Review: The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

I've been fascinated for a long time about the lost America, the United States that disappeared from our collective memory with the relentless progress of modern industry. As interstate highways, fast food and the Internet have helped combine to make our country more interchangeable and less diverse, I've been more and more filled with a yearning to know more about the America that has been lost in the last few decades of homogenization. 

Thankfully we have literature to help us resurrect the older, weirder America. Classic comic strip reprints like Walt and Skeezix and Little Orphan Annie resurrect a bygone era in all its diversity, complexity and strangeness. Because a world is invisible to you when you're in the middle of it, the people at the time had no perspective on the country they lived in. They couldn't have any idea of what might be lost in just a few years, trampled by war and media and the conformity of the 1950s. 

 

 

So when we spend time reading about Walt Wallet's daily life in the 1920s and '30s on Gasoline Alley we don't just read the story of a man's life. We read the story of the world in which Walt lives. The cars and treatment of race and love of the radio that we read in that comic strip were just depictions of normal everyday life when they first were shown in comics, but as time has passed, they've become redolent of their time and place in a ways that's not quite nostalgic but more like a look into an America that's long past.

It was relatively easy for Frank King to tell the story of his times because it really was the world that surrounded him and lived outside his window. There's a tremendous amount of artistry at work in those fantastic comic strips, but there's another layer at play in the book for readers who come to older works now.

It's much harder to resurrect the past in retrospect, to create a lost era in a new graphic novel. But David Lasky and Frank Young's new biography of the Carter Family, Don't Forget This Song, does exactly that -- and much more.

 

 

This new graphic novel is the story of the famous Carter Family singers, giant musical celebrities in the 1930s and a legendary musical family that continues on even today with the children of Johnny and June Carter Cash.

The main characters in this story are Alvin Pleasant (Doc) Carter and his wife Sara (or "Sary," as he always calls her).  Young and Lasky do a great job of bringing these vivid personalities to life and giving us a perspective on their lives -- their relationships with each other, with their families, their friends, and maybe most importantly in relation to the world in which they lived.

Despite the fact that this book takes place over 75 years ago -- or maybe because of that fact -- the worlds of these characters are evocative and fascinating. We watch A.P., Sara and cousin Maybelle work their way through their lives, working hard and singing the songs that both improve their lives and destroy their relationships as they work their ways through their lives.

The Carters start out with almost nothing as this book begins. On the first pages, they're literally dirt poor, just subsistence farmers in the rural mountains on Virginia. As this book begins in 1911, the family is in a devastating financial position. Their tobacco crop has failed, the taxman is threatening to take away the Carter family home, and a rash of typhoid fever prevents young Pleasant from finding work in the big city.

 

 

The family survives but just barely, and A.P. quickly finds a job as a traveling salesman. It's while working that job that two major events happen in his life: A.P. meets his future wife Sara, and he discovers that he can make beautiful music together with her. The courtship scene on page 21 of his book is remarkable for the way that it brings the musical, emotional and spiritual connection between these two talented people to life. Artist David Lasky draws most of this book in a deceptively simple medium-view flat image that seems to flatten out the story. But when he draws images of people singing, the book takes on a more lovely and intriguing feel. Sara's and A.P.'s voices combine on page 21 to become something more than the combination of their two voices. The combination becomes a rose, a symbol of love and passion that represents the relationship between the two young people as well as a classic element in song.

As the story moves along, we see how the move away from the simple country life both helps and hurts the family -- and how they always seem to remain true to their roots. The scene on page 68 when the Carter singers visit an opulent hotel in New Jersey and are overwhelmed by the presence of running water, soft beds and room service -- "it's like a mansion," one remarks -- is both sweet and wonderfully real.

We also see the deep friendship that A.P. makes with Lesley Riddle, a one-legged black man who sings beautifully and quickly becomes A.P.'s best friend. We get the sense from the way that the two men get along that there's not a single racist bone in A.P.'s body. Music is the brotherhood that the men share.

But at the same time we see music and careerism get in the way of family life. There's a divorce in the middle of this story that's quite sad and dispiriting but that readers can anticipate coming from pages before, as well as a feeling of the family being trapped by their success.

I've been praising Frank Young's writing all through this review without actually mentioning his name. Young and Lasky create an interesting book here -- one where everything happens on the surface but where readers can see the undercurrents that lead to the family's successes and eventual failures. 

 

 

The team uses several different techniques to amplify the power of the story. It's intriguing how much control Young has over his story and how specifically he chose scenes that would symbolize emblematic moments in these peoples' lives. Partway through the book I was reminded of how complicated comics can be as a tool for creating biography, how a certain combination of scenes and elements can amplify particular elements of a story and allow it to grow in surprising and innovative ways.

Young also changes up his approach at different points in the book, sometimes accompanied by changes in Lasky's art and sometimes not. For instance, sections of this book are delivered as an epistolary approach to the book, allowing for a bit of an objective view while other sections are delivered as more like straight narrative that feels more subjective.

Most intriguingly, Lasky and Young break from the classic sort of narrative at times to tell the story in four-panel comic strip form. Of course, comic strips were tremendously popular in this era, so their use is both nostalgic and innovative at the same time. It certainly breaks the flow of the book and forces the reader to react to that section. I'm curious why the team decided to twist their storytelling in that way and if they feel it's successful. I'm honestly still making up my mind.

David Lasky has always experimented with his comics -- one of his first comics published was a minicomic take on James Joyce's Ulysses -- and the experimentation on this comic is mostly subtle and fascinating. He uses a style in this book that seems on the surface to be simple, but the more you probe it, the more depth there is. 

 

 

He puts a lot of emphasis on panel composition and page structure, silent resonant panels and small elements of imagination in the middle of relative quiet. He also does something very intriguing in this book by progressively using thinner and thinner lines to depict the scenes in this book. It's interesting symbolism that works in subtle ways -- I literally didn't realize Lasky was doing that until I reread the book to review it here -- which adds an interesting effect.

This is an interesting book that works on several levels. As a simple biography, it's satisfying and intriguing. As a piece of comics art, it's creative and innovative. And as a depiction of the older, weirder America, it succeeds wonderfully. This book does a terrific job of capturing the complicated lives of one of America's most important musical families.

 


 

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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