The Carter Family Documentary That Was Kicked and Started
While it’s a little hard to admit that every now and then I can lose my focus and get sidetracked, there are those occasions when I take on a particular subject only to end up somewhere else. For example, about a month ago I sat down to write a short essay about the Carter Family, and by the time I got to the second paragraph I had shifted the focus to the African-American influence in roots music, featuring videos from Uncle John Scruggs to Grandmaster Flash. But after spending several months of researching and reading books about Sara, Maybelle and A.P. Carter, listening to hours of audio recordings and radio transcriptions, and watching an excellent documentary titled The Winding Stream you’d think I would be prepared this time around not to stray from the path. Wrong.
As much as I’d love to retell the story of the Carter Family for those who may not know how they’ve left an everlasting imprint on American music, it is the journey of award-winning independent producer, director and writer Beth Harrington and the way she brought the Carter’s story to the screen that has currently captured my interest. It’s too good of a tale to not be told. And better still, most of it will be in her own words. God bless digital footprints.
On November 15, 2010 a Kickstarter campaign was created to help fund a feature-length documentary. At the top of the page it’s described as an “epic story of the dynasty at the heart of American roots music – The Carter and Cash families.” Here is an excerpt of the introduction:
My name is Beth Harrington, and I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for more than 30 years. I’m also a former musician – a singer in the band Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. So there you have it, my two loves – music and documentary film.
A few years ago, I successfully combined these loves on a film called Welcome to the Club – The Woman of Rockabilly. It was really well-received, so much so that it got nominated for a Grammy Award. Needless to say, this encouraged me to move ahead on my next music documentary, The Winding Stream which has the subtitle “The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music.”
I’d been aware of the Original Carter Family – the biggest “old-timey” music act of their day – and their musical legacy for a long time. But working on Welcome to the Club and meeting Rosanne Cash (who narrated that film) made me think it was time to do a film about this music dynasty that stretched from the 1920s to the present. I wanted to explore how the Carters practically “invented” country music and how legions of musicians – from Woody Guthrie to Elvis to Johnny Cash to Joan Baez to Jeff Tweedy, to name a few – all feel a debt of gratitude to them. And, as a result, how the tradition instituted by the Original Carters has carried on in their family and in the culture at large.
And I realized that, even though small parts of this family’s epic story had been told before, no one had presented this big picture. No one had shown the connection to the Carter Sisters, to Johnny Cash, to the folk movement and to the Americana movement. And no one had told the story using both original recordings AND contemporary roots music artists performing (and discussing) the music.
I started shooting The Winding Stream in 2003 and, with Rosanne Cash’s help, one of the first interviews I did was with her dad, Johnny Cash. Sadly, it was to be one of his last interviews; he passed away only three weeks after we’d spoken with him. This forced the realization that I needed to step up production because we were losing some of the key players in this story. I felt a real urgency to get these interviews on tape. I spent a lot of my own money doing so. And I’m very glad I did. But I knew I would need more.
For those of you who’ve either started or contributed to a Kickstarter or any other crowdsourcing project, it’s a leap of faith that you’ll get to your goal. Sometimes there’s just not enough money donated to keep it going, and there are other times that the original idea turns out to be either flawed, abandoned or simply unable to be completed for any infinite number of reasons.
But there was something I noticed about The Winding Stream campaign that was different than most, aside from the fact that the picture was actually completed and released: in five years Beth has published forty-two updates to her supporters. What follows is a look into what it took to get this film to the finish line. I’ll share a few of her updates with a little selective editing, and dispense with quotation marks since y’all know it’s Beth’s writing.
Update #4, December 8 2010: Hi everyone. Well, as you may know by now, we’ve reached our Kickstarter goal! I’m moved and grateful to all of you who contributed to this campaign. And you did it in three weeks. Thank you so very much!
Update #15, March 21, 2011: Just a quick note to let you all know that we’ve been putting the funds we raised with your help to very good use. Just back from Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia (yup, it’s a city in two states) and we got five critical interviews done, plus a musical performance with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Wildly successful trip. Probably a Nashville shoot still in our future and one in California and we’ll be close to done shooting.
Update #17, February 28, 2012: I realize it’s been a while since I’ve updated you on things connected to The Winding Stream so here’s a little update. We’re well into post-production now which means there is a glimmer at the end of the tunnel (not exactly a light yet, but soon). Since last I wrote we’ve received two grants – one from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Roy W. Dean Foundation which have helped us considerably and are big honors, needless to say. We’re in the running again for funding from the Independent Television Service and should know in a while if we get that. We’ve started to show excerpts from the film now – once at a fundraiser here in Washington State and more recently at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, MT. Both times the reactions have been very positive which has buoyed our spirits a lot as we move along.
Update #18, April 29, 2012: We’re writing to let you know about some new developments with The Winding Stream. We’re moving into full post-production soon with our pal, editor Greg Snider at the helm. And we’ve found a wonderful animator to do cool photo-animations for us, Mike Olson. I’m at work on the companion book to the film, and we’ve had interest from cable channels, film festivals and theatrical and DVD distributors for when the film is done. Our hope is to wrap it all up by the end of the year.
May 3, 2012: A second round of Kickstarter funding begins.
Update #25, June 21, 2012: In the last 9 years I have amassed a treasure trove of what I consider to be important interviews with people who were witness to some of our most important shared cultural history. The early days of radio, the infancy of the record industry, the growth of interest in what would later be called “country” and “folk” music. People like Johnny Cash, Janette and Joe Carter, Mike Seeger, Charles Wolfe and others knew the Original Carter Family and were among the last living witnesses to the Carters’ role in all this. The people I just named have all passed away in the time we’ve been working on this film. I started to view completion of this film as a sacred trust. These folks had taken the time to share this with me.
This material couldn’t just languish on a shelf. It had to be made into the film I’d promised. So we stuck with it. Through years when everyone turned us down. Through times when we scraped by with tiny amounts of money that would get us one more interview. Through lots and lots of days of colleagues and friends — er, actually, that’s redundant; my colleagues on The Winding Stream are my steadfast friends –donating their time and talent and energy to this. Through many sleepless nights when I did think that I was – indeed – plum crazy to persist.
June 27, 2012: Funding for the second Kickstarter campaign is met.
Update #28: January 7, 2013: Hi everybody! Wanted to let you all know how much progress we’ve made on The Winding Stream! We have a final cut of the film and are now clearing rights for the music and archival images. If all goes well, we should have a completed film very soon. Thanks again for helping us get this far!
Update #29, February 1, 2014: Stopping by to let you know that great things are happening for The Winding Stream. We just recently learned that this labor of love- that’s taken more than a decade and the efforts of numerous talented people to complete – has been chosen for this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
Update #33, August 7, 2014: Monday’s NYC premiere of The Winding Stream at Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center was a big hit. We had a full-house and the New York audience embraced the film. We’d also like to announce that The Winding Stream won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Woods Hole Film Festival. This is our fourth festival award and we’re very grateful to be recognized this way. Thanks to all of our Kickstarter backers! You helped make this possible.
Updare #37, December 12, 2014: We have a big, exciting challenge! As you may know, we need to finish paying for music and archival footage and rights before we can open the film theatrically, air it on public television, or make it available on platforms like iTunes and cable on demand. We want to make all this happen as soon as possible to build off our festival momentum. We once needed $85,000. But incredibly we have recently received a grant from the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation for half that!
Update #39, September 2, 2015: Hi Friends – I wanted to let you all know that we’ve entered the next phase of the life of The Winding Stream! Theatrical! Thanks to the efforts of our partners at Argot Pictures, we are now taking the film to art houses across the country. We are also thrilled to say that the good folks at Omnivore Recordings are releasing a soundtrack album from the film! That drops on October 16.
Alright…so as you can tell, I’ve been completely swept away by Beth, her team and this unbelievably enchanting film. On a musical highway that’s ninety years long and still stretches out before us, there are unlimited on and off ramps that this filmmaker could have chosen. With a subtitle that reads ‘The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music’, she brings to life a family tree with endless branches. By using the voices of those still living and the ones who’ve passed on, and enhancing that experience with film, video, photographs and animation, the music and stories are presented with the delicacy and historical context one could have only hoped for.
There is a tendency to receive and process information in bite-sized pieces in this technologically supercharged world we live in. And I’m sure Beth would agree that it would be a mistake to believe that the tales of this great musical family can be told in a mere ninety-two minutes, despite over a decade in the making. (I’d love to see what didn’t make the final cut.) I think of The Winding Stream as a doorway to discovery, and hope that people will be inspired to seek out not only the music which has endured over the years and is readily available, but also take the time to learn more about the folks who absolutely define any such notion of what you might think the term Americana means. This is a story for the ages.
For those of you in the New York area, I plan to attend a screening at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville (the most appropriately named town ever) on February 11, and there’ll be some fine live music from the Shovel Ready String Band. Buy your tickets before they sell out and if you happen to see me, please say hi.
This article was originally posted at therealeasyed.com
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