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.

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