Maybelle Carter, In the Highways Workin’ for her Lord

Last time, I wrote about the Carter family and promised I would write more specifically about Maybelle this time.  Here goes:  The Carters became famous because they brought traditional music of the backroads of Appalachia to the rest of America.  Though her brother in law A.P. Carter gets most of the publicity and credit, Maybelle was the rock that kept their group and their music going for so long.   Maybelle Addington was born in 1909 in the mountain town of Midway, Virginia, a mile away from cousin Sara. She couldn’t read music, but she learned to play old songs on the guitar and autoharp by ear.   She took songs of her childhood and made her own tunes.  This was a boon to the family as generally, most singing had been unaccompanied.  Maybelle’s technique was fluid and rhythmic and went well with the country singing.  Uninhibited by any formal lessons, she developed a distinctive style known as the “Carter scratch” where she used her thumb to play melody on the bass strings and her index finger to fill out the rhythm.  For entertainment, she often attended the Holiness revivals in the area.  She would walk miles just to hear the hymns.  Cousin Sara was several years older and married A.P. Carter when Maybelle was six.  But when Maybelle matured, the two women were like sisters, and it could be heard in their music.  At age 17, Maybelle married A.P.’s younger brother, Ezra “Eck”, who had a high school education, thus qualifying him for a better job with the U.S. Postal Service.  So Maybelle didn’t have to scrape for money to live, unlike so many in the area. Eck had no problem supporting his wife’s musical career and in fact, worked for her and took care of daughters Helen, Anita and June (later to become Mrs. Johnny Cash) when she was away, sometimes for long stretches of time.  Maybelle and Eck were a devoted and apparently a happy couple.

In A.P.’s quest for music fame, he came across Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company who paid $50 plus royalties for every song he liked well enough to record.  Victor wanted to get into the growing hillbilly music field.  The collaboration worked well and brought fame to the Carter family.  Sara sang the lead vocals.  This was unusual at the time as all other groups had men sing lead.  Meanwhile, A.P. combed the countryside for more songs they could copyright and earn royalties on.   When he brought home lyrics with no tune, Sara and Maybelle would work out the melody by ear.   Their recording session in May, 1928 brought out many gems that have been covered by famous performers even to this day.  Though A.P. got them into the recording studio and onto the stage, Maybelle was the most musically creative and curious.  If she heard a tune, she’d play it, but in her own fashion.  She then sought new tunes and techniques and worked up variations of old hymns from her youthful Holiness revival years.  And of the three, she understood the needs of the audience.  When the group got an offer in 1938 to play a regular show on XERA across the Rio Grande from Del Rio Texas, Eck worked out the family arrangements.   They continued to perform there and then at other stations until 1943 when Sara left the group.  Thereafter, Maybelle and the three daughters performed as “The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle” where Maybelle was most comfortable as guitar backup for the girls. Their act always included a hymn for the day.  And for the next 30 years, Maybelle Carter made her life on the road, even to the Grand Old Opry.  Her perseverance and talents sustained the Carter Family music.  Her death in her sleep in 1978 was noted by all the major news outlets.

“In the Highways” was performed in the movie “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” by the three Peasall sisters.  I can imagine Maybelle may have been thinking of her own three daughters as performers when she composed  it.  However, she also had to have been thinking of Luke 14:23, the parable of the man sending his servant to find guests to fill his home for a fine dinner: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”  And perhaps Maybelle personified the song, saying “In the highways, in the hedges I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord.”

Who Wrote the Songs? The Carter Dilemma

One of the frustrations I have in dealing with hymns and songs is the problem of authorship.  And a significant part of this relates to the Carter family, particularly Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter (1891 – 1960).  The original Carter Family formed in 1927 with A.P., his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle.  The two women played the musical instruments and sang.  A.P. occasionally sang bass when so inspired.  But he got the group together and combed the countryside around their Virginia home looking for little known country songs they could rework into their own style.    About 300 songs are attributed to him, but it appears a good many were actually written by others.  In fact, only a few of the songs with his name were actually written by him.    Instead, he collected old songs in the public domain and claimed composer credit so they could get the royalty payments.  Thus, both music publishers and artists got the extra money.  This was common in the early days of recording since there was little money from purely public domain songs.  Once the traditional songs were used up, publishers clamored for more original works.

A prime example of this is Ada Blenkhorn’s “Keep On the Sunny Side”.  More than once I have come across an attribution of this classic to A.P.  In fact, Blenkhorn, whom I featured in my book, Sisters in Song, wrote the lyrics in 1899 and J. Howard Entwisle wrote the music. It was copyrighted at that time.  It takes little effort to get this public domain sheet music on the internet and from the 1903 songbook, Devotional Songs.  Copyrights lasted 28 years then and could be renewed.  I assume it wasn’t renewed, because by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, the 28 years had lapsed.  A.P.’s uncle, Laish Carter, who was a music teacher, taught it to them. I have to credit the family, however, with popularizing it.  And their performance was classic.  It became their theme song and introduced their act when they performed.  Both A.P.’s and Sara’s tombstones have a gold record of this song emblazoned on them.  The Carter Family was a very influential force in country music.  In my next post, I will write about Maybelle, a composer in her own right.