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I’ll be quite upfront. I have come late – very late – to this particular party. To have reached the age of 74 without having taken much – if any notice – of the Carter Family is very much my loss. My interest – and then passion bordering on mania – was watching a segment devoted to them on the Ken Burns documentary film Country Music. Cue a huge Amazon buy and hours transferring the CDs to my computer. So, what’s all the fuss about? A brief biography first.

The original Carter Family comprised Maybelle Carter, guitar and harmony vocals, Sarah Carter, autoharp and lead vocals and her husband Alvin Pleasant Delaney (AP) Carter, occasional singer, founder of the group and collector/arranger of songs. Maybelle and Sarah were cousins and sisters in law, as Maybelle had married AP’s brother Ezra. They began playing together at social events and family occasions, in and around south-western Virginia, and in 1927 would begin a recording career which spanned almost twenty years. The trio somehow survived the break-up of the marriage between Sarah and AP, and her relocation to California. Sarah and Maybelle still occasionally played together into the 1960s, by which time their influence on country music had become profound. and recognised. One of Maybelle’s children, June, married Johnny Cash, to establish something of a Country Music royal family. Maybelle also performed with her three daughters. Here is a live recording from the 1960s, with Sarah and Maybelle performing Cannonball Blues.

THE MUSIC: The songs

Screen Shot 2021-11-25 at 18.17.22So, what is so special about the Carter Family and their songs?  AP Carter’s ‘day job’ at one time, was traveling salesman.and he was a voracious collector of the songs that he heard as he moved from town to town. He clearly had a very good ear for melody. The words were almost certainly written down, but the tunes would have been just carried in his head. The songs are from a broad spread of different traditions. Some – in the lyrics at least –  are clearly versions of songs that would have come over from the British Isles centuries earlier, while others are clearly 19th century American hymns and religious songs. Regarding the British songs, there is little or no sign of the modal tonality that you hear in later transcriptions of such songs by people like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. The astonishing thing is that overwhelming majority of Carter Family songs are what musicians call ‘three chord tricks’. In other words their harmonic structure is Tonic, Sub-Dominant and Dominant. Chord-wise, that means, if we are in the key of C, they use C major, F major G major and G seven. I have listened to dozens and dozens of recordings, and it is quite remarkable  that they never seem to use a minor chord. The songs are almost always played using guitar chords in the key of C. That is not to say that the songs are in the absolute key of C, as Maybelle would use a capo. as well as detuning her guitar by as much as three or four semitones.

THE MUSIC: Maybelle’s guitar style

Screen Shot 2021-11-25 at 18.19.05It is no exaggeration to say that Maybelle Carter was one of the great innovators of guitar music. In terms of what she achieved she is up there with the greats alongside Reinhardt, Hendrix, Clapton, Cooder and – in her own genre, players like Doc Watson and Chet Atkins. I am a guitarist myself, and have been playing for over fifty years. It’s a good job I never had to earn my living from it, but I consider myself a reasonable amateur player. What Maybelle Carter did sounds elementary on the records, but when one comes to try and copy the style it is very, very difficult. She had several different techniques, but her signature style was what is known as ‘The Carter Scratch’. She plays melody with her thumb on the lower guitar strings, while using her index finger to strum out a percussive rhythm of the higher strings. She occasionally uses a different finger picking style, picked up from black blues players, which is more akin to ragtime syncopation.

THE MUSIC: Sarah Carter

Screen Shot 2021-11-25 at 18.20.46Sarah’s autoharp is an important feature on all the recordings. It backs up the incessant rhythm of Maybelle’s guitar, but because its strings are tuned much higher, it cuts through in the treble frequencies and provides an important texture to the music. Crucially, though, when you listen to a Carter Family recording it is mostly Sarah’s voice you hear. It would be wrong to call it a thing of beauty. It has a hard edge, with an almost masculine timbre. There is never any vibrato, but intonation-wise it is spot on every time, right in the middle of the note. The lyrics she sings are almost always shorn of pretension or ambiguity. They speak of simple truths – love, life, death, hardship, betrayal, joy and sorrow. Her voice tells it like it is. There is no doubt, no nuance but instead, utter conviction and sincerity.


The Carter Family were giants in the world of Country Music, of that there can be no doubt. They stand up there on the summit – for me, at least – unrivaled by any anyone else. Other huge talents –  like Hank Williams, George Jones, Bill Munro, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Scruggs and Flatt – are on the mountain too, but none could claim the far reaching influence of the trio of Virginians. Crucially, their sound went wider than the (admittedly large) niche of Country music. Maybelle’s guitar playing broke new ground, admittedly, but it was the harmony singing which, I believe, we hear echoes of in so many performers in popular music across the later decades of the twentieth century. The Chordettes, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles and their imitators, The Eagles – when I hear them sing, I hear Sarah, Maybelle and AP. The Carter Family had a signature tune called Keep On The Sunny Side. In anyone else’s hands it would probably be reduced to  banal optimism, but when they sing it, it’s transformed into something that reaches out across the darkness that everyone faces at sometime in their lives, and tells us to battle on and  trust in whatever God we believe in.


This is German, and some sources call it ‘Rommel’s Funeral March’. It may well have been played at his funeral, after he was forced to commit suicide by an increasingly unstable Hitler, but it predates the Nazi era by many, many years. Wikipedia says:

The text was written by German poet Ludwig Uhland in 1809. Its immediate inspiration was the deployment of Badener troops against the Tyrolean Rebellion. In 1825, the composer Friedrich Silcher set it to music, based on the tune of a Swiss folk song.

The words, in English, are:

I had a comrade,
You couldn’t find a better one.
The drum called to battle,
He walked by my side,
In the same pace and step.

A bullet came a-flying,
Was it aimed for me or you?
He was swept away,
He lies at my feet,
As if he were a part of me.

He reaches out for my hand,
While I was loading.
I cannot hold your hand,
Stay in eternal life
My good comrade!

I’ve included the score, below, for those who read music. I’ve scored it for brass ensemble and timpani.There are many versions of the song on YouTube, but if you want to listen to my version, click here. The sound is just synthesised, I’m afraid, but it will give you an idea of the solemn and impressive tune.


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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music









vooices header

I have been a singer for most of my life. My first recalled performance was dressed up in a kilt and velvet bonnet singing The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, at the age of five, on the stage of the Methodist church hall. Some would say it went downhill from then, but I have enjoyed singing opera, oratorio, folk music and even in rock bands. I no longer perform except to the microphone at home,  but a good singing voice can make my spine tingle like no other instrument. Here are ten pieces of music by great singers. One or two of my choices might surprise you, but please take a listen. Click each graphic to link to a YouTube video of the song. I’ll upload one every couple of days until we get to Number One.

Dmitri placer

Jo Placer

Les Trois Cloches


JM placer

Have Mercy






Sometimes, in the world of popular music, there are people of genius who make a huge contribution to a particular sound or style, but stay out of the limelight. One such was the great guitarist Steve Cropper, whose riffs and sound made the recordings of so many Stax artists come to life. He did, at least, get a part in The Blue Brothers (playing himself) but how many can put their hand up and say they have heard of Martin Quittenton?

Think of that glorious series of hits that Rod Stewart had – Maggie May, You Wear It Well, Farewell – and you are hearing Martin Quittenton. That mix of twelve-string guitar, violin and mandolin was of his creation. Stewart wanted him to join The Faces, but their back-stage antics held no joy for Quittenton, and he eventually faded from the scene and lived as a recluse on Anglesey. Of the thousands of radio plays Maggie May gets every year, I’ll wager that not one in a hundred features the original introduction – an Elizabethan style guitar piece, played by MQ and named, for some reason, Henry. Here’s the original, and then below that is my notation.It’s not identical to Quittenton’s but, as they used to say, it’s close enough for jazz.

SONGS and DREAMS . . . Dear Someone

I have been tinkering with a new website for posting songs and guitar pieces for my pupils, but it is proving more trouble than it’s worth, so I might as well just shoe-horn the occasional post in here. The great Woody Guthrie once said (allegedly) that he never used more than two chords, but that he might use three sometimes if he was trying to impress a girl. I guess that was just Woody being cute, but he has a point. Sure, there are some epic songs with more chords than you can shake a stick at, but simple is often the best. Here’s a gem from Gillian Welch. OK, she slips in a little surprise with that Fm chord, but otherwise it’s just a slow and dreamy waltz tune, with some spine-tingling harmonies. Here’s the original, with my transcription below. She uses a capo on the third fret, making the song in Eb, but pitch it wherever suits your voice.

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