Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Students of folklore know that some things we call “traditional” are nothing but inventions that “try to establish links with a suitable historic past but their connection with this past is tenuous at best.”(1) Folklorists are trained to identify these patterns, dissect them, and expose them.

But how does one explain and dissect this phenomenon when a folklorist herself, short of “inventing” a tradition, actually imagines one that (perhaps) never was… but that, nonetheless, seems to hold some truth and relevance among a close knit community? Such is the strange case of my recollection of the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Tucson Meet Yourself.

It must have been 2004 when I attended my first TMY festival. I had been hired that summer as Folklorist at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center (a position, with some variations, previously held by Dr. Jim Griffith). Part of my new job duties involved establishing some kind of relationship with the folklife festival that my predecessor had founded. At that year’s festival, everyone was welcoming and seemed eager to share the behind-the-scenes wisdom they had accumulated over many years.

I have a clear memory (I think) of the staff getting together under some trees at El Presidio Park at the end of the festival on Sunday evening, holding hands, Jim saying a few words, and everyone singing the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I believe someone I was holding hands with in the circle (can’t recall whom) turned to me and said: “we always end the festival with this song” (a false statement — or a false memory). Or maybe that person said (might it have been Jim?) “this song is usually sung at the end of gatherings such as this” (which would have been an accurate statement).

The fact of the matter is that, like hands on wet cement, the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” stuck with me and ever since I have associated it with the festival. I even came to believe that it was the favored song to sing at the staff circle (although, oddly, I never heard it sung again among the festival staffers after that first fantasy memory I had created). Yet, my fuzzy, folksy memory grew even more confused when members of the Rondstadt family (including Linda) gathered at the Fox Theater in 2010 to serenade Jim Griffith for receiving a national award and they sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to him and Loma.

Accurate or not as the festival’s closing melody, I really love the song. My favorite version is the one sung with sincere country twang by Randy Travis.

The Travis interpretation stands apart for another reason: it is a hybrid of two different versions of the song, each of which is distinguished by the use of “will” or “can” before the words “the circle be unbroken.” I asked Steve Winick, expert on American ballads at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, to shed some light on this variance. Turns out, the original song was called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The lyrics were composed as an evangelical hymn by Ada Habershon, an English hymnodist who lived in Middlesex and wrote lyrics for hundreds of hymns. The music is by Iowa-born Charles Gabriel. Perhaps she learned the melody through American preachers that visited the UK in an evangelistic tour in 1905. The song was submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright in 1907. The hymn’s lyrics are a generic exhortation to faith provoked by the thought of death:

There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss;
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

The version I (allegedly) heard at Tucson Meet Yourself was adapted from the Habershon hymn by A.P. Carter of the Carter Family in 1927. A.P. Carter kept the focus on the afterlife, but the new verses refer specifically to a mother’s funeral. Technically, the Carter Family song is “CAN the Circle be Unbroken” (see the song’s Wikipedia entry).

But most people, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, perform it as “WILL the Circle be Unbroken.” The chorus is the same as the hymn, except for can/will. Most people sing the A.P. Carter verses but revert to the original “will.”

Invented or imagined, for me the song captures something of the ethos that holds TMY together — the banjo arrangement reminds me of the feeling of community that traditional music engenders; the religious message reminds me of my mother’s unshakable faith ; the message about a “better way” affirms the unrelenting vision of cultural democracy that I see among the hard-working TMY staff and volunteers and the thousands of Southern Arizonans who claim this event as their own.

(1) http://www.history.utoronto.ca/material_culture/rmclean/html/trad.htm

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