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A Lifetime Of Labor: Maybelle Carter At Work

In the 1930s, when Maybelle Carter (left) was touring with her cousin Sara (center) and Sara's husband A.P. Carter as the Carter Family, the members of the group still labored on the family farm in Poor Valley, in southern Virginia.
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In the 1930s, when Maybelle Carter (left) was touring with her cousin Sara (center) and Sara's husband A.P. Carter as the Carter Family, the members of the group still labored on the family farm in Poor Valley, in southern Virginia.

At 16 years old Maybelle Addington, soon to be Carter, quit school and went to work. She joined a steady flow of girls who left the rural communities of their upbringing and went to the city in the 1920s. In her case, it was Bristol, where she started work at a hosiery mill, one among many factories opening in the foothills of Virginia and Tennessee. Mill girls, as they were called, bridged the agricultural past and the industrial present as they sought out wage work and made new technologies run. But they also carried an independent streak. Across Appalachia, mill girls soon caused trouble for many of their employers, as they demanded workplace rights and thumbed a nose at controlling bosses. But Maybelle wouldn't last that long in the mill. As she told journalist Bill Williams in 1968, she worked three or four days before quitting. "That done me in." In a few years' time, however, she became a different kind of working woman: a musician by trade and one of the hardest working women in country music.

Born in 1909 in Scott County, Virginia, in a valley along Copper Creek at the base of Clinch Mountain, Maybelle grew up in a working family. Her mother Elizabeth, the household musician, raised 10 children. Her father Hugh Jack Addington at times worked as a carpenter, a farmer and proprietor of a general store. The children picked up music early and often entertained guests. Maybelle learned how to play her mother's autoharp when she was a young child. Elizabeth soon taught her how to pick the banjo. By the time she was 12, Maybelle was winning regional pickin' contests. Her brothers gave her a guitar, and before long that was her instrument of choice. Maybelle learned ballads, such as "Wildwood Flower," from her mother, who, she explained, "learned them from her mother before her, who had, in turn, learned them from her parents."

At 13, Maybelle joined her brothers' band, playing guitar at square dances until dawn. She also visited her older cousin Sara, married to A.P. Carter, and the three of them put on shows at the schoolhouse at Maces Springs — Sara on autoharp and lead vocals, Maybelle on guitar and A.P. on bass. At one of those shows, Maybelle met Ezra J. "Eck" Carter, younger brother of A.P. and a mail clerk who worked for the railroads. At 17, Maybelle eloped with Eck and moved over the mountain to Poor Valley.

"Music was a way to relax after a hard day's work," explained Rita Forrester, granddaughter of Sara and A.P. Carter, who now directs the Carter Family Fold, a musical heritage site that preserves the Carter legacy. Maybelle and Sara, cousins who were now sisters-in-law, lived about a mile apart and together carved out time for music. Eck traveled frequently for work, and A.P. was a traveling salesman who also roamed the countryside to collect songs. With their husbands on the road, Maybelle often joined Sara at her home and helped her tend to her three young children. When the house quieted and chores were complete, they made music. Maybelle harmonized Sara's rich alto; Sara strummed the autoharp and Maybelle perfected her unique style on the guitar, later known as the "Carter scratch."

A.P. was determined he could take the music long associated with daily life, like singing on the front porch for friends and family, and make a living with it. In 1927, he convinced Sara and Maybelle to audition with him for Victor Talking Machine Company in Bristol, Tenn., part of the famed Bristol Sessions that gave birth to modern country music. Maybelle, Sara and A.P. made their first recordings as the Carter Family, earning 50 dollars per side for their first six records and one and half percent royalties.


Drawing from Appalachian and southern white and Black working people's musical traditions — folk, blues and gospel — the Carters forged their sound amidst massive changes in the South: The railroad companies laid hundreds of miles of tracks, industry expanded and new technologies altered life. In popular American culture, many perceived Appalachia as an isolated place, trapped in amber. Yet Maybelle, Sara and A.P. were among a generation of young Appalachians who defied easy categorization. They had strong ties to the communities of their parents and grandparents, where they scratched out a living on small farms. At the same time, they chased opportunities in the industrializing South. Their music could never be a distilled version of an imagined pre-industrial past. Rather, it relied on and reflected the migration of people, ideas and technology.

The 1920s saw the beginnings of the greatest spatial reorganization in U.S. history, peaking in the 1940s, and made up of Black and white southerners, many from Appalachia. They moved around the nation in search of work — to cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland, or into the mill towns, lumber and coal camps throughout the South. The Carter Family provided an apt soundtrack: old songs recreated in the modernizing South, and aired on the radios that were becoming a prized possession for many American working families. We can hear the stories of migration, and the forlorn longing for home, in many of the Carter songs. In "The Mountains of Tennessee," Maybelle plucks out a melody before the three harmonize "Take me back, take me back to my old mountain home / Take me back where my heart longs to be."

Racial segregation was also hardening in these years. Country music would not exist without white and Black musicians sharing songs and style, yet the recording industry of the early twentieth century segregated music by race, selling "hillbilly music" to white audiences and "race music" (blues and gospel) to Black audiences. The Carter Family came to represent hillbilly music, yoked to a white image of Appalachia. The great irony is that the Carter Family relied upon the creative collaboration of Lesley Riddle, an African American musician who lived in nearby Kingsport. Riddle accompanied A.P. on numerous trips to collect songs in Appalachian communities. A.P. wrote down the lyrics while Riddle memorized the tune. Riddle then taught the songs to Sara and Maybelle, who credits Riddle with influencing her style of guitar picking. Although Riddle profoundly influenced the sound of country music, it would be well into the 1960s before he garnered recognition for his contributions.

The success of the Carter Family band also hinged on women's labor. Maybelle may have abandoned wage work in the mills that attracted a generation of Appalachian girls, but she did not give up on the idea of earning a living. Modern working women, Maybelle and Sara blazed a new path in popular music and flouted gender conventions as front women in a band, with Sara on lead vocals and Maybelle lead guitar, unheard of at the time. But that path wasn't always easy or glamorous.

At the time of the Bristol Sessions, Maybelle was eight months pregnant, and Sara and A.P. had three young children. Sara took along her oldest child, Gladys, and her baby, Joe, who was still nursing. With children and instruments, the Carters piled into a Model T and traveled nearly 30 miles over the gravel road to Bristol. Sara nursed between sessions, and eight-year-old Gladys watched the baby while her mother worked.

On the second day of their first recording session, A.P. stayed behind to fix a tire, while Sara and Maybelle headed to the studio and performed on their own. In the folk song "Married Girl, Single Girl," Maybelle plucked the melody on the guitar, with the chords crawling underneath, and Sara crooned, "Married girl, married girl / She rocks the cradle and cries." They sang of the contrast between a single girl, "gone anywhere she please," and a married girl, who's "got a baby on her knees." Sara and Maybelle embodied the lyrics as they juggled the demands of motherhood and work. And Sara's voice carries a hint of ambivalence — an acknowledgment that marriage and mothering came with sacrifice.


In the early years, as their records sold and their fame rose, Maybelle and Sara worked a double day — juggling the demands of work and parenting. As early as the 1920s, feminists began exposing the unfairness of the double day, especially for women who almost always made less than their male counterparts. Helping to organize unions in new factory towns throughout the South, they saw how women labored for lower wages than men in dirty, loud factories for 12 hours a day, while also serving as the primary caregivers of children. Many just barely scraped by. The harmonizing vocals of Maybelle and Sara surely soothed the nerves of worn out working mothers.

While Maybelle and Sara's lives were luxurious in comparison, they nonetheless worked hard, long days. As they became a popular act and began touring, they continued their day jobs. During the day Maybelle and Sara weeded corn patches, milked cows, slopped hogs, gathered eggs, canned vegetables, churned butter, washed on a board, prepared meals and everything else required to maintain a small farm. Once the work was complete, they cleaned up, put on their Sunday best and got on the road, leaving their children with Grandma Carter or Aunt Sylvia. The Carter Family played school buildings and churches all over the region, in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, where attendees paid 15 to 25 cents to hear them. On a good night, two-hundred people would come out to hear songs by working people, for working people.

Those songs also captured the Christian faith of many working-class southerners. Maybelle had spent many hours at the Primitive Baptist church of her family where she learned traditional hymns and the new genre of shape-note singing. Her music was also heavily influenced by the rhythmic gospel that she heard at Holiness revivals, a form of entertainment as much as a spiritual revival for many. "There was nothing else to do, so we'd go hear them sing just for the curiosity of it," Maybelle explained.

With the Carter Family, Maybelle sang songs that reflected her deep faith, as well as her love of gospel music. In the tumultuous years of technological innovation, Depression and war, many southerners made sense of change and took solace in sacred traditions. In one of the Carter Family's most popular songs, "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," the narrator mourns the passing of her mother before reminding herself that the sorrows of this world will pass: "There's a better home a-waiting/In the sky, Lord, in the sky." And in "No Depression in Heaven," written by Church of Nazarene member James D. Vaughan, the Carter Family reassured listeners that in heaven, unlike the Depression-struck United States, they would find peace. Capturing the weariness of poor and working-class people, they sang: "In that bright land, there'll be no hunger/No orphan children crying for bread/No weeping widows, toil or struggle."

By 1930, Maybelle claimed an identity — her music was her work. The U.S. census of the early twentieth century often rendered women's labor invisible. Unless a woman earned wages on somebody else's farm or in another woman's home, her employment would be listed by the census taker as "none." It didn't matter how much her labor propped up the family farm or that it sustained a family. Women were listed as dependents of men, and men were identified by their type of employment. Thus, there is something striking about the census tract in 1930, when Maybelle, married to a man who made a good living, with whom she ran a small farm, declared her own employment to the census taker: "Musician."


After years of traveling a regional circuit, in the late 1930s the Carter Family moved to the Texas border town of Del Rio to perform an hour a day on radio station XERA, a million-watt station begun by "Doctor" John Romulus Brinkley. The "Sunshine Station Between the Nations" carried the Carter Family into thousands of homes across the country and their fame exploded. With their young children, who also made appearances on the radio, the Carters spent winter months in Texas, and they returned to Poor Valley in time for the growing season.

Sara and A.P. divorced in 1936 but continued to perform together with Maybelle for a few more years. The Carter Family made its final appearances on WBT in Charlotte, N.C. Their show aired from 5:15 to 6:15 in the morning, catering to farmers and other workers headed out for the day. Sara retired in 1943 and settled in California with her new husband, and A.P. headed home to Virginia where he opened a general store.

Out of the ashes of the Carter Family, Maybelle formed a new group with her young daughters Helen, June and Anita — Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Between 1943 and 1950, Maybelle and Eck took charge of booking shows, a job A.P. had previously overseen. They sold their home in Poor Valley, quit farming and lived on the road. They moved around as the work required, signing contracts with radio stations — from Richmond, Va., to Knoxville, Tenn., to Springfield, Mo. — and at times playing two shows a day, six days a week. When they could, they also performed at churches, schools, parks and courthouses within traveling distance of the radio station, loading up all their instruments in a '41 Cadillac with Maybelle behind the wheel.

As the Carter Family biographers, Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, explain, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters "were a self-contained road show," doing all the work to set up a live show, without staff. Maybelle sewed many of the matching dresses the girls wore, pressed them before showtime and did the girls' hair. June Carter Cash recalled, "We never went onstage with a wrinkle or uncurled hair."

Maybelle's hard work paid off when, in 1950, she and her daughters earned the biggest break in country music: an invitation for a regular spot at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The Carters moved to Nashville, and they became a country music mainstay. Along with live performances on stage and radio, Maybelle and her daughters recorded 18 singles in four years, and June, Helen and Anita recorded solo acts and duets as well. They kept up their breathless touring pace, often on the road every night of the week, making it back to Nashville for their Saturday evening Opry show and Sunday morning gospel hour.


By the late 1950s, rock and roll was on the rise and the Carter Sisters were young women with their own careers and young families. Maybelle continued to perform at the Opry and accepted other invitations, although they trickled in more slowly than ever before. She picked up work at a hospital as a certified practical nurse, supplementing her income by sitting with elderly patients during the evening for $12 per shift.

But Maybelle had staying power in the music industry, what Rita Forrester described as the ability to "chase the music." The 1960s folk revival boosted Maybelle's career once again. At the Newport Folk Festival, she performed before eager crowds in the evening and taught autoharp workshops during the day. She continued to juggle her show dates with her nursing schedule until Johnny Cash, a great admirer of Maybelle who was in a relationship with June, asked her to go on tour with him. Meanwhile, Eck retired to Florida, and Maybelle sent him a check every few weeks.

Cash helped garner Maybelle new record deals, including a reunion album with Sara. He saw himself as liberating Maybelle from the wage work she had taken on at the hospital. But the truth is her caregiving labor took on new meaning with him as a kind of adopted son. As for many working women, double duty continued late into her life. John showed up at her house when he was high and angry, and she cajoled him to bed and threw out his pills. When he decided to kick his habit, she, along with June and Eck, moved into his house, praying over and caring for him. Once sober, Cash performed at the Folsom Prison, his career blew up and he sought ways to bring Maybelle along with him. She appeared regularly on The Johnny Cash Show, which aired for two seasons. In the 1970s, with her status as the Mother of Country Music confirmed, she recorded a few more albums backed by Nashville bands.

Late in her career, Maybelle's hands became less nimble, frustrating the consummate perfectionist. She spent time in Florida with Eck, fishing and relaxing more than she had in a lifetime. When Eck died in 1975, Maybelle retired, 50 years after she began her work as a musician. She died three years later.

When you listen to Maybelle play the guitar, you can hear a lifetime and more of labor. It's the work of her mother passing down the songs that accompanied mountain women as they weeded the garden or rocked a baby to sleep. It's the work of Sara and Maybelle stealing moments to create music, of the mill girls working at a warping machine in the new textile factories, the life that Maybelle escaped. It's the work of A.P. Carter and Lesley Riddle collecting songs, and Maybelle catching the songs in her fingers, recreating them for new audiences. Those songs provided moments of respite, too, for people who flocked to concerts or tuned in on the radio after hours of work on a farm or in the coal mines. The Carter Family worked so that people could relax. We can hear the work of soothing the weary, through gospel songs that promised better days ahead and old ballads that reassured listeners that they were not the first to suffer. Maybelle's melodies supported her family, providing them a comfortable life when few women could say the same. Maybelle Carter chased the music and worked herself to the bone to give the world country music. And when those melodies were no longer as valuable, she patched together other kinds of work to make ends meet, because that's what people like her do.

Jessica Wilkerson is an assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She is the author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (Illinois Press, 2019).

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Wilkerson
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