The Common Good
March 2011

Almost Heaven

by Julie Polter | March 2011

For nearly six decades, Mavis Staples has been bringing the gospel truth to song.

The hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" became a bluegrass and gospel standard after it was given a new arrangement by A.P. Carter of the Carter family in 1935. It is a song about the hope of seeing departed loved ones in a "better home a-waiting in the sky."

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After my maternal grandmother died, for some weeks my mother would pull a chair up tight to our console stereo, playing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" over and over, weeping. The version she grieved to is from the 1972 album of the same name, with lead-off vocals by Mother Maybelle Carter and with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a passel of country and bluegrass legends -- Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Doc Watson -- singing and playing along. At the time of the recording, Maybelle Carter was in the last decade of her life and career, and her voice carries a distinct world-weariness. But even when she was young, Mother Maybelle’s voice had a care-worn quality -- an Appalachian mournfulness that draws from the same well as the blues lament woven into black Southern gospel like that sung by the early Staple Singers, textures that testify to generations of hard times.

A critique of traditional gospel songs with a longing eye on heaven, such as "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," is that they promote a theology that is so focused on the afterlife that it makes for people who can be less than useful in some of this life's challenges. This at times has been an internal critique in communities that are in the midst of world-bound struggles. But sometimes this assessment is made from a ways off, by people with a fair amount of privilege (a group I have to count myself within). In my own family, as I learned and understood more what some in past generations had survived, it began to seem condescending and ill-informed to dismiss out of hand the songs that helped supply the power and grace for my family members to persevere through situations of deprivation or danger.

Yes, sometimes too much dreaming about heaven, or spiritualizing of flesh-and-blood troubles, is a recipe for a complacent faith. But many have used visions of heaven to inspire an active hope in God's transformative work on this plane. As have so many others, the Staple Singers recorded "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." With Pops' reverbing guitar pushing it along, it is still a classic song that speaks of loss and longing. But there is also an unmistakable hint of defiance: Death breaks the heart in the here and now, but doesn’t break the individual soul or the body of Christ. With such power at their core, sometimes songs that seem to only be about heaven can be fuel for change here on earth. —JP

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