This documentary about a landmark family’s contributions to American music shows the Carter and Cash clans with a long, colorful history, albeit with their share of joy and heartache. Nevertheless, music has always been a constant thread. The patriarch, A. P. Carter, heard a young woman singing as he walked by a house in the mountains of Virginia, and he was so struck by her voice he stopped and introduced himself. He was out selling fruit trees so asked Sara if she was interested in buying one, and Sara—who would become his wife—said she was selling dishes and if he would buy a set, she would buy one of his trees. I got the impression he proposed on the spot and offered to buy all her dishes if she would come with him.
Sara had a cousin, Maybelle, who could also sing, and soon, the three of them were singing together regularly. A.P. was obsessed with mountain music and went all over the state collecting songs. Eventually, the trio came to the attention of New York publisher Ralph Peer, who was interested in recording some of their songs in Bristol. It took them all day to drive there in their jalopy, but they made it by nightfall and recorded songs that night and the next morning. They were given a check and didn’t think much more about it, until they got word that the record had come out, and soon they were a hit. Peer recorded many, many of their songs thereafter and saw that A.P. got royalty checks, something that was new to him.
A.P. continued to scour the state for songs and enlisted the help of Lesley Riddle, who would go with him and remember all the tunes while A.P. wrote down the words. Riddle was black, so was a source for a large body of works that came from black people. At that time, one of the Carters said, no one thought about anyone owning the songs, so copyright wasn’t an issue. A.P. and Riddle developed a close relationship and wrote down song after song. A sad—and perhaps telling—observation is that no one knows what Riddle thought about their endeavors in the end, as he did not receive any compensation.
A.P. was so preoccupied with getting songs, he didn’t always consider his wife Sara and her needs, and left her once without much of a word when she had no way to get groceries and supplies. To solve the problem, he asked his cousin Coy to look in on her and help her when A.P. was away. He didn’t anticipate that the two would develop a loving relationship, and Sara eventually moved to California with Coy. She was not as invested in performing as Maybelle was, and reasoned that her children would be better off with their father, so left them with him. He never got over her, and always maintained a hope that she would return to him. Despite the divorce, Sara continued to perform with the Carters from time to time.
Another significant development in the Carter lives was the Texas/Mexico border radio started by Dr. John Brinkley who, after his medical license was taken away, established XERA, a radio station that had the capacity to be heard around the world. He gave A.P., Sara, and Maybelle $75 a week to perform, which they did, sometimes with their children.
A huge opportunity came up when Life Magazine scheduled a feature on the Carter family, but fate intervened, and when Japan bombed U.S. ships in Pearl Harbor, the feature was cancelled. Soon after, Maybelle decided to take off on her own with her daughters, June, Anita, and Helen (her husband Ezra was their manager). They were highly successful, and brought in Chet Atkins to play with them.
Not too long after, Johnny Cash met June and was so smitten with her he vowed to marry her even though they were both already married. Eventually, they were single and married in 1968. Subsequently, the Carter and Cash families were so integrated they performed together regularly.
The Winding Stream, directed by Beth Harrington, is an apt and wonderful tribute to the Carter-Cash musicians, their devotion to family, and their contributions to American music. It’s paced just like a winding stream, with plenty of music to enjoy while watching. The three original singers—A.P., Sara, and Maybelle—are well fleshed out so that we come to know them pretty well as people by the end. Maybelle’s children and Johnny Cash, who married Maybelle’s daughter June, are featured as well. Maybelle is especially noteworthy in being able and wanting to sing well into her later years with younger musicians as well as her family, e.g., The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. She was so nurturing, she was called “Mother Maybelle.”
Sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing about the musically influential Carter and Cash families.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland