Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)
The Carter Family
Writer(s): Ada R. Habershon, Charles H. Gabriel, A.P. Carter (adapted by) (see lyrics here)
First Charted: August 24, 1935
Peak: 17 US (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Sales (in millions): --
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 2.1 video, 5.16 streaming
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About the Song:
In his book Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Steve Sullivan says this is “perhaps the most beloved traditional song in all of country music.” SS “The power of its performance and its message – of sadness over the death of a loved one, transcended by contentment that she’s gone to a better place, and the knowledge that the family circle will continue – has resonated over the years.” SS
It originated in 1907 as a gospel song by Ada R. Habershon and Charles Gabriel originally titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” According to Country Music Sources, the first country recording was done by Frank & James McCravy in 1927. Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter rewrote the verses and retitled the song “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” but kept the melody and the chorus. SS The song was now set at a funeral with mourners pondering if they would ever be reunited with their mother.
The Carter Family – consisting of A.P., his ex-wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle, recorded the song in 1935. The trio were considered “the standard-bearers for the hillbilly songs that traced their heritage back to the first British folk melodies.” AC According to author Ace Collins, when it came to the Carter Family’s recording of “Unbroken” “those suffering through the Depression in the hills and valleys clung to it as if it were a personal statement of faith. It quickly became one of the most popular funeral hymns.” AC
In 1968, Johnny Cash recorded “Daddy Sang Bass,” a song written by Carl Perkins that was based on “Unbroken.” Cash tapped the new version of the Carter Family, which consisted of Maybelle Carter and her daughters, to add harmonies. Daughter June married Cash that year. The song received attention again in 1972 when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded an album called Will the Circle Be Unbroken which consisted of country classics with country legends like Maybelle Carter and others. It has also been recorded by Roy Acuff, Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, the Band, the Black Crowes, Jeff Buckley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Moby, Bill Monroe, the Neville Brothers, Ralph Stanley, Mavis Staples, and Gene Vincent. WK
First posted 8/24/2022; last updated 8/27/2022.