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The history of the American anthem 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Grand Ole Opry showcases country music's past, present and future. So it's telling that after the Opry renovated and unveiled its new stage earlier this year, this was the first song we heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by?

SUMMERS: "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" is also sung at every Country Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But this song's significance goes beyond country music. Its ability to help people connect with loved ones who have died has made it a go-to ritual everywhere, from worship services to family memorials. Ahead of Fourth of July here in the United States, we're revisiting some of the songs that have become different sorts of American anthems. Back in 2018, Jewly Hight reported on this one.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Bill Anderson has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for more than half a century. So he's had lots of chances to invite first-time performers to literally enter a circle on the stage where their predecessors stood. That circle is a piece of wood cut from the floor of the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry's previous home.

BILL ANDERSON: A lot of the young acts, I'll watch them when they come out, and it's almost like they're afraid to step into that circle. It's like, well, I'll come to the edge of it, but do I have the right to actually step onto that circle? So it is a very significant part of the Opry. And the symbolism is not lost between that circle and the song, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

HIGHT: That's because its lyrics grieve a mother's death and pray that the circle of kinship and belonging will live on in this world and the next.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) I was standing by the window on one cold and cloudy day, and I saw the hearse come rolling for to carry my mother away.

HIGHT: That's the Carter Family version, adapted from an old hymn by patriarch A.P. Carter called "Can The Circle Be Unbroken." It touched the hearts of a lot of record buyers back in 1935. Eventually, the song became known as "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." And it's been sung by every generation of Carters since. Carlene Carter revisited the song, especially for the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

CARLENE CARTER: (Singing) Well, I told that undertaker, undertaker, please drive slow 'cause that lady you are hauling, how I hate to see her go.

It has a different meaning to me now than it did when I first learned it and first sang it in front of an audience. It was a celebration to me then. I did not experience loss in the way that that song actually is about. And being older and having gone through the loss of my mother and my grandma, I feel closer to my people and to my legacy of family when I sing that song.

HIGHT: Carlene remembers singing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" with her kin at the graveside service for her mother, June. That connection to lineage has touched those outside the Carter bloodline too.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

HIGHT: In the early 1970s, the song gave the California country rockers in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a way to bond with their country and bluegrass idols, says Jeff Hanna, one of the band's founding members.

JEFF HANNA: It was as much about just getting to hang out with these folks as it was making music with them. Playing music was a bonus.

HIGHT: The Dirt Band and its guests recorded more than three dozen standards, most with one vocalist or another as lead singer. But on "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin and Roy Acuff each sing a verse, and everyone else joined them for the chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

ROY ACUFF, MAYBELLE CARTER AND JIMMY MARTIN: (Singing) Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by? There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

HIGHT: That group number provided the title for the 1972 album that became a cultural touchstone. Hanna says he met listeners everywhere who responded to the way that the musicians bridged generation gaps.

HANNA: The war was raging in Vietnam right then, and there was a lot of peace marches going on and hippies versus the rednecks, and there was a lot of these sides that just did not trust each other. And hearing folks tell us stories like, you know, I hadn't talked to my dad and years, and we sat down and this record became a bonding point for us - that's deep stuff.

HIGHT: Musicians of a younger generation are still forging those kinds of bonds. Valerie June, a singer and songwriter who broke through in the Roots scene is proof.

VALERIE JUNE: I know exactly where I first heard it, and it would be at church. In particular, my grandmother's church, the Church of Christ. And there were only about maybe 30 members, but everybody sang it all together.

HIGHT: On the coffeehouse circuit, she picked up the guitar part from the Carter family version. She founded inspiring that the song had crossed stylistic, regional and racial boundaries with such artists as The Staple Singers, making it their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by?

JUNE: That's what studying a song like that, as it traveled from my grandmother's church and from my ancestors or from the Carter family - that's what studying one single song taught me - that you might find that it's been done in so many different genres and so many different styles. There are no rules and boundaries for music.

DEANIE RICHARDSON: We got a new song, OK?

STELLA COPE: How cool. What's it called?

RICHARDSON: It's called "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

STELLA: Oh, I don't want the circle to break.

HIGHT: Learning "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" is still a rite of passage for budding musicians like 6-year-old fiddler Stella Cope and her guitarist brother. In a tiny upstairs rehearsal studio on the west side of Nashville, she worked through the tune for the first time with her teacher, Deanie Richardson.

RICHARDSON: First, I want you to get the melody in your head. Ready?

(Singing) I was standing by my window.

Sing it.

STELLA: (Singing) I was standing by my window.

RICHARDSON: (Singing) I was standing by my window.

Play it.

STELLA: (Playing fiddle).

HIGHT: If Cope keeps working at it, maybe she'll be able to join longtime Grand Ole Opry member Bill Anderson in the Opry circle someday. Anderson has pondered the lyrics of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" over the years. He says he loves the imagery of the chorus but wouldn't mind it if the verses dwelled less on the undertaker and his hearse than on celebrating community.

ANDERSON: I'd love to sit down with a couple of guys, maybe a Vince Gill or somebody from the Opry, you know, two or three of us, and try to create a more all-inclusive, positive vibe about our business, about our people and the whole idea of, you know, we'll all get together again someday in the great hillbilly band in the sky.

HIGHT: Where the circle will remain unbroken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) Will the circle be unbroken...

SUMMERS: That was Jewly Hight for NPR News. We just heard her reporting from 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky. I followed close behind her, tried to hold up and be brave. But I could not... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.