Published on September 25th, 2015 | by JF Quackenbush


Only at The Grand: explore the cultural importance of the Carter Family with The Winding Stream

There was a time in American popular music when genre was a much more fluid thing; when the line wasn’t exactly clear between a blues and a jazz record, or a country record and a blues record, or a jazz record and a gospel record.

And broken along racial, regional, and socioeconomic lines that were often more permeable than we tend to see them now – after a century of commodification and categorization – it can be difficult to conceptualize a time when recording technology and mass distribution of phonograph records was young.

In this era of burgeoning recorded music and at the intersection of blues, country, gospel, folk and, yes, even jazz, we find the Carter Family, the starting point and subject of The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes, and the Course of Country Music.

This film is at the center of The Grand Cinema’s upcoming celebration of the Carter Family and their music on September 29.  

The course of American music

The Carter Family originated, as The Winding Stream tells it, like a bubbling spring at the source of a mountain creek (to be read ‘crick’ in the rural Pacific Northwestern dialect that owes more than a little bit to West Virginia transplants into the Oregon Territory) that eventually winds its way down into the Shenandoah or Ohio River of country music. It’s a compelling way to tell the story.

Janette and Joe Carter

Janette and Joe Carter

June Carter and Johnny Cash

June Carter and Johnny Cash

The Winding Stream covers the entire family history in the manner of a genealogist: the story of the family told by the family.

Though familiar to anyone who knows the history of country music, the film’s level of detail is uncommon and hearing it all in the voices of the original trio’s surviving descendants, along with archival recordings of Maybelle and Sara, is thrilling.

There is nothing like watching footage of Johnny Cash telling a joke about his mother-in-law, Maybelle. You just have to see it.

But even more important, I think, is the fact that this film follows the stream into the murkier past of the African American influence on the earliest recorded “country” music.

 Exploring the African American influence

The race line in music is so old that most of the time, people don’t even notice it’s there. Indeed, many contemporary listeners still suffer under the common misconception that Country is a style of music that was played by southern white folks, while The Blues was a style of music played by rural southern black folks, and ne’er the twain met.  

Lesley Riddle

Lesley Riddle

This in many ways artificial distinction was more a contributor to rather than a result of some sort of musical color line.

The film reminded me of examples where country and blues traditions intersect in all manner of odd 78 RPM artifacts like Lead Belly singing cowboy songs, or, as the film shows, in the uncomfortable reality that the success of white recording artists like the Carters was partly attributable to uncompensated black labor.

The film personifies this aspect in Lesley Riddle, A.P. Carter’s African American song collecting partner. The filmmakers wisely turn to musician and scholar Dom Flemons to tell Riddle’s story. Flemons and Riddle’s own recorded speech detail the way that Riddle would collect tunes by rote memory for Carter who could not write music.

The Winding Stream is unique among its kind because it asks the question of how Riddle must have felt about how the Carter’s got rich and famous and he got nothing, a question that is only lately entering into the research of country music historians.

The correct answer, which is the one the film gives through footage of Dom Flemons, is that we just don’t know. But in asking it against the background of Flemons’ bandmates from the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing The Carter Family blues number “Hello Stranger” about as beautifully as it has ever been recorded speaks volumes.

The incredible, indelible Carter Family music

And yes, it would be possible to just watch this film to enjoy the music.

Along with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, there are performances by George Jones, John Prine, Grey DeLisle & Murray Hammond, along with a few other big names and archive cameos of famous country and western innovators like Hank Williams and Chet Atkins, as well as numerous recordings of the various Carters and Cashes on their own.

The cliché about this kind of film is to say that the real star is the music, and there’s some real truth in that.

That certainly will be the case at The Grand’s premiere Tuesday with the sure to be excellent performance of Carter Family songs by BC’s Petunia, of Petunia and the Vipers. 

The Winding Stream offers opportunities to think as well as enjoy wonderful music, which is certain to take the Q&A with filmmaker Beth Harrington into fascinating territory. She’s clearly thought very intently about how to tell this story and hearing her thoughts on that process will be just as rewarding as the rest of the show.

It should be a fantastic night. See you Tuesday at The Grand Cinema!

The Winding Stream

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music

Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Two screenings:  1:45 pm & 6:30 pm
Director Beth Harrington will be at both screenings, Petunia will perform before the 6:30 pm screening.
The Grand Cinema
6060 S Fawcett Ave


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About the Author

is a lawyer, amateur musicologist, and writer who lives and works in South King County.

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