Did a bolt of lightning striking an apple tree in Virginia in the late 19th century affect American folk, country and Americana music forever after?
A particular Virginia woman of that time period would tell you it did.
Her name was Mollie Bays Carter, and she was pregnant through most of 1891. She and her husband, Robert C. Carter, were anticipating the arrival of their firstborn child. During her pregnancy, she was caught outdoors one day when a storm came up.
Forgetting or ignoring the well-known advice to avoid trees in a lightning storm, she was near an apple tree that, sure enough, was struck by a lightning bolt. She was not hurt, but felt the electricity jolting through the ground on which she stood.
Her baby, a boy, also came through the experience alive, and was born Dec. 15, 1891, and given the name of Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter. He’d be known in later life as A.P. Carter, and sometimes by the nickname “Doc.”
Without A.P. Carter, many songs in the traditional country, folk and Americana genres might be unknown to us now. A.P. was the man in the Original Carter Family, considered the first commercially recorded traditional music groups.
Thanks to family patriarch A.P., who answered a record producer’s newspaper ad, the Carters were part of the “Big Bang of Country Music,” as the 1927 recording sessions done by music producer/engineer Ralph Peer came to be called.
Peer came to Bristol to record rural “hillbilly” music, which he correctly perceived as having commercial promise.
In a Bristol room that he turned into a makeshift recording studio, Peer captured performances by the Carters, members of the Stoneman family and several others, including the legendary Jimmie Rogers.
The Carter records Peer made launched the commercial music careers of A.P. and family.
A.P. Carter also contributed to the American lexicon by traveling about with an African-American friend, Lesley “Esley” Riddle. The two visited rural people and had them sing for them the traditional songs they knew. A.P. took down the words and Riddle memorized the melodies.
That’s a story for a future column. This one is about A.P. Carter and the lightning strike his mother experienced before his birth.
Throughout his life, A.P. Carter had some behavioral traits people noticed. His bass voice had a quavery quality when he spoke and sang, and he fidgeted a lot and had difficulty focusing on whatever task was at hand (perhaps song-collecting was an exception). He had some physical tremors as well.
He apparently had an impulsive and restless approach to performing. He sometimes would sing the bass part of an entire song, other times just chime in on the occasional line or two. You can hear this in the recordings.
He couldn’t remain still for long, even on stage. He’d wander the stage, look around, then drift back to help finish the song, or maybe not.
Some in his circle described these qualities of A.P. Carter as “wifty.”
I’d never heard the word “wifty” until reading about the Carters. Apparently it is a more common term up north than in the Southeast. It’s a little hard to define, but it relates partly to difficulty in maintaining focus.
In that regard, I’m more than a little wifty myself. I’m even on prescribed daily medication for it. So I totally get it with you and your stage roaming, A.P. Carter.
Mollie, A.P.’s mother, had her own theory about why her son was so wifty. She believed that bolt of lightning that struck so near her while A.P. was still in her womb transferred a lingering energy to him that manifested itself in tremors and restlessness for the rest of his days.
That theory might be questioned by medical folks, but at least it has more surface plausibility than other notions about pregnancy that were around in more superstitious eras than the one we live in now. Some examples: if you are pregnant, don’t look long at a fire or your child will suffer from hives. Don’t eat rabbit unless you are willing to inflict crossed eyes on your offspring. Don’t mock a tongue-tied person; doing so ensures your child will have the same problem.
Compared to those ideas, the concept of a nearby lightning strike having an effect on an unborn child seems at least closer to plausibility. After all, there are electrical aspects to human life and physiology.
If I had to guess, though, I’d figure that A.P. Carter had the traits he did through natural development both before and after birth, and the lightning strike probably was irrelevant. But I’m not trained in medicine or electrical science, so I can’t dogmatize about it.
What I like about the lightning story is that it has a story-telling appeal that adds a unique element to A.P. Carter’s biography.
Just in case, here’s the bottom line for any pregnant women reading this: If you’re ever in an orchard eating rabbit meat while thinking mocking thoughts about some tongue-tied mean kid you grew up with, and a lightning storm comes up, try to find a better refuge than the ground beneath an apple tree.
After all, it’s tough enough for a kid to go through life wifty. It surely would be even harder if he or she is cross-eyed and tongue-tied to boot.