We can’t achieve immortality, but sometimes music can do that for us. That’s certainly the case with the Carter Family’s rendition of “Keep on the Sunny Side.” The Carter Family is known as the First Family of Country music. Arriving just as country radio was born, they’re widely considered to be the first true country music stars. The family’s first generation — A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter — recorded music together from 1927 to 1956. The family had a profound impact on American music. Maybelle popularized a strumming method known as the “Carter Scratch,” where she used her thumb to play rhythm while she used the rest of her hand to strum the chords. You can see an example of the Carter Scratch in the video.
Recorded in 1928, the song was undoubtedly a staple of many people’s lives as the Great Depression unfolded. It was an early hit for the Carter Family. While the song is most closely associated with the Carter Family, they did not create the song.
The Beginnings of A Hit
While the Carter Family’s patriarch, A.P. Carter, was known for taking extended trips into the Virginia mountains to gather songs, “Keep on the Sunny Side” was found closer to home. The song was written by Ada Blenkhorn, inspired by a phrase her disabled nephew used. It had been printed in the hymn book Pentecostal Hymns, Number Three; a Winnowed Collection for Evangelistic Services, Young People’s Societies and Sunday Schools, with lyrics by Blenkhorn and J. Howard Entwisle. (If you’re interested, you can find the original sheet music on Google Books.) He often asked for his wheelchair to be pushed down the sunny side of the street. A.P. learned of the song from his uncle, a music teacher. He brought it back to the group, who recorded the song in Camden, New Jersey.
Keeping on the Sunny Side
Eventually a second generation of the Carter Family — the Carter Sisters — carried on the grand family tradition. Maybelle’s daughters, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, Anita Carter, began performing, occasionally joined by Maybelle — as in the video here. The song became a theme song for the family, who performed it many times on their radio shows. Perhaps because of it’s strong associations with the Carter Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side” has become a country music standard. Some notable revivals of the song include a 1964 recording by the Carter Family featuring Johnny Cash (June Carter Cash’s husband, among other accomplishments) on vocals on their 1964 album Keep on the Sunny Side. There is also Cash’s own recording on his album The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, where he’s joined by his daughter Rosanne Cash and June Carter’s daughters Carlene Carter and Rosie Nix Adams. June Carter Cash also re-recorded the song on her final solo album, Wildwood Flower, released after her death in 2003.
The song also received renewed attention The Whites‘ version in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie and its soundtrack famously shaped a new generation of fans of traditional American music.
But it’s most fitting that A.P. Carter himself has the final word on this this popular American song. The Carter patriarch embedded a gold record of the Christian hymn into his tombstone, assuring both the song’s — and his own — immortality.
“Keep on the Sunny Side” Lyrics
There’s a dark and a troubled side of life;
There’s a bright and a sunny side, too;
Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.
[chorus] Keep on the sunny side,
always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life;
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we keep on the sunny side of life.
Tho’ the storm in its fury break today,
Crushing hopes that we cherished so dear,
Storm and cloud will in time pass away,
The sun again will shine bright and clear.
Let us greet with a song of hope each day,
Tho’ the moments be cloudy or fair;
Let us trust in our Savior always,
Who keepeth everyone in His care.