Cover Roundup: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

When contemplating April’s Tunesday theme, I came close to picking this song. I ended up deciding it was better suited for a Cover Roundup, however, so here we are.

I have been complaining lately that the video games my husband plays are some of the saddest stories I have ever seen. In the last few years, video games have had more compelling stories and more of an emotional impact on me than a lot of movies, a lot of books, and even some music. This is no secret to gamers, of course, but being a little on the outside of that circle, I feel urgently compelled to sing these games’ praises.

In that vein, a couple of years ago, I only half-paid attention as Jeremy played Bioshock Infinite. I could tell it was going to be a story that would make me sad, and I have a long history of being affected by the Bioshock series (i.e., terrified). But then during the course of the game, I heard a familiar melody, and I was so excited. The game beautifully uses the traditional Christian hymn (written by Ada R. Habershon and Charles H. Gabriel) “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (and actually the choral recording of the song won the VGX Best Song in a Game award), especially given the context of the game – multiple realities exist, multiple circles, multiple breaks. Then, as you probably know if you’ve played the game, lead voice actors Troy Baker (guitar) and Courtnee Draper (vocals) perform an acoustic version during the end credits; this version appears as an Easter egg in the game with their characters performing a snippet of the song. The complete song is below. Grab a tissue. I will wait.

I was perplexed, however, because the lyrics were a little unfamiliar. After a quick bit of research, I learned that the version I am more familiar with, recorded and performed often by folk and country singers more often flies under the name “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).” This version, reworked by Carter Family founder A.P. Carter, is a ballad about the funeral of the singer’s mother. This version of the lyrics is the version I first heard, years ago, as a child, the version I have heard at funerals and the version I have heard my own father hum and sing as he works.

Here’s a side by side lyrical comparison. I must note that there are nearly as many tweaks to the lyrics as there are cover versions, but this is as standard as I could make it. Many post-Carter Family covers include an additional verse mentioning Mother Maybelle Carter. Also, a lot of times singers use the popular version’s lyrics, but retain “Will the circle…” rather than “Can the circle…” Whew.

will the circle be unbroken lyrics

Of course, the hymn has an ulterior motive. It’s a song meant for church services, and its underlying message is for souls either straying or about to stray from the Lord. When I looked closely at the traditional chorus, I was struck by the wording of the questions: “Will the circle be unbroken?” and “Is there a better home awaiting?” This questioning lamentation seems so odd to me for a hymn – the uncertainty of it seemed so out of place. But of course, the chorus is not directed to the Lord, like I expect it to be because I am so familiar with the popular version. Instead, I believe the singers of the traditional version are asking the audience the questions – are you heading toward this better home we are awaiting, will you fill your place in the heavenly circle so that our family will be complete? In other words, this is a deeply beautiful guilt trip. (BTW, I am currently accepting any grants and stipends to spend years researching hymns. ;))

However, the popular version is something altogether different. Still a lamentation, but this one is crying out to God, not to sinners. A man has lost his mother, and she’s obviously the kind of mother that held the entire family together – “I went back home, the home was lonesome / Since my mother, she was gone.” The chorus in this version reflects that grief we all go through – will there be a day this break is healed? I love then that the second half of the chorus, the answer, is yes – “There is a better home awaiting.” Everything in the hymn is somewhat abstract – “loved ones gone in glory” and “now the family is parted.” But A. P. Carter took this song and gave us a clear story – a man trying to be brave but failing as he lays his beloved mother to rest. Storytelling, yo.

So, with this history and lyrical analysis behind me, I rounded up some different covers. I don’t want to rank them because I feel like this song is so special and so interpretive and such a piece of history, that I can’t even formulate my own thoughts and feelings on what I like best. I just want to hear the song.

First up, and perhaps one of the more definitive versions of the popular lyrics, was recorded in the 1980s by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band along with the help of lots of famous musicians (watch for Levon Helm!). That Roy Acuff verse and Jeff Hana solo at 4:19 choke me up every time. This is the version I grew up with.

Of course, bluegrass king Ralph Stanley has a version of this standard. If you live in the mountains, you’ve been to a revival or a backyard cookout or a little bluegrass festival, and heard a version that sounded a lot like his.

John Lee Hooker’s rhythm and blues version changes the lyrics to “my baby” – this one a lamentation for a recently deceased lover.

As a song made popular by choirs and the multi-voiced Carter Family, it’s no surprise that a lot of concerts end with several groups coming together to sing the song (a la The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). There are just tons of all-star ensembles singing this on YouTube. Here’s one of my favorites with Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, and Punch Brothers.

Maybe you are thinking, “Yeah, but what if I want some triple infusion of Southern Rock, blues, and gospel?” Greg Allman, take it away.

Now, if you haven’t been touched yet, let The Mighty Clouds of Joy’s soulful version take you to church.

It’s just too hard to pick a favorite, so I default to The Carter Family’s because it’s so pure and beautiful. It’s the original, it’s the beginning of country music. Do you have a favorite? Do you prefer one version of the lyrics over another? Weigh in below!