Helen Carter: 1927 to 1998
Hearing of Helen Carter’s death on June 2, I recalled the only time, eight or nine years ago, that I saw the Carter Sisters perform. In that high school auditorium outside of St. Louis, it was hard to grasp all the territory they’d covered, how much history had passed alongside them by the time they’d arrived at this decade. As girls, they were with Mother Maybelle when the original Carter Family split up, touring with her and broadcasting on barndance programs around the South, performing during the Opry’s heyday with Chet Atkins (whose career they nourished), continuing to sing the old songs — not so much for deliberate preservation, but because these were simply their songs, like they were no one else’s — even while opening for Elvis Presley in 1956 and ’57.
That night in the school auditorium, they ended their set with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; then, in quick segue, Johnny Cash (husband of Helen’s sister June) walked onstage and gutted out “Ring Of Fire”. The symbolism of circles merging was classic, inevitable, and emphasized that for all the soiled toughness of Cash’s songs, a sustaining family spirit, the epitome of the Carter’s music, was never far away.
Helen Carter was the oldest of Maybelle and Ezra’s daughters, and from her first performance at age 10, she sang with her family through six decades before retiring in 1995. She also recorded duets with her brother-in-law Don Davis and with Johnny Bond, worked for a spell with Delores Dinning as part of the Blondettes, and cut singles for Okeh and Hickory in the ’50s, though they found little commercial success. My friend and fellow ND contributing editor David Cantwell tells me that, in her prime, Helen Carter had the finest voice of all the Carters. And listening to her sing “Poor Old Heartsick Me” — a hit for Margie Bowes in 1959 — her energetic, even muscular phrasing, her translucent tone, you could hear how deeply she’d taken in both mountain and modern country. Her voice reminds me, anachronistically, of a female Rick Danko.
She was also one of the family’s most gifted and prolific songwriters, penning or co-penning scores of songs that merit reinterpretation today: “Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong”, “I Dreamed Somebody Else’s Dream”, and “Loving You Was Worth This Broken Heart”, for starters. Her themes held classic Carter Family sentiments, and also the wit and wordplay of an imagination that flourished with time. Helen Carter was never quite satisfied with the inheritance of legends: Her mark on country music is as individual as it is inseparable from the sweet flow of family harmony.