The Carter Family, via The Country Music Hall of Fame
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is one of the best-loved, most-recorded songs ever. I've always loved it, but never quite understood it — it's rather oblique. What circle are we talking about, exactly?
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
Can the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling
How I hate to see her go
I followed close beside her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave
Went back home Lord my home was lonesome
Missd my mother she was gone
All my brothers sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone
It's no wonder I've been puzzled. It turns out that this version was based on an earlier song that gave a full explanation, but the story given in the earlier version has now been mostly forgotten, thanks to the new, familiar one.
A. P. Carter, of the great Original Carter Family, pieced together the more familiar version a couple of days before it was first recorded, during a session on May 5, 1935. He completely re-wrote the original song's verses — the storyline of the song — but left the chorus essentially unchanged. So, today, we all know the original refrain, but not the narrative that gives the refrain a literal meaning. (This was probably an improvement, songwriting-wise.)
The original song seems to have been first published in a hymnal in 1907. The idea of the verses was that, back in the good old days when our family was all together and happy and harmonious, we all literally sat in a circle — maybe around the hearth — warmly enjoying each other's loving presence. (You remember that, don't you?)
But now, years later, many of us have died and gone to heaven, breaking that circle. The chairs are emptying, one by one. But don't despair! In Heaven, that circle is slowly being re-assembled — member by member, as we all pass on — and some day, the circle will be unbroken once again.
But there's a catch ... well, beyond the fact that you'll have to die to complete the story, there's an even more serious catch. It's not a sure thing that everybody in the family will wind up in heaven to help complete the circle. Some of us may wind up ELSEWHERE.
So the song was written to ask, in essence: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Or will your loved-ones sit in Heaven, in their broken circle, looking mournfully at that empty chair where [ your name here ] should have sat, but was instead led astray? Will the circle be unbroken? It's up to you! It will be unbroken, but only if you quit your sinful ways and are saved!
Both versions of the song are "alter call" songs, used to invite you to come forward to the alter to be saved. Here's the lyrics to the original:
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?
In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.
One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken—
Will it be complete one day?
Note that both versions have nearly the same melody as the old Negro spiritual, "Glory, glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay my Burden Down," which you'll find on your copy of the Harry Smith anthology.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8