May 012020

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Ada Habershon

Trying to find some positive across this wracked virus-strewn world, and it came, suddenly, in a flash. Actually, it didn’t quite come in a flash, it came as I semi-snoozed this another I don’t know what the hell day it is lockdown day, courtesy the joy of shuffle. I won’t say which version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” I heard, beyond it was one of these, but it caught my ear and set me thinking, feeling the song. In whatsoever version, gospel or secular, it has something to aspire us all to, that aspiration being hope.

It wasn’t actually written by A.P. Carter, patriarch of the Carter family, even if the near-identical, subtly-altered “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” was, he publishing his song in 1935. So near-identical in fact that the songs have become virtually interchangeable, swapping cans and wills, lifting lyrics from one to the other, to the extent that Mother Maybelle Carter, A.P.’s daughter, sings “will” on the version that she sang with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in their landmark triple LP of the same name.

“Circle” was actually first written in 1907, by an Ada R. Habershon, pictured above, with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The first recorded version was by William McEwan, sometime between 1911 and 1913, with a much better known version by the Metropolitan Quartet in 1927, the tune already having slipped a bit from Gabriel’s intent. And I cannot believe that ol’ A.P. hadn’t heard that version, seven years ahead of his sudden inspiration. Interestingly, “Will the Circle,” courtesy its vintage, is in the public domain, whereas “Can the Circle” is still under copyright to the Carter estate. (I wonder, could that be why there are so many of the one over the other?)

Of course, there is only so much you can do with the bare bones of the song, a fairly straightforward structure, with words that might seem to be overly simplistic, naive, even. Yet, in the right hands, with the right voice, or voices, it becomes a hymn of uplift. Whatever your faith, even if you have little in those available. So don’t go expecting any ska-punk or black metal in these interpretations, just go with the flow and the feel. Immerse.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band & Guests – Will the Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)

The one I heard first, the all but closing ensemble number from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s magnum opus, also entitled Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a legendary meeting of some grizzled survivors of an old country bluegrass sensibility with young longhair upstarts, the Dirt Band. This brought together such luminaries as Roy Acuff, Jimmie Martin, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs. All were initially suspicious, ahead of appreciating that, hippie or redneck, they were all cut from the same cotton cloth. As a teenage boy in England, my love of the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers brought me into this, and my mind was entirely blown. Here, as offered by the spoiler above, it is Mother Maybelle Carter herself, picking up the first and third verses, and adding autoharp to the acoustic swell of that high and lonesome sound.

Pentangle – Will the Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)

Pentangle were better known for their take on a more traditional British folk repertoire, adding their overtly jazzy touches, the rhythm section of Terry Cox on drums, the mighty Danny Thompson on stand up bass, and the twin guitars of John Renborn and Bert Jansch. Floating over the top, always the ethereal vocals of Jacqui McShee. Offering no similarities to their folk-rock compatriots in Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, they were unique, undervalued, and overlooked in their heyday. Here, from their 1971 recording Reflection, the interplay between Renbourns’s extraordinary burbling electric and the harmonica of Jansch is intense, with little to belie the group being on their last legs.

John Lee Hooker – Will the Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)

Paring “Circle” back into a slick and metronomic shuffle, John Lee Hooker stamps his personality so indelibly, it seems scarcely the same song. His rendition is a workmanlike acceptance of the situation, rather than any lament. Astonishingly, despite sounding at least two decades older, this was first released as late as 1974 (although it may have been laid down any time between 1959 and 63, it being a compilation of older material). Hooker probably came by the song as a child, the youngest of 11, home-schooled in a house where the only music allowed was religious.

Gregg Allman – Will the Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)

Sort of the bridge between John Lee and the Dirt Band, Gregg Allman kept “Circle” close to his heart, ever since it appeared on his first solo album. Having purchased the relative niche value of the Dirt Band, it was hugely reassuring for me to have the song being reprised by someone with a whole lot more cool. OK, he then lost a little ground, but, in later years it was no surprise that it was used as the finale of his tribute show, as well as being a staple of later Allman Brothers Band shows.

Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins & Jerry Lee Lewis – Will the Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)

Finally, I confess to no small enjoyment from this ramshackle collective version, clearly under-rehearsed, no doubt in the assumption that Johnny Cash would pull together the best-known song of his mother-in-law, Mother Maybelle. The trouble was that Jerry Lee, perpetually torn between purgatory and the pulpit, was in charge. Sure, he played the song a lot, memorably also at Cash’s tribute some years later, but as a metaphor of Jerry Lee’s career, it barely holds up. Carl Perkins tries to carry it, but once the first mesmeric piano “solo” unfolds, it’s all over. Plus, the other realization that this version has to be included comes from looking at all these players. Mother Maybelle Carter, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, John Lee Hooker, Gregg Allman, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins… gone. All gone. Jerry Lee Lewis is (only) 84. Stay home, Jerry, stay home.

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  4 Responses to “Five Good Covers: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken””

Comments (4)
  1. It’s interesting listen too:
    Charlie Rich, Marion Wiilliams, Randy Travis, Staple Singers, Buddy DiColellette Band.

  2. You missed the best version, the cover used in the game “Bioshock: Infinite”. Performed by Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker, the voice actors of the lead characters.

    The secular lyrics are part of the plot, but also make the song resonate with me more as an atheist.

    • There’s a video of this, perhaps it was in the endgame credits (my memory is slightly rusty as it’s been seven years) behind the scenes of the two of them recording in the studio and Courtnee starts crying before it’s over.

  3. Mother Maybelle was A.P.’s cousin, not daughter. She was one of the original three Carter Family members.

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