Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gone But Not Forgotten

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?
The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music
by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg

It's interesting how musical tastes change over time. As an adolescent, I scorned any music remotely connected to country/western or bluegrass. Nasal, twangy voices were repulsive to me, as were lyrics that seemed to be all about sorrow, loss, and somebody's cheatin' heart. I still would not put country or bluegrass at the top of my list, but as a young adult I gravitated toward the hope and vision for justice found in folk music. Irish music (especially Celtic) has also appealed to me because of its intertwining of exuberance and pathos. As I got more into folk and Celtic music around two decades ago, I began to pick up on the common roots that these genres shared with some of the types of music I had previously disdained. To my surprise, threads of classical, bluegrass and country/western folk, and "mountain" music could be found interwoven in surprising and beautiful ways. While I am unlikely to purchase music by hardcore country musicians like Tammy Wynette or Slim Whitman, my music library now includes country favorites like Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and the Dixie Chicks (just to name a few).

I don't think I could go so far (yet) as to call myself a fan of the Carter family's music (too nasal, especially the original Carter family recordings), but they are musically (and personally) fascinating people. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? traces the family all the way back to their immigration into this country, bringing old Scottish and Irish melodies with them. One of the most compelling parts of the story was A.C. Carter's journeying over and over into the mountains of Appalachia going "song-hunting" for new music for him and his wife Sara and their sister-in-law Maybelle to record. Many people knew just snatches of lyrics or tunes, and these fragments later became full songs in their own right, with the gaps filled in by A.C. Carter or someone like him. There is no way to know how much music they preserved and rescued from obscurity. The Carter family also is to be commended for their tenacity in scratching out a living from music during the Depression and being a voice to express the heartache and uncertainty with which so many people were living.

Furthermore, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is an interesting story. I find people and their lives endlessly captivating, and Zwonitzer has done a good job in balancing the history of the music industry with vignettes about the Carter family's relationships and lives. What has stuck with me the most about the book, though, is this passing of music from generation to generation, with new twists along the way and offshoots into genres that seem totally new but really are old riffs and styles coupled with innovations that keep the music alive and appealing to new generations of listeners. It is not unlike the way our faith traditions are practiced - we hang onto the basics, but styles and practices evolve according to the times. Even as we embrace change, though, we celebrate our common roots and appreciate the past. We celebrate and give thanks for those who have made us who we are.

So, for anyone who loves just about any kind of music, the Carters have contributed to your listening pleasure. Whether we realize it or not, we do miss them, but their talent lives on in those they inspired. Hopefully that will remain true for a long, long time.

Reverent Reader


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