Squaring the `Circle’

If you visit the Grand Ole Opry in Music Valley, which I highly recommend, and if you get there early, you’ll have the chance to see a promotional video of past Opry highlights. Prominently featured is a clip from Sept. 28, 2010, the night the Opry reopened after being seriously damaged by the Nashville flood the previous May.

The clip features Brad Paisley and the late Little Jimmy Dickens standing before a closed curtain. Paisley says, “Will the circle be unbroken?” Dickens replies, “The circle can’t be broken, Brad.” The curtain then opens to reveal the full Opry membership standing on the rebuilt stage, singing along on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

The message is one of affirmation, using a classic country song for a message of continuity and redemption. Unfortunately, it’s based on a popular misunderstanding of the song in question.

The Carter Family’s 1935 song is called “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” and is based on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 1907 hymn written by Ada R. Habershon and Charles H. Gabriel. Unlike many of the Carters’ songs, which were copyrighted under A.P. Carter’s name but are essentially the same as earlier songs, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” uses Gabriel’s music but virtually none of Habershon’s lyrics except for the chorus, which itself is significantly rewritten.

I’ve been unable to discover when the title “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was first applied to the Carter song, but it happened before 1972, when Maybelle Carter herself sang it with that lyric in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark album of the same title, which brings together several generations of country artists. For my purposes, though, I’m going to refer to the original hymn as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the Carter song as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” There are subtle differences in meaning between “Will” and “Can,” but we needn’t worry about the nuances here.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band use the song as its album’s title song in the same way that Paisley and Dickens did at the Opry in 2010, as an emblem of triumphant continuity: Times change, but some things are immutable.

This isn’t really the message of the Carters’ song, however. The point of this song is widely misunderstood because of a misapprehension about a single word in A.P. Carter’s original lyric, a word which the Carters of Maces Spring, Va., would have understood but which has fallen out of modern English. The result is a serious failure to comprehend this brilliant song.

The word “unbreak” survives today only in its adjectival form, “unbroken,” despite the fact that both “break” and “broken” remain current. We have a different word, “repair,” derived from a French root, which has driven the Anglo-Saxon “unbreak” out of the language.

(Or had, at least, until 1996, when Toni Braxton used it in the title song of her album, “Un-break My Heart.” I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that she meant any reference to the Carter Family!)

It isn’t clear whether Habershon means the word “unbroken” in its earlier context. I incline to think not. Her song is about the afterlife, and her use of the word is more abstract and rhetorical than A.P. Carter’s.

Carter’s song stands almost as a rebuttal to her song. It isn’t at all about the afterlife, where we will meet our lost loved ones again; it is about being left behind, being abandoned, being bereft.

Habershon begins her song with flowery, abstract rhetoric:

“There are loved ones in the glory,
whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
will you join them in their bliss?”

Simplifying her rhyme scheme, Carter’s opening is down-to-earth, literal and anguished:

“I was standing by the window
on one cold and cloudy day,
and I saw the hearse come rolling
for to carry my mother away.”

He goes on to three more verses of unrelieved misery. The narrator tells the undertaker to drive slowly, “for this body you are hauling,/Lord, I hate to see her go”; she tries her best to remain composed as she follows the body to its interment, “but I could not hide my sorrow/when they laid her in the grave”; she returns home to a house that feels empty despite the crying of her brothers and sisters, “what a home so sad and lone.”

In Carter’s song there is no question of whether the circle can be broken. It has been broken, its brokenness bleeds from every line of the lyrics. The narrator’s only consolation is the hope that, in the next life, it may be unbroken—repaired.

The song is, above all, a song about doubt. There’s a wistful quality to the final lines of the chorus, “There’s a better home awaiting/in the sky, Lord, in the sky.” The narrator wants it to be so, but the question in the title—“Can the circle be unbroken?”—remains a question. not a statement. Compared to the detailed, earthbound sorrow of the verses, the chorus is a beautiful hope that remains, in the end, only a hope.

This is in keeping with the spirit of the Carters, whose songs seldom mince words in addressing the realities of life—poverty, sex, violence, illness, death—but it’s a poorer fit for contemporary country music, whether the nostalgia of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album or the institutional triumphalism of the Opry’s reopening.Grand_Ole_Opry_Floor

It’s no surprise that, almost as soon as the Carters made the song a classic, efforts to domesticate it and soften its anguished pain began. By the 1950s the line “this body you are hauling” was being sung as “this lady that you carry,” and the song had picked up a fifth verse entirely foreign to the tone of the original and unrelated to anything in either Habershon’s or Carter’s lyrics:

“Then we sang the songs of comfort,
songs of faith that made us strong,
sang the songs our mother taught us,
and the angels sang along.”

Carl Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass” (1968) samples “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” but as a family sing-along rather than a lament for the end of a family. (Perkins’ song was particularly ironic in that it became a No. 1 hit for Johnny Cash, whose recording featured Maybelle Carter and her three daughters on backing vocals.)

The world about which the Carter Family sang in the 1920s and 1930s is irretrievably gone. We live in a society which, often, is embarrassed by faith, discomfited by grief and disgusted by the realities of life. (That the singer in the Carter version can refer to her mother as “this body you are hauling” seems callous, tasteless—but in backwoods Virginia in the days before air conditioning, it didn’t take long for your mother to become a body.)

Today a song about renewal and reassurance, one called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as if harkening back to the prettified assurances of the original Habershon/Gabriel hymn, may be a better fit for the times.

I prefer to sing “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” with the original, unedited lyrics. A.P. Carter’s version may be harsher, even cruel, but it has a power which speaks across the generations as clearly as it did 81 years ago.


2 thoughts on “Squaring the `Circle’

  1. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s Bristol and Beyond: The Birth of Country Music | Tennessee Walt

  2. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook | Tennessee Walt

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