The Carter Family on Border Radio



What Does a “Downturn” Sound Like?

The Carter Family's radio days

Written By Ben Bowen King

I shouldn’t have read the Wall Street Journal before heading to San Antonio’s historic Alamo Plaza to play vintage gospel guitar tunes.

You see I’m a history and music nut. 

And headlines about “Plunging Markets” don’t put me in a cheery frame of mind. My overactive imagination begins calling up photos of bread lines or “Black Monday.”  So the irony of playing tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” on the same ground where the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers performed those songs during the “Great Depression” wasn’t lost on me.

During the ‘30s, San Antonio was a major music center that attracted the luminaries of the day.   The stories abound. People still talk about how the devil chased bluesman Robert Johnson to the Roosevelt Hotel here during the ‘30s. That’s where he recorded the blues classic “Crossroads.”

Around that same time A.P. Carter ran out of songs for the family’s weekly radio show and stumbled across the old Baptist hymn called “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” while resting in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church four blocks from where I was going to play. And while names like the Carter Family and Johnson are now Americana music legends, when times were tough, those same musicians headed to Alamo Plaza and put out a hat for tips.

I imagine it was pretty picturesque unless you were the one strumming a guitar.  Visit San Antonio nowadays, and you can pick up a tourist brochure about the “good old days” when the chili queens would serve up “steaming bowls of red for only a nickel” in the plaza while “the legends of Americana music strummed in the background.” I was booked for an event, planned months before the market plunge, which was supposed to re-create those days when folks flocked to the city’s plazas for free entertainment.

So I had music and the economy on the brain when I grabbed my guitar and headed to the stage for a sound check. Actually no one else looked worried. Folks were wearing their tourist uniforms of flip flops and shorts while eating tacos and turkey legs.

But while I was tuning my guitar a woman approached me with a flyer proclaiming “Adam Is Christ.” The flyer’s message was that “Adam was Jesus’ old name” and he has appeared seven times in San Antonio since 1987 and he’s coming back.” And, oh yeah, there’s a book and website you can go to for more information and to make a contribution. 

Yikes—my imagination flipped back to the flock of snake-oil “preachers” who descended on America during The Depression promising cures and riches for “just a small donation.” It’s no news that hard times make us more susceptible to offers of a “spiritual silver bullet” for financial and spiritual woes. 

Ironically, a few days after playing in Alamo Plaza, I stumbled across the perfect balm for my “downturn blues.” And it turned out to be the music that the Carter family was playing in San Antonio and across America during the ‘30s —The Carter Family On Border Radio (Arhoolie Records). It’s no “silver bullet,” but it definitely lifts the spirits. It’s an exceptional three-CD series of the “lost” radio shows made by the Carter family while they were scraping by in San Antonio. (You can get the whole set or buy the CDS individually ).

Here’s a quick “back story:” During the 1920s and ‘30s the Carter Family, composed of A.P., his wife Sara and cousin Maybelle, synthesized a variety of musical styles that became the basis of country music. Maybelle’s daughter, June, sang with the family while in San Antonio and went on to her own career as detailed in the Johnny Cash bio-pic, Walk The Line.

The 82 tunes on the CD set comprise a snapshot of what people were thinking and feeling spiritually during The Depression. The reason this set comes highly recommended is it will put a smile on your face no matter what the CNN “ticker” is saying today.

The CDs were made directly from acetate discs of radio shows the family taped in San Antonio and, in turn, sent to Monterrey, Mexico, to be broadcast over “border blaster” radio, which reached nearly every living room in America. Essentially these tunes are a soundtrack of that era.

Admittedly, music from “The Depression” sounds like a “downer” for folks in 2008.

But I dare you to play the first track and not feel better as the show starts with the Carter’s chiming guitars and autoharp playing  their theme song: “Look on The Sunnyside.”

“There’s a dark and a troubled side of life, but there’s a bright and a sunny side too.”

It’s a simple mantra for hard times.

A.P., who wrote the tune, knew his fans’ spirituality wasn’t fancy and didn’t take many theological twists or turns. But God was a constant in their life.   

You hear this on the CDs on songs like “Let The Church Roll On” and “God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign.”  The theme is simple —“God is there for you.” Interestingly, there were no “cautionary” tunes in the Carter’s spiritual repertory.  The volumes of country music “spirituals” warning of the ill effects of “cheatin’ ” and “drinkin’ ” didn’t surface until the economic boom years of the ‘50s.

Apparently, an orientation towards God and family come naturally with tough times. The Carters worked in solos by their daughters, June, Helen and Anita, who were in their teen and “tween” years, as a natural part of the radio shows. There’s no need to “legislate” family values and togetherness when times get tough—it just seems to happen.

Optimism is the thread that weaves its way through the music on this CD collection. The lesson here seems to be that there will be hard times and broken-hearted lovers, as on “Fatal Weddings” and “Lonesome Valley,” but there will also always be tomorrow’s radio show.  And it always begins and ends with “Keep On The Sunnyside.”

I know I’ll be tuning in via these CDs.

Copyright ©2008 Ben Bowen King

Musician and writer Ben Bowen King recently released A Laying on Of Songs in conjunction with explorefaith’s Days of Grace series of podcasts.