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Mother Maybelle: A Labor History


To what extent is the performance of music work and thus has its own labor history? That’s probably not a question you’ve thought much about, but of course it is work and that labor exists within the same context of time and place. The historian Jessica Wilkerson gives us a great labor history of Mother Maybelle Carter, one of the founders of modern country music through The Carter Family. An excerpt will make you want to read the whole thing:

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.”

Good excuse to listen to some of her work as well.

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