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Singer and guitarist Mother Maybelle Carter began performing with The Carter Family in the 1920s and influenced country and folk music for decades to come.
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In May 1928, The Carter Family traveled to Camden, New Jersey, for their second recording session; it was here that they recorded "Wildwood Flower." One of their most popular and enduring songs, "Wildwood Flower" sold over 120,000 copies upon its release in 1929, more than 10 times the usual sales for a popular record at that time.
The development of more powerful radio stations during the 1930s facilitated The Carter Family's exploding popularity. As the writer Mary Bufwack later wrote,
"I think the real turning point in the Carter Family comes with the move to border radio. It was a wonderful opportunity for them because it was money coming in constantly, but it also really exposed them to a tremendous audience." Over the next 14 years, The Carter Family would go on to record hundreds of songs adapted from the oral traditions of the mountain people of Appalachia. Some of their most famous songs include "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wabash Cannonball."
The Carter Family's success was rooted in their ability to transform the Appalachian region's long tradition of folk and church music, passed down orally from generation to generation, into recorded music for popular consumption. In order to find songs to perform, A.P. traveled all around Appalachia, stopping at farms and taverns to learn the local folk songs and at churches to learn each community's favorite religious music. He then shared these songs with Sara and Maybelle, who "updated" them by adding layered harmonies and instrumentation for the autoharp and guitar.
The Carter Family's music was revolutionary in many respects. They were among the first popular music groups to have a female lead singer (Sara) and to use the guitar (played by Maybelle) as the lead instrument. Maybelle also developed a unique guitar style in which she played the base line with her thumb while her fingers strummed the melody. Known as the "Carter Scratch," this style gave The Carter Family their unique sound and influenced the direction of country and folk music for decades to come.
By the mid-1930s, A.P. Carter's lengthy voyages to discover new songs had come to take a significant toll on his marriage to Sara. He disappeared for months at a time and frequently left Sara with too little money to manage the family's affairs while he was away. During these prolonged absences, Sara fell in love with A.P. Carter's cousin Coy Bayes. Although The Carter Family continued to record and perform music together long after the affair became public, in 1943 Sara and Bayes ran off to California together, bringing about the end of the original trio.
After The Carter Family dissolved, Maybelle started her own all-female band with her three daughters, calling the act Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. "Mother Maybelle" Carter played guitar, her eldest daughter, Helen, played accordion, her middle child, June, played autoharp, and her youngest, Anita, performed lead vocals and played bass.
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In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
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