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The Carter Family

Bess Ruth was the twenty-one year old daughter of Henry Bascomb and Sallie Jane Brandon Carter, their seventh and next to last child. Henry and Sallie were Texans, both born near San Marcos, Henry in I860 and Sallie in 1862. Sallie's parents, Thomas and Mary Curry Brandon, were born in Kentucky and had migrated to Texas as children in the 1830s. Henry's parents, James and Martha Johnson Carter, were born in Texas, both near San Antonio, and both in the year 1825. Henry and Sallie knew each other as children, and fell in love in their teens. When Henry finished high school in 1876, he worked for two years until Sally also graduated.

They married in 1878, and began married life on a farm about seventy miles north and east of Dallas, in Negley, Red River County, Texas. Henry Bascomb was both cotton farmer and Methodist minister, a "circuit rider" who preached at small churches in Fannin, Lamar, and Red River Counties for twelve years. In 1890, when free land became available in Oklahoma Territory, Henry and Sallie were granted one-hundred sixty acres in Love County, IT. Chickasaw Nation, in a small community called Burneyville, nine miles west of Marietta, population two thousand. Burneyville, a town virtually on the banks of the Red River, was a farm community, primarily cotton farming.

In Burneyville, Henry and Sally built a home and raised cotton, and Henry spent Sundays preaching at neighboring churches. There they raised their children, William, Onie, Effie, Jack, Beulah, Bertie (Tommie), Bess (Fan), and Ruby, all of them born between I860 and 1902. Their first born, William, died in France during World War I in the summer of 1918. And that winter their twenty year old daughter, Bertie, nicknamed Tommie, died in the great influenza epidemic.

Tommie and Bess were very close, and her loss was a great emotional blow to my mother. The circumstances of Tommie's death made mother's grief even more severe. Tommie's influenza turned into pneumonia in January of 1919, and when she struggled for breath one cold and rainy night, Henry Bascomb hitched the horses and headed the buggy for Marietta where there was a hospital. Bess cuddled Tommie in blankets in her shaking arms and tried to keep her breathing, while Henry Bascomb pushed the horses as fast as they could go on that dark road.

One mile from the hospital Tommie breathed her last breath and died in Bess's arms. Bess never forgot the moment, and the trauma was so great she refused to return to school and graduate with her class. Not until the following year did she graduate. She could never talk about the event without suffering. Even when she was in her eighties she remembered the night vividly and passionately, humming songs she and Tommie used to sing together, "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag," "Smiles," and "Til We Meet Again."

Life in that small Oklahoma Territory town was constricting enough as it was. Family tragedies became community tragedies as well. Bess overcame her tragedy with the help of numbers of close friends and family. Family members said she became almost obsessed with music and would play the piano for hours at a time, or until someone insisted she stop. She never had formal piano lessons and first taught herself to play by ear. Not until she was a teenager did she learn to read music. She could hear a melody or a song, go to the piano, and duplicate it. Throughout high school she was a necessity at every party and dance, and her "ragtime" was as good as her "jazz" and "blues." My earliest memories of my mother include me sitting strapped in my high chair next to the piano while Bess played song after song after song, singing along in a style somewhere between Josephine Baker and Ruth Etting. I knew the melody and words to "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," "Red Sails in the Sunset," and "Isle of Capri," and "Pagan Love Song," "A Shanty in Old Shanty Town," "Love Letters in the Sand," and "A Faded Summer Love," before I could read. And Bess boasted that she had exposed her unborn second child to music during the entire course of the pregnancy, both by playing the piano for the unborn one and listening to phonograph records for hours each afternoon. That may well be. All I know is that I could imitate Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Kate Smith, Ruth Etting, and Gene Austin long before I started public school. I always knew when her piano/vocal moments were at an end. Mimicking the then popular bandleader, Ted Lewis, Bess would look at her audience, roll her eyes, smile, and say, "Is everybody happy?"

The snobbery of my grandparents was not in any way a part of my father's feelings for my mother. Russel loved Bess deeply and loved her for herself, not her social and cultural background. And Russel and the Carters enjoyed a close and loving relationship over the years, even though there were but two occasions on record when Margaret and Harry socialized with Henry and Sallie. The Windes family invited the Carter family to Durant for a weekend in 1924, and the Carter family invited the Windes family to Burneyville that same year. End inter-family relationship. Margaret probably drove at night to get out of Burneyville and back to Durant.

 

 

 

 

 

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