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"Will The Circle Be Unbroken" - Music, Videos, Words (two versions!)

Updated on November 27, 2013

A well-loved hymn that was turned into a favorite Appalachian Bluegrass song by the Carter Family

There have been many recordings of Will The Circle Be Unbroken - a hymn originally composed in 1907 by Ada R. Habershom and Charles H. Gabriel, and later re-written by Appalachian musician A.P. Carter of The Carter Family.

Loretta Lynn recorded it. So did The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Joan Baez, and of course, Mother Maybelle Carter and The Carter Family, June Carter-Cash... and many others.


About the image above: This is a publicity photo for the Carter Family.

This page was made by Linda Jo Martin, author of River Girl.

You can connect with me on Google Plus.

Ada Ruth Habershon
Ada Ruth Habershon

The original lyrics...

...much different than the ones we normally hear today.

The words to this song were originally written by Ada R. Habershan. I believe she deserves an "Amazing Woman Award" . . . and I wish there was one I could give her! She lived from 1861 to 1918. A devoted life-long Christian, she wrote books and Bible studies. In 1905 a friend asked her to write Gospel songs, and within a year, she had 200 ready to give him!

This song, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, bears a 1907 copyright date.

The words Ada wrote were mostly supplanted by A.P. Carter's version in 1927, but they are lovely and well worth learning.

Ada's version was more philosophical, whereas A.P. Carter's version told the cold and moving story of a departed mother. He kept the original refrain. I believe his version became more popular because the experience of losing one's mother rips at the heart, and is a universal theme everyone (well, almost everyone) has to face at some time during life.

As of this writing, I have not yet lost my mother, and the thought of losing her makes me feel panicky. My mother's middle name is Maybelle. I wonder if my grandparents named her after Mother Maybelle Carter!

Here's the original lyrics. If you want to print a copy, please download my PDF version: Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

The melody was composed by

Charles Hutchinson Gabriel

This talented musician composed the music for Will The Circle Be Unbroken as well as hundreds of other tunes. He was a lifelong musician and was the music director at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Books by Ada R. Habershon - ...the original songwriter of 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken'

She was a devoted Christian and wrote numerous Bible studies, as well as hundreds of hymns.

The Carter Family's Lyrics

...other versions are available on the web...

I was standing by the window

On one cold and cloudy day,

And I saw the hearse come rollin'

For to carry my mother away.

Refrain:

Can the circle be unbroken?

By and by Lord, by and by,

There's a better home a-waitin'

In the sky Lord, in the sky.

Lord, I told the undertaker,

"Undertaker, please drive slow,

For this body you are haulin' Lord,

I hate to see her go."

I followed close behind 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,

Missed my mother - she was gone.

All my brothers, sisters crying,

What a home so sad and alone.

Chords

I've been using ... D - G - D - A7 ... with those chords you can play along with the next video.

Michelle Wright, Iris DeMent, and Mairead Ni Mhaonaight - ...a beautiful, traditional version.

This is an absolutely lovely rendition by talented songstresses and musicians. Listening to this, it is easy to see and hear why this song is so very loved by thousands of music fans.

Where to find their music...

Now & Then
Now & Then

Michelle Wright

 
The Best of Altan
The Best of Altan

Mairead Ni Mhaonaight

 

Pentangle... - ...wow, great musicians!!

Just when you think you've heard everything, you come across something truly unique and amazing. This music is entrancing, surprising, soothing. It really sucks you in with a bluesy rhythm. Gotta listen!!

Pentangle's version is on this album - ...from back in the seventies.

Why I'm Studying 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken' - ...yes, I'm really studying this beloved song!

I'm a woman in my fifties who recently started re-learning the guitar. I had my first guitar lesson when I was eleven. I learned scales and simple tunes but after a year, gave up on that project without having learned even one chord because that was something the guitar teacher chose not to show me. Four years later I picked up the guitar again, this time learning chords from teen friends, and playing popular songs of the time.

I continued with my limited set of chords and fingerpicking styles for about twenty years. During my thirties I composed quite a few songs of my own. But then I had two more children and set aside the guitar, eventually giving it to my oldest son who is an accomplished guitarist.

After my two youngest children became adults and moved out, I wanted to go back to the guitar, and after a bit of saving and finangling, managed to buy another guitar which arrived in April 2010. (A Takamine G340SC.) Anyhow, I'm re-teaching myself and this time want to learn new things I wasn't able to get instruction on when I was younger. I'm finding YouTube to be a great resource.

The book I'm using for lessons is this one: Hal Leonard Guitar Method. This is a very elementary guitar course I'm using because I want to learn absolutely everything about my instrument this time, starting from the most basic information. Using this course is helping me develop my ability to read and understand music, especially as it pertains to playing the guitar. This gives me a much broader understanding of the instrument, far better than just strumming a selection of chords.

Hal Leonard Guitar Method, Complete Edition: Books 1, 2 and 3
Hal Leonard Guitar Method, Complete Edition: Books 1, 2 and 3

I've been working my way through part one of this comprehensive guitar-tutoring system - very cool, with a CD you can play along with! But then I got to page 23, on which I found the refrain of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and it resonated with me, and I needed to know more!

I looked for the rest of the words on the web, came across a lot of information, and was hooked. The next two days I spent watching other performers sing this tune, and developing my own style for it.

 

There's no hiding it - I am a fan of this popular song. When I first heard the refrain, I was hooked.


Your comments about this song, please! - ...tell me what you REALLY think!

Submit a Comment

  • profile image

    Ruthi 5 years ago

    Revisiting this beloved folk song... I truly enjoyed learning the history of the song as well as why you chose to study the song. "Will the Circle be Unbroken" is a tune I often find myself humming around Mother's Day ... a melancholy melody.

  • profile image

    anonymous 5 years ago

    Have been looking everywhere for this song because it is one of my favorites.

  • Dragon 40 profile image

    Ken McVay 6 years ago from Nanaimo, British Columbia

    Love Pentangle! Renbourne's styling reflects his classical training...awesome duo!

  • BarbRad profile image

    Barbara Radisavljevic 6 years ago from Templeton, CA

    I only knew the traditional hymn, which I still prefer. I had not heard the newer version when the hearse came for my mother in law, and then my own mother. So far in my life, I've been there three times when the hearse arrived for a loved one. For the other three, someone else met the hearse. When you really meet the hearse, you don't have time for these thoughts because so much is happening you don't expect -- if you are the one responsible. It's a bit easier if you were with the person to the end.

  • OhMe profile image

    Nancy Tate Hellams 6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

    Will The Circle Be Unbroken is a favorite of mine, too, and I sure enjoyed reading about Ada R. Habershan. I did not know about her at all.

  • Shoputopian profile image

    Karnel 6 years ago from Lower Mainland of BC

    I love this song always have, thanks for sharing enjoyed listening to it this morning...

  • profile image

    Joan4 6 years ago

    May the Circle be Unbroken is one of my favorites, too!

  • profile image

    Ruthi 6 years ago

    I am a fan of this tune, too. The Pentangle version you shared is truly mesmerizing.

  • hughgrissettsr lm profile image

    hughgrissettsr lm 6 years ago

    delightful lens! have you heard the band's version of this song? visit me at www.hgssite.com or view my other lenses for music info. thanks!

  • NightSquid LM profile image

    NightSquid LM 6 years ago

    Very nice lens. Excellent song, still nice to hear to this day. I like the harmonies myself.

  • cwkerns lm profile image

    cwkerns lm 6 years ago

    I love this song. This is one of my favorites. I have actual recorded this song on one of my solo projects. I was unaware of the history of this song. I consider myself a hymnist, thanks so much for sharing this.

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    I think everyone is moved by this song. One of my favorite versions was done by the Youngbloods, I think in 1964. Check it out- very simple and elegant.

  • bbsoulful2 profile image

    bbsoulful2 7 years ago

    This is one of the most recognizable bluegrass hymns I know. I just love it. It's one that you can start singing and everyone can join in. Thank you for blessing me tonight.

  • Grandma-Marilyn profile image

    Grandma-Marilyn 7 years ago

    @Linda BookLady: You are welcome. I am always willing to help another lensmaster as the internet is always changing and the missing items might not be available any more.

  • Linda BookLady profile image
    Author

    Linda Jo Martin 7 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

    @Grandma-Marilyn: Thanks for letting me know! At least my two favorite versions are still here. I will look for others.

  • Grandma-Marilyn profile image

    Grandma-Marilyn 7 years ago

    Ok, I put this on here once and it didn't go through. I love this song and always have. I have heard it from the Carters and Kitty Wells. I hadn't heard the other artists that you showed here. I wish I could have heard all of the versions but YouTube said that a couple of them had been removed from YouTube so I didn't get to hear them. I think that this song is truly beautiful.

  • Grandma-Marilyn profile image

    Grandma-Marilyn 7 years ago

    This song is one of my favorite songs. I hadn't heard it performed in so many variations though. You might check some of the videos as they have been removed from Youtube. I would have loved to have heard all the versions. Truly and amazing song.

  • profile image

    Gail47 7 years ago

    What an amazing lens. I actually thought the Carters wrote the song and that's the version I am most familiary with. Such a long and varied history to this song, including Willie and Arlo. Thank you!

  • Linda BookLady profile image
    Author

    Linda Jo Martin 7 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

    @anonymous: I too looked for that but couldn't find it. We have the music/words, in case you want to make a video!

  • profile image

    anonymous 7 years ago

    Great history of the song and Ada. Thanks so much for this. I've been looking for a audio or video of something singing the original version and have had no luck. Have you found it on the internet?

  • drifter0658 lm profile image

    drifter0658 lm 7 years ago

    Ada R. truly was amazing....wow! You are right, the Pentangle treatment is something to behold. When I hear this tune A Capella....whew....eerie...This classic tune will never fade.

  • annieangel1 profile image

    Ann 7 years ago from Yorkshire, England

    great lens Linda - I've enjoyed it so much. x lensrolled

  • profile image

    anonymous 7 years ago

    I cry whenever I hear it. I lost my dear sweet Mother almost 2 years ago and I find this a very heart wrenching but a great tribute to her.

  • JenOfChicago LM profile image

    JenOfChicago LM 8 years ago

    This is a great song, always been a favorite! Wonderful tribute to it. Blessed by a squidangel

  • Wednesday-Elf profile image

    Wednesday-Elf 8 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

    I'm not familiar with this song, but your passion for it shines through in this story. Glad to hear you are enjoying your guitar again. My hubby played his for years and my son has now become quite accomplished on the guitar. I'm a big fan of 50s-60s folk music (a.k.a. the Kingston Trio), so love songs played on the guitar.

  • WindyWintersHubs profile image

    WindyWintersHubs 8 years ago from Vancouver Island, BC

    I have heard this song many times and it would be hard to pick a favorite version.

  • sukkran trichy profile image

    sukkran trichy 8 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

    really a lovely page. 5* for this great presentation.

  • Mickie Gee profile image

    Mickie Goad 8 years ago

    Being a good Methodist (and a Squid Angel), I am blessing this very good lens! I love that you put so many variations of this great hymn on this page.

  • oztoo lm profile image

    oztoo lm 8 years ago

    What a very interesting story on a wonderful song. It is amazing how such a song inspires people to their own interpretations. After listening to the videos I'm not sure which version I like best. They all have something to offer.

  • profile image

    anonymous 8 years ago

    I love the song, too. Great lens, Linda.

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