Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by The Carter Family

We went to Nashville, TN for a family vacation. We did not know what to expect, but we made plans to see some sights of general interest to us. The Ryman Auditorium (The Mother Church of Country Music), the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Bluebird Cafe, the Loveless Cafe & Motel and more.

My wife, daughters and I came away at the end of the trip having had a wonderful time with each other while listening to great music and eating great food, but we also came away with a real feeling of family, community and a tangible reminder of our shared love of music.

It may due to the fact that I was merely a tourist, but Nashville felt special. To the many uninitiated among us, Country music (or Country Western, or Honky Tonk, or Americana) feels a little foreign. The twangy vocals and the weepy guitars are not what we are used to. However, the source of the music should feel very familiar. This is music born in the living room and on the front porch. It is music of family and generations. It is music shared with neighbors and friends. Over the years, Country music created its own community of relationships and shared tradition.

Our trip to Nashville was many years ago, but I fondly remember our time there as I recently watched the great Ken Burns Country Music documentary. Throughout the film, we learn how musical styles informed one another, and how inspiration was shared from generation to generation. That inspiration was carried through great stories and beautiful melodies, perhaps none more special and memorable than the great and timeless “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a truly perfect song.

I should have known. One of the very first things our guide showed us at the Country Music Hall of Fame was how note very notes of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” adorn the outside of the building, and the title of the song is proudly displayed above the hall of fame plaques. The song is central to the history of country music. It is where everything begins. It is how everything ends.

“I was standing by my window,
On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw that hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky”

“Will the Circle be Unbroken” was originally written in 1907 as a Christian hymn by Ada Habershon. In 1935 A.P Carter, the patriarch of the first family of country music The Carter Family re-wrote the song. Though still proudly showing its Christian heritage, the song is now focused on a funeral, and how traditions and stories survive from generation to generation.

“I said to that undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For this lady you are carrying
Lord, I hate to see here go”

We have all experienced a loss of some kind. Maybe a parent, maybe a grandparent, maybe a friend. Whoever it is we have lost, we must say goodbye, and we must move on. We hate to see them go, but they will go, and we will stay.

“Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky”

Rarely is the chorus of this song sung by one person alone. It is an opportunity to find comfort in the company of others. We don’t mourn alone, and we can’t carry traditions between generations by ourselves. We need others. We need our family.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was first made famous by The Carter Family , and it has been covered hundreds artists since, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Staple Singers. Families singing together. Groups of voices bringing strength and comfort.

This is a sad song that brings so much happiness. For almost a hundred years, concerts and sing a-alongs have ended by people crowded around a microphone, or a fireplace, singing this song together. Audiences rise to their feet to clap their hands and sing.

Music has the power to heal, and to create community, and it is in that community that we can each move beyond grief. We find comfort in the company of family and good friends. We cry, and then we laugh. We come together, and then we go on our way. We feel better because of who we have been with, and because of the memory of our loved ones we carry with us. That memory informs who we are, the songs we sing and the stories wetell.

I think the question in the title of this song is part rhetoric, part challenge. Will the circle be unbroken? Not a chance. We will carry on.

“Will the Circle be Unbroken”
Written by Charles Gabriel and Ada Habershon
Performed by the Carter Family
Released 1935

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