructing a rAga. The Hindustani instinct is to view the constituent poorvAnga and uttarAnga portions of the scale in terms of familiar entities. Thus, for instance, the poorvAnga cluster, S R G M, suggests itself as a staging ground for Nat-like behaviour. That would entail positing a powerful madhyam with concomitant dilution of the value of gandhAr (eg. Jha). An alternative is to advance the gandhAr to evolve a different svaroopa (eg. Ravi Shankar, Vijay Raghav Rao et al). Similarly, the uttarAnga opportunities immediately sought by the Hindustani mind are Asavari (and through it, Darbari-like behaviour) and Bhairavi. The strength and importance of the dhaivat (nyAsa swara) seems to have been appreciated by all. The vault in avarohi sangatis - S, (n')d' - brings in a fleeting AvirbhAva of Darbari but since the full Darbari machinery is not employed the promise remains unfulfilled. Bridging the poorvAnga-uttarAnga interface is yet another familiar phrase fruitfully exploited: the definitive Bhairav cluster - G M d, d, P. These are some of the favoured lakshaNAs to look for in the Hindustani accounts of Charukeshi.

We have here an especially fortunate set of clips that provide us a snapshot of the rAga's evolution as the scale passes through the creative filters of two great vAggeyakArAs and Amir Khan. A clip of Vijay Raghav Rao ropes in Ravi Shankar's interpretation of the rAga. But first, we warm up to the scale through a sequence of 'light' compositions in this quick run-up.

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