i was standing by the window
May 26, 2006 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Made most popular to many Americans as the closing song for the Grand Ole Opry programs, Will The Circle Be Unbroken was written in 1907 by Ada Habershon, an intensely religious young woman and acquaintance of Dwight Moody and Ira David Sankey. The music was "composed" by Charles Gabriel, a popular songwriter and composer of the era who is often solely credited with the song, but while he may have put the notes down on paper, the tune itself already existed as the African-American spiritual Glory Glory / Since I Laid My Burden Down. [lots more inside]
posted by luriete (18 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The song was conceived as an "altar call" - an assertion of the author's own love for God and an invitation for others to express their own feelings, and was in many ways cautionary: will you get to heaven, and continue the circle begun by your righteous parents and their parents, or will you not seek salvation or live life honorably, and instead be denied entrance? Certainly in its early history it was almost exclusively sung in churches and homes as an expression of spiritual devotion; it was especially popular among the Pentecostal or "holy roller" singers of Missouri and Arkansas.

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?

Will the circle be unbroken / By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting / In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood / Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior / Now they dwell with Him above.

You can picture happy gath'rings / Round the fireside long ago.
And you think of tearful partings / When they left you here below:

One by one heir seats were emptied / One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken / Will it be complete one day?

However, by 1935, when the Carter family wrote their version (A. P., who
wrote most of their songs, refused to call himself the new song's author,
insisting instead that he had simply "fixed them up"), it had already become
a bit more secular. Certainly this transition was a natural one, as Johnny
Cash and many other artists who preceded him have shown us; the tune remains
the same, but the lyrics will often change, over several generations,
sometimes quite substantially:

I was standing by the window / On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling / To carry my mother away

Will the circle be unbroken / By and by, Lord, by and by
There's a better home a waiting / In the sky Lord in the sky

I said to the undertaker / Undertaker please drive slow
For that body you are carrying / Lord I hate to see her go

Well I followed close behind her / Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow / When they laid her in that grave

I went back home Lord that home was lonesome / Since my mother, she was gone
All my brothers and sisters crying / What a home so sad and alone

In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their own version with Mother Maybelle Carter - on an album that featured songs played with a group of musicians that included some of Nashville's greatest stars, people like Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clements. Many of us on the American left have come of age (or, in the case of the children of the baby boomers and their children, may have grown up) with the revival of American folk music, from Woody Guthrie and later Pete Seeger, through the early 1970s and the first formal and credited mergings of mainstream country and western with rock and roll; this particular album became one of the first widely-recognized bridges between the popular protest music of the left and the more conservative and religious folk, bluegrass and country musicians of the mid-south.

A new verse was added, recognizing the place of these young musicians' forebears in the music that would grow into contemporary rock and roll:

We sang the songs of childhood / Hymns of faith that made us strong
Ones that Mother Maybelle taught us / Hear the angels sing along

The lyrics have been appropriated by various historical movements and for various reasons. The Civil Rights Movement, most notably, took this song and many other spirituals of the era and used them as a rallying cry of unity and devotion - not necessarily spiritual devotion, but devotion to the causes of equality and social justice. The song's working-class roots helped strengthen the resolve of young people of all social classes who came together in the south to resist a sometimes-violent white establishment.

This song has been recorded by dozens of popular artists since 1950, including John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, the Neville Brothers, Jack Elliott, and many more; who knows how many hundreds of artists performed it as part of their repertoire in the first half of the last century.

I've compiled a few recordings; here are the 13th Floor Elevators, George Jones, June Carter Cash, Marty Robbins, Ralph Stanley, and The Statler Brothers all performing various versions Will The Circle Be Unbroken.
posted by luriete at 6:10 PM on May 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

May I hug you?
posted by wheelieman at 6:35 PM on May 26, 2006

Take a gander at my favorites page and you will see how some of the greatest posts here are done by y2karl, text size etc....
posted by wheelieman at 6:42 PM on May 26, 2006

by text size I mean how to make certain parts of the post to stand out the way Karl does. However don't do it on the front page.
posted by wheelieman at 6:44 PM on May 26, 2006

See also..
posted by wheelieman at 6:48 PM on May 26, 2006

Thanks Wheelieman! Next time I do one of these long music ethnographies I will format it like that. I appreciate the tip!

Does the may i hug you mean you like it?
posted by luriete at 7:04 PM on May 26, 2006

Thanks, that was amazing. I've never heard the George Jones or Statler Brothers version. I was introduced to the song through Spacemen 3, and that was responsible for getting me into the Carter Family (A miracle in itself because that was around the time when everyone on Earth was listening to the 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' soundtrack and I was getting really sick of classic country and bluegrass...)
posted by Kronoss at 7:05 PM on May 26, 2006

lovely post. thank you.
posted by jann at 7:05 PM on May 26, 2006

Oh fantastic! Thank you!
posted by melissa may at 7:16 PM on May 26, 2006

Yes I did sir. Spare the hug, its ok. *backs away*
posted by wheelieman at 7:26 PM on May 26, 2006

Great post. I always loved this song and it is fascinating to hear so many versions. Great use of box.net, too.

The Carter Family version has always intrigued me because of the irregular meter in the second half of each strophe. The basic 2-beat pulse is "broken" by dropping the second beat before the final phrase. This keeps the vocal line moving and eliminates a held note and works so well that it really isn't very noticeable unless you are looking for it. It makes me wonder if they learned it that way or if that was one of AP's "improvements."

It does not seem to be transmitted in later renditions, many of which seem deeply influenced by the Carter family recording. Are there any other early recordings that were influential?

13th Floor Elevators version: what a find!
posted by imposster at 8:53 PM on May 26, 2006

Jello Biafra, also with "fixed" lyrics.
posted by swell at 9:24 PM on May 26, 2006

I grew up with this and songs like Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and always tear up when I hear the opening bars. In fact, this song - and Summertime - have been pretty much stuck in my head for the past 25 years or so.

Maybe next week's post will be on that tune.

OK, so it took you nine months to get around to it.

Worth the wait though.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:31 PM on May 26, 2006

And while I'm at it, luriete, your blog might be the only one that I've ever seen that warrants a front page post all of it's own.

Very fine work.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:44 PM on May 26, 2006

Ira David Sankey

Depending on your denomination, he was either an innovator of church music, or he destroyed it.

There are almost no Sankey hymns in the 500-600 song canon of songs most Protestants sing today, but there are a lot of Sankey followers whose songs are in the canon, especially one Frances J. Crosby, who wrote at least 8,000 hymns between 1863 and 1910. That's one every two days on average until the day she died -- at the age of 95. And this is on top of the "secular" stuff she wrote in the first 43 years of her life, and she wrote thousands of those as well.

I just find that writing pace stunning, me who struggles to write a simple 25 word block of copy as part of my job.
posted by dw at 10:50 PM on May 26, 2006

exceptional post. thanks.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 PM on May 27, 2006

I'm rather fond of Les Barker's version, the cautionary tale of a pet turtle called Myrtle who tumbles out of the window of a skyscraper -
"Will the turtle be unbroken, By and by, Lord, by and by?
Look at Myrtle,
Watch her hurtle,
Through the sky, Lord, through the sky!"*

Other wonderful songs by Les and the Mrs Ackroyd Band include Dachshunds with Erections (can't climb stairs) and Cosmo, the Fairly-Accurate Knife-thrower.
posted by tabbycat at 9:01 AM on May 28, 2006

* I forgot to say, for those of you of a nervous disposition, Myrtle does survive.
posted by tabbycat at 9:05 AM on May 28, 2006

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