Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)

The Carter Family, 1935

What does the title of the song mean? What is the circle to which it refers? The circle refers to a family that has been broken by the death of the mother. The singers ask God to repair the family.

What image of southern family life does this song—and the membership of the band—project?

Based on the lyrics to this song, from where do the family members draw strength following the loss of a loved one? The verses, sung by soloists, express despair, while the chorus, sung by the whole group, expresses hope. What message does this send?

The Carter Family was central to establishing country music as a commercially successful style of popular music. What elements of later country music can you identify in this song?


"Can the Circle Be Unbroken" recorded by the Carter Family on Can the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music's First Family, © 2000. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

For more information on the Carter Family visit their official website.

View the words and music for "Can the Circle Be Unbroken?"

Carter Family, 1927

The Carter Family

In 1927 Ralph Peer of Victor Records traveled to Appalachia to look for new talent and make quality recordings of what was then called "hillbilly" music. In Bristol, Tennessee, he recorded Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first country superstars, and the Carter Family, which is the first country group to achieve popular success.

The members of the Carter Family, A. P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter, his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter, and her cousin Maybelle Addison Carter (she was also married to A. P.'s brother Ezra), were from Maces Spring and Nickelsville, two small towns in southwestern Virginia at the base of the Clinch Mountains in Appalachia. Maybelle played the guitar, Sara played the autoharp, A. P. wrote verses and arranged songs, and they all sang. A. P. and Sara began performing together in 1915, and Maybelle joined them after she married Ezra in 1926.

The Carter Family style of singing is often described as direct and raw and their songs were about home, family, religion, and hope. They performed and recorded mostly sacred songs, folk songs, and ballads, and their style and outlook projected rural life and aspects of Southern culture. Sara was known for her deep voice, Maybelle for picking basslines and melodies on the guitar's bass strings, and A. P. for gathering and arranging songs from people throughout Appalachia. Their music was heard on radio broadcasts and on records played on home phonographs, such as the Victrola.

"Can the Circle Be Unbroken" was originally recorded at Peer's Victor session in 1927, but that recording was not released. In 1935 a different recording, produced by American Record Corporation (ARC), was finally released. The lyrics were reworked from the hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," with lyrics by Ada R. Habershon and music by Charles H. Gabriel. The melody of the chorus is from the original hymn and the melody of the verse is the same melody as the Carter Family song "Sunshine in the Shadows." The song is about a mother's funeral. Although her passing brings grief, the knowledge that she is going to "a better home a-waiting in the sky" offers comfort.

The song became one of the Carter Family's most famous songs with many recordings and versions by other musicians. In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group of folk, rock, country, bluegrass, and blues musicians, including Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff along with Maybelle Carter, recorded an album titled Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which includes the song of the same name. The album reached Record Industry of Association of America "gold" status and was Maybelle Carter's first gold album (the gold status recognition did not begin until 1958).

Following Sara and A. P.'s divorce in 1939, the group split up in 1941. Maybelle continued to perform, forming a group with her three daughters called Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. In the 1960s they performed with Johnny Cash, who married sister June 1968. The Carter Family (the original group) was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.