Has it really been a month since I last posted a song? Here’s my not-too-polished take on the Carter Family’s first big hit, “Single Girl,” recorded by Sara and Maybelle in 1927. The lyrics are a reminder of the bad old days before widely available contraception, and obviously struck a nerve with their rural audience.
It may seem surprising that the “First Family of Country Music” should’ve found fame with a song so contrary to so-called family values. But Sara (on the left in the above photo, which I found here) might’ve been singing from experience; her marriage to bandmate A.P. Carter would founder a few years later, as the text from a PBS documentary makes clear:
A.P. was a natural born rambler, and collecting songs gave him an excuse to spend days and weeks at a time on the road. When he was home, he did precious little to help around the house, and when he went, he seldom left enough money to provide for Sara and the children. “She’d be cutting down wood, pulling mining timbers out of the mountains — and Daddy out somewhere trying to learn a song,” their son Joe recalls. “He never stopped to think what effect it might have on his family.”
Yet A.P. was not totally oblivious to the hardships that Sara endured while he was on the road, and he asked his cousin Coy Bays to help out by driving Sara around while he was away. Sara and Coy became close, and eventually they fell in love with each other. When the affair became known, Coy’s parents, Charlie and Mary Bays, decided that it would be best if they got Coy out of the valley, and the Bays family set out for California.
Crushed by Coy’s departure, Sara left A.P.’s house and moved back to Rich Valley, leaving the children with their father. In September 1936, after three years of trying to reconcile with her husband, she finally sued A.P. for divorce. He did not even show up at court to defend himself. Ralph Peer and his wife, Anita, convinced the estranged couple that while their domestic life might be in shambles, there was no reason they should not continue to play music together on a professional basis, and so the Original Carter Family continued to record new songs.
The Carters defied convention in other ways, as well. A good deal of A.P.’s “rambling” through the rural south was in the company of an African-American musical mentor named Lesley Riddle. Together they collected songs at the height of the Jim Crow era, including blues songs and black church music that the Carters would add to the county music repertoire. At the very same time, of course, street musicians whom we now think of as bluesmen were playing — and sometimes recording — tons of white dance tunes. The audiences might have been rigidly segregated, but the musicians, thank god, were not.