Sometimes titled "Can The Circle Be Unbroken," this song is based on a gospel hymn published in 1908 with words by Ada Habershon and music by Charles Gabriel - both very prolific writers of church music. This hymn was reworked by the Carter Family and released in 1935."
Part country song, part spiritual, it describes a funeral. We see the hearse come to take the singer's mother away, and the slow procession to the grave site. Returning home, he feels a profound loss as he grieves with his siblings. Comfort comes from knowing she is with the Lord.
The original 10", 78 RPM single issued by the Carter Family was titled "Can The Circle Be Unbroken (Bye And Bye)" and was marked "Sacred singing with guitar and autoharp." The group was comprised at this time of A.P. Carter (vocals, guitar), his wife Sara Carter (vocals, autoharp), and her cousin Maybelle Carter (vocals, guitar). Maybelle became a Carter when she married A.P.'s brother, Ezra.
The Carter Family made significant changes to the lyrics, most notably in the chorus, where instead of singing: "By and by, by and by," they sing "By and by Lord by and by."
On the Carter Family version, A.P. Carter took the songwriting credit, so subsequent versions recorded with these lyrics must pay royalties to his estate. The 1908 version is in the public domain, but sounds strange to many listeners who are now familiar with the Carter Family rendition and wonder why "Lord" is removed from the chorus. When the song was performed live on The Voice in 2013, the 1908 version was sung in an effort to avoid copyright issues, but viewers objected and expressed their frustrations on social media, demonstrating the perils of performing the original.
The 1908 hymn this song came from is far more broad and ambiguous in its story, opening with this stanza:
There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss
When you close your earthly story
Will you join them in their bliss?
The Carter Family made the song far more intimate, placing it specifically at a funeral and identifying the mother as the departed.
A litany of artists have recorded this song, including Ramblin Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Asleep At The Wheel, Willie Nelson, Pentangle, The Neville Brothers and Jerry Jeff Walker.
For the Allman Brothers Band, this song symbolized their resilience as they overcame the deaths of founding members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. The band performed it at Duane's funeral after he died in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, and the song became part of their live set. Their version first appeared on Eat A Peach at the end of the live "Mountain Jam." The album was released a few months after Duane Allman's death and dedicated to him.
Gregg Allman also included the song on his first solo album, Laid Back (1977).
The Carter Family was not the first to adapt and record the hymn. Carson Robison, Frank Luther and the McCravy Brothers all recorded it before, but none of these versions gained widespread appeal.
In 1972, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released an album called Will the Circle be Unbroken that brought together many luminaries in the world of bluegrass and country, including Doc Watson, Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs. The three-volume set contains 42 songs recorded live on a 2-track machine. On the song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," Mother Maybelle Carter sings the first verse, followed by Jimmy Martin on the second and Acuff on the third and Carter again for the fourth.
In 2005, PBS aired a documentary about the Carter Family called The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Carl Perkins got permission from A.P. Carter to use this song's chorus on "Daddy Sang Bass
," which he wrote for Johnny Cash. That song is about a family singing circle.
Speaking to Mojo magazine, blues harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite talked about the healing power of The Staple Singers' version of this song. Said Musselwhite, "I never get tired of it. At one point in Chicago I had TB, and I just laid there and played this album over and over. The music went all through me and I'm convinced it healed me."