In 1968 Carl Perkins was messing around with the Carter Family hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken backstage in a dressing room somewhere in Kansas. He was thinking about the Tennessee farm where he grew up with his two brothers and the cotton fields where they had sung the old songs together and started writing down his own words.
The hymn was originally penned by British born songwriter Ada Habershon in 1907. Habershon wrote over 200 hymns during her lifetime as well as essays on the Bible and traveled extensively lecturing on prophecy, miracles and the Old Testament among other things.
Years later the great songcatcher and interpreter A.P. Carter would tweak the words and place them over a slightly different melody to another old song called Sunshine in the Shadows. The earliest recorded version I’ve heard is by Jessie May Hill from about 1927, but Carter most likely had picked it up during his travels before that. Here’s a great version from Ginny Hawker & Kay Justice from their fine album Bristol – A Tribute To the Music of the Original Carter Family from Copper Creek Records.
Ginny Hawker & Kay Justice
Carter Family biographer, Mark Zwonitzer, points out in Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone that the melody would have been familiar to many people outside of their general audience. Here is a version from Harry Smith’s Anthology of America Folk Music recorded by the wonderful Pentacostal Church of God In Christ group Elders McIntorsh and Edwards’ Sanctified Singers in 1928:
Since I Laid My Burdens Down, The Elders McIntorsh and Edwards’ Sanctified Singers
The Carter Family would record their version twice; once in 1934 and again in 1935. The song would go on to be recorded by numerous bluegrass and country acts culminating with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 star studded revival of it on Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, The Carter Family; 1935
This is the song that Carl Perkins was playing around with in that Kansas greenroom in 1968. He had thrown out all the verses, but kept the chorus and instead of a sorrowful funeral song he wrote of the silver linings of a hardscrabble life, the simple pleasures of sitting with your family in a circle singing loud.
In his account of writing the song Perkins said that he stopped playing and looked up at the doorway and Johnny Cash was standing there and asked him if he’d wrote the song. Today in 1969 it became a number one hit.
Daddy Sang Bass, Johnny Cash