Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Maybelle Carter


Today we'll look at the third member of the original Carter Family, Maybelle Addington Carter.

Maybelle's guitar style has been widely copied throughout the years. Her influence extended well beyond the Original Carters as she performed many years with her daughters as The Carter Sisters or as Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

For now we're looking at her early life and when she started playing with AP and Sara.

Maybelle Joins the Group: In late 1925 the third member of the original group, cousin Maybelle Addington, born on May 10, 1909 in Midway, near Copper Creek joined. Like A.P. and Sara, Maybelle was surrounded from birth by music.

June Carter Cash (Maybelle’s daughter): "The Addington family is English originating in London. Mother is a direct descendent of William Addington, born in London, 1750 locating first to Culpepper County in 1774 was appointed commissary to General Washington during the war between Great Britain and the colonies. He was present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and settled on Clinch River with 12 other families around 1782."

"The land was good with deer, bear and wild turkey in abundance. My mother's great great grandfather and family came to south western Virginia, along with the Kilgores, from which my grandmother descended. I mention all of this, because with the Doughertys, Kilgores, and Addingtons, came many an English and Irish ballad which was later sung by the Carter Family. The line of Addingtons remaining in England, produced one Henry Addington who in 1800 became Premier of England."

Maybelle’s brother Dewey played the banjo at local dances, and her older sister Madge had played guitar, banjo and autoharp with Sara. Maybelle soon learned to play the same instruments but it was with the guitar and autoharp that she excelled. She was a little child when Sara and A.P. married, but with her natural ability on the autoharp and guitar, she was noticed by the Carters.

Maybelle’s style of guitar playing was unique, and evidently she came up with it on her own. Charles Wolfe has suggested that Byrd Moore, who traveled the area and played with Earl Johnson and many early Country performers, was an influence. The style Maybelle developed is called the "Carter scratch" or "Carter lick." She played the melody on the bass strings with her thumb while brushing the treble strings with the backs of her right hand fingernails.

At the same time she would finger a partial chord with her left hand. Later she developed some intricate melody runs and hammer-ons on the bass strings. Of course, such runs were not new, but they were used differently by Maybelle, they were being used not only as a part of the lead, but as fills and also for the "bottom" of the song. This style would be imitated by generations of guitarists all over the world.

Contrary to what some have stated, Maybelle did not learn her guitar style from Lesley Riddle in 1928 when he began working with The Carter Family. She did learn to refine her slide guitar playing and to fingerpick (Travis pick with alternating bass) songs like "Cannonball Blues" from Riddle.

Maybelle also played the autoharp in a unique way, holding it against her chest and left shoulder so she could perform standing up. Rather than strumming across the harp while barring a chord, Maybelle actually picked out the melody with her thumb and finger picks. I have her autoharp book in my collection.

A.P., Sara, and Maybelle would often play together, and in December 13, 1925, Maybelle went to Maces Springs to do a schoolhouse show with A.P. and Sara. There she met A.P.'s dashing brother Ezra, known as Eck, and the two fell in love. On March 23, 1926, Maybelle and Eck were married, and Maybelle went to live with Eck and his parents and siblings in Poor Valley.

More on Maybelle and the Cater Family to come. We'll look next at the Carter Family songs titled with C.


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