- Category: Music
- Published: Friday, 12 February 2016 23:55
- Written by Jake Yanoviak
When most people think of the Carter Family they usually think of June Carter Cash, and if they are particularly savvy they recall that they first popularized many songs that Woody Guthrie would go on to rewrite—‘When the World’s on Fire’ became ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘Jesse James’ became ‘Jesus Christ’. While these moments of historical context are useful they do not fully explore what The Carter Family means today. Upon a second listening and with an open mind, many of their songs reveal themselves to be more than quintessential folk songs and emerge as heartthrob anthems about the love between two women.
I first came to know the carter family when I downloaded some 60+ songs from a blog hosted in the U.K. years ago. At the time I appreciated these recordings for the miracle that they were still readily available and maintained relevance 80 years after their creation. Their simple and sentimental ditties, with a little crackle and distortion underscored for me the eternal struggle of love, which persisted then as it does now.
Soon it dawned on me that while these songs follow many of the conventions of folk songs as we know them today (they were the first vocal group to achieve mainstream success as country musicians, recording from 1927-1956), two of the three members were women and with songs about family, death, love, and faith, this resulted in women singing about their love for other women, and empowering and praising women in general. Gender perspective in these songs becomes incredibly subjective and fluid, in a way that transcended dominant ideologies at the time and today. In the opening lines of ‘My Texas Girl’ the lyrics go:
All my life I've wondered/
If what I done was wrong/
All I ever cared to do/
Was ride my pony on.
I never had no heartaches/
Was always happy and gay/
Until I met a Texas girl/
Who stole my heart away.
Now of course ‘gay’ here is meant only to express a state of joy, but the effect of one woman, Sara Dougherty Carter, singing this tormented song about the love of her life dying at the hands of jealous angels is a powerful one. Occasionally her fellow band mate, and husband, Alvin Pleasant aka ‘A.P.’ chimes in with back up vocals on a few songs, but then again those songs tend to position male figures as the object of desire (see ‘I’m Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes’). Now at the time this music proliferated, it is nearly impossible to image that anyone gleaned impressions such as this from these songs, but in our modern era, I think a retrospective projection of this inference adds more charm to the music (Though of course the homoerotic nature of rock 'n' roll is apparent later on; see 'Jailhouse Rock' by Elvis).
I know this argument will be a stretch for many people and you might’ve stopped reading by now because you think this point absurd, but in case you’ve gotten this far and are still interested, here are some more examples of lyrics that suggest an undertone of queer romance.
If it wasn't for the love of your daughter and your men/
I would do unto you as I did unto them. (‘Sinking in the Lonesome Sea’)
Less sensational, but still amazing is the song ‘Single Girl, Married Girl’ a song that Sara sings solo about how much better it is to be single than married (mind you her husband is in her band!).
The song ‘Kissing is a Crime’ details the taboo kisses she can’t help, but exchange. A song, which most would presume to be from the male perspective is sung by a woman, and a deeper understanding of why these kisses might be taboo is supplied if you interpret these kisses to be between two women who have not come out.
Even when songs don’t come across explicitly as homosexual love songs, they often carry an air of promiscuity, as in the song ‘Black Jack David’ which ends on the verse:
Last night I lay on a warm feather bed/
Beside my husband and baby/
Tonight I lay on the cold, cold ground/
By the side of Black Jack David.
Additional Songs That Reinforce this Position:
‘Worried Man Blues’
‘No More The Moon Shines On Lorena’
‘Happiest Days of All’
If you still can’t be convinced of the argument above, hopefully you can appreciate the other unique features of this music. First, the gender-bending narratives. Second, the matriarchal power structure (‘I Have an Aged Mother’, ‘Picture on the Wall’, ‘Will the Roses Bloom in Heaven’, ‘My Little Home in Tennessee’). And third, the promiscuous, deviant, and radical behavior (‘Kissing is a Crime’, ‘Black Jack David’) that is emblematic of the impulsive and desirous nature of youth that persists throughout all time.
Give these songs a listen and see if this theory holds true for you and at the very least enjoy them for their broken heart devotion and lyrical prowess.