The Winding Stream is a documentary about the contributions of the Carter Family (plus Johnny Cash) to music as we know it. I was deeply impressed, and learned a lot, and was reminded here and there of another excellent music-history documentary, Muscle Shoals.
The Carter Family began with the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (also a Carter by marriage to A.P.’s brother), who began playing music together in the 1920’s. The scope of the story is astounding, how many of these Carters there were and are, how many songs they recorded – the original trio left 260 recordings behind as their legacy, if I remember correctly. A.P. was an early music ethnologist, who traveled throughout his region – the Appalachian mountains of Virginia – seeking out old songs, “mountain music” as they called it (there was no “country music” yet). He noted the lyrics and the tunes and took them home, where he and Sara and Maybelle arranged them, rebuilding them somewhat, and then recorded them for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Today it occurs to us to wonder about the ethical implications of all these songs ending up being Carter songs; but as the movie points out, back then there was no concept of music being “owned” by anyone in particular. And but for A.P.’s avid, even obsessed calling to save this old music (even at the cost of his family life), many of those songs would have been lost to history in the Appalachian hills.
The trio eventually became part of a radio empire in Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas: “border radio” sprang up to avoid U.S. regulations, and used a high-powered frequency to send their programs across the States. (Stranger than fiction: the founder of the Del Rio border radio station was a doctor famous for his goat gland transplant procedure that supposedly boosted men’s sexual function and who promoted female circumcision [to make women less frigid, he claimed].) This is how a young boy named Johnny Cash first heard the Carter Family singing their old-timey songs. The group by this time involved some of the next generation, including Maybelle’s three daughters who would eventually be the Carter Sisters; one of them was little June. As Johnny Cash grew in stature, he kept Mama Maybelle close: in footage from his late life, he calls her the biggest star he ever knew.
The story goes on from there. You’ve heard of Johnny’s daughter (June’s daughter-in-law), Roseanne Cash. Their only child together, John Carter Cash, appears in the movie with his wife, an avid student of the Carter Family history who inspired him to learn more about his own legacy. These contemporary Carters still play the old music. In fact, one of the impressive details is in how many Carters there have been, and how they all seem to have had that music running in their veins: it was just a part of their lives, it appears, and they all could play. For example, Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s daughter, appears throughout the documentary, recalling her parents and their career. Only late in the movie do we learn that A.P. asked her on his deathbed to continue the legacy – and so she opened a dance hall and picked up her guitar and played. All of these characters – so many Carters – are rich, colorful figures in a compelling history.
As with Muscle Shoals, this film inspired a purchase: we went out immediately and bought an album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops after discovering them onscreen. One of the points made throughout is that the Carters have influenced all the music we know today. Like the (better-known) Beatles, everything that came after had a note of Carter Family in it.
Not only an extraordinary story, The Winding Stream is a well-produced and visually pleasing documentary, rich with family, detail, and emotion. I will say that in the animation of old black-and-white photographs of the original trio performing their music, the moving, blinking eyes were entirely creepy. But this was a rare treat of a movie. I learned a lot, and the music was outstanding.