Monday, July 12, 2010

1928: “Wildwood Flower” by the Carter Family

When record executive Ralph Peer placed an ad inviting acts to come to Bristol, Virginia to audition for his label in 1927, he was largely driven by the prospect of discovering new songs – or, more tellingly, new versions of older songs that had been rendered so uniquely that they could be copyrighted as something new. Peer had been hired to jumpstart the hillbilly department of Victor Records, which until then had been focused on more “serious,” high-brow music. But as Peer’s own prior work had already demonstrated at other labels, there was money to be made in this field and Victor didn’t want to fall behind.

Peer’s venture South resulted in the much-celebrated “Bristol Sessions,” which are rightly celebrated as the “Big Bang” of country music. But for the dozens of people who showed up in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, the sessions provided a chance at escaping their hardscrabble lives by making some money from the music that sustained them. Just like Sam Phillips would tell the young aspiring recording artists who walked into his Sun Records label three decades later, Peer was telling everyone he was looking for the same thing: Show me something new, show me something different.

Most of the people who showed up to Bristol were turned away after their audition for Peer. Over the course of eleven days Peer recorded only nineteen acts, but two of them would go on to be the twin founders of country music: Jimmie Rodgers, who later achieved massive fame as the yodeling “Singing Brakeman” and a trio from Maces Springs, Virginia, who called themselves the Carter Family.

Of the two acts, Peer apparently thought more of the Carters, recording five songs by them, as opposed to only two songs by Rodgers (although Rodgers eventually got the last laugh – his records would go onto sell five times as well as those by the Carters). While A.P. Carter presented himself as the group’s leader, it was the two women who did most of the work, with A.P.’s wife Sara on vocals and guitar and A.P.’s sister-in-law (and Sara’s cousin) Maybelle on vocals and autoharp. A.P. himself would provide his eerie, quavering harmonies sporadically, singing set parts just as often as he punctured the songs at random; on many of their most well-known records, A.P. doesn’t appear at all.

Such is the case for “Wildwood Flower,” which was their biggest hit and signature song. Recorded at their first follow-up to the Bristol Sessions, the song was framed by Maybelle’s guitar picking of the melody over the strum of the autoharp alternating with Sara’s beautifully haunting solo vocal. Like so many of the songs the Carters sang, “Wildwood Flower” was not so much written as it was remembered, something that had always been around like the mountains by which they lived.

This was the exact sort of music that Ralph Peer was looking for. No one really knew where it came from and no one really knew what it all necessarily meant – it was just an old song that had found its way to Maybelle’s guitar and Sara’s voice. Indeed, much of the song was obscure, resulting in an almost modernist lyric. “Oh, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair,” Sara begins plainly in a matter-of-fact tone. “With the roses so read and the lilies so fair.” But then, things get weirder: “And the myrtles so bright with the emerald due,” she continues, “The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.”

The lyrics sound less like a folk ballad and more like a child’s rendition of one, mishearing key words to create something wholly new and surreal. When the lyric appeared about how “When I woke from my dreaming, my idol was clay – all portion of love had all flown away,” it always struck me as odd, this very poetic image that seemed counter to the odd, folksy words from which it emerged and would recess back into. Could this too had been written by these seemingly simple rural people? Or was there something else at work here besides a front porch song, recalled by one generation and picked up by the next?

It turns out to be both. Unbeknownst to the Carter Family (who sang it) and Ralph Peer (who copyrighted it), “Wildwood Flower” was largely based on an old parlor ballad from 1860 called “I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets,” with music by Joseph Philbrick Webster and lyrics by Maud Irving.

Placed side by side, the Carters’ song comes into focus. The opening lyric of “I’ll twine ’mid the ringlets of my raven black hair” provide the song with a clearer beginning, while Sara’s bizarre “pale and the leader” line is revealed as “the pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue.” In this context, the lyric of clay idol makes sense as parlor ballad melodrama, as does the “visions of love” (as opposed to Sara’s “portion of love”) that fade away (instead of flying away).

But none of this would mean anything if the recording itself wasn’t amazing. While much ink has been spilled over the origin and meaning of the song’s lyric (myself now included), comparatively little has been written about the song’s music. There is more guitar picking than singing on the record, as Maybelle’s precise guitar work stitch the song together with a melody that most likely predates both “Wildwood Flower” and “I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets.”

I believe that Maybelle Carter is the most underrated (or perhaps, unrated) guitarist of all time. What became known as her “Carter scratch” style laid the groundwork for virtually all of the country and folk acoustic guitar playing that would follow, from Johnny Cash’s signature “boom-chicka-boom” sound to Bob Dylan’s melodic picking and strumming in his folk period (which itself was derived by the picking style of huge Carter Family fan Woody Guthrie). Very few guitarists have spawned a signature riff, let alone signature sound, and even fewer have been female. If somehow it had been A.P. who played guitar (which could have never happened – the audible tremor in his voice was the reflection of a physical tremor in his body), would he be celebrated as one of the most influential guitarists of all-time? Or is this merely the result of country music as a genre being overshadowed by “cooler” genres like blues and rock and roll?

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter. “Wildwood Flower” stands up because of its performance, as Maybelle’s guitar-scratching propels the song along, leading to Sara’s haunting vocal that peaks with that beautiful, almost off-key twist of the melody in each verse’s third line that reaches out of the record and into the listener’s space like few records have before or since.

And while all the parts of “Wildwood Flower” may not have added up to the kind of folk music that Peer envisioned when he set out to Bristol, it revealed a truer, more complex kind – a professionally-written parlor ballad bastardized into a half-remembered country song, which in turn could be rewritten and reworked (just as the old sheet music version was itself probably drawn from earlier sources). Perhaps someone with the foresight and vision of Ralph Peer could have realized this and appreciated it, but I think at the end of the day, his ambition was the most purely American of them all: He was just happy to have another new “old song” that could be copyrighted under his own name.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

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