"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" is a popular Christian hymn written in 1905 by Ada Ruth Habershon with music in 1907 by Charles Hutchinson Gabriel .
In 1905, Charles McCallon Alexander and Reuben Archer Torrey toured the United Kingdom, During the 1905 Torrey-Alexander Mission, Charles Alexander asked Habershon to write some Gospel songs; within a year, she supplied him with 200.
Back in the USA, Charles Alexander asked Charles Gabriel to write music to Habershon's hymn.
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" was subsequently contained in "Alexander's Gospel Songs" compiled by Charles Alexander and published in 1910 by the Fleming H. Revell Company.
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken" is song # 28 in that book.
The melody for this number is the same tune used for "Since I Laid My Burden Down" (a fixture at New Orleans "jazz" funerals). Two songs concerning death/funerals, one most common in white communities, the other among black folks, each with its own traditional instrumentation and arrangements ~ same tune.
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" is often recorded unattributed and, because of its age, has lapsed into the public domain.
It was first recorded in England in 1911 by William McEwan.
William McEwan, born in Glasgow, Scotland, had learned the song while on a journey to America from 1908 to 1911.
(During this period he also had learned another song penned by Charles Gabriel: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow"--> SEE THERE.
When McEwan came back to England from his journey to America, he immediately recorded the song, amongst 24 other gospelsongs he had learned in the US.
(o) William McEwan (1912)
Recorded November 1911 in London
Released in 1912 on Columbia 1842 (UK)
Also released in 1913 on Columbia A 1364 (USA)
In 1927 William McEwan recorded the song again. On 3rd June 1927 he boarded the SS Caronia in New York, bound for Plymouth. Presumably he completed his intended tour of Scotland and Wales during the summer before going back into the studio in London in August.
His 2nd version was released in 1928 on Columbia 4570 (UK)
And released in 1929 on Columbia 1809-D (USA)
(c) Rev. M.L. Gipson (1927) (unissued)
Recorded circa September 1927, in Chicago, Illinois. Rev. M. L. Gipson with singing by his Sanctified Congregation; accompanied unknown, guitar. Paramount unissued, matrix: 4794-1.
(c) Frank & James McCravy (1927)
Recorded December 1927.
(c) Bud Billings (=Frank Luther) and Carson Robison (1928)
Recorded July 26, 1928 in New York.
Released on Victor 21586
(c) Rev. J.C. Burnett and his Quartet (1928)
Recorded November 24, 1928
Released on Columbia 14385-D
In 1929 Rev. J.M. Gates used the melody in "Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You Anytime".
(c) Rev. J.M. Gates and Congregation (1929)
Recorded March 18, 1929 in Atlanta, GA
Released on Okeh 8716
(c) Silver Leaf Quartet Of Norfolk (1930)
Recorded March 5, 1930 in in New York City
Released on Okeh 8777, ARC 6-12-63 and Vocalion 04395
Or to a sample here:
(c) Dugald McNeill (1931)
Recorded October 1931
Released on Beltona 1460.
Listen here: http://media.raretunes.org/raretunesmcneilcircle_vbr.mp3
(c) Carter Family (1935) (as "Can The Circle Be Unbroken")
In 1935 AP Carter made his own arrangement of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken", and re-titled it "Can The Circle Be Unbroken".
The Carters had acually recorded it for Victor in 1933, but the company didn't think enough of it to release it.
Recorded May 6, 1935 in the ARC Studios in New York.
A.P. Carter (voc), Maybelle Carter (voc, g), Sara Carter (voc, ah)
Released in July 1935 on the Conqueror label # 8529
Also released on various other labels:
Banner # 33465
Melotone (Canadian) # 92043
Oriole # 8484
Romeo # 5484
Perfect # 13155
Melotone # M13432
Vocalion # 03027
(c) Monroe Brothers (1936)
Monroe Brothers (Charlie Monroe [vcl/gt], Bill Monroe [vcl/mandolin])
Recorded October 12, 1936 at the Hotel Charlotte, Charlotte, NC
Released on Bluebird 6820 and Montgomery Ward 7142
(c) Rouse Brothers (1939) (as "My Family Circle")
Recorded June 14, 1939 New York City -
Rouse Brothers; Ervin Rouse [vcl/fiddle], Gordon Rouse [vcl/gt], Jack Rouse [vcl]
Released on the B-side of "Orange Blossom Special" (Bluebird B-8218)
(c) Muddy Waters (1942) (as "Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You")
Recorded probably at Clarksdale, Mississippi, possibly July 20-24 1942
Released on the CD The Coplete Plantation Recordings
(c) Swan's Silvertone Singers (1946)
Recorded July 1946 in Cincinatti
Released on the Queen-label (#4143)
After the Queen label was discontinued in 1947, it was reissued on the King label.
(c) Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
Recorded late 1956 or early 1957 Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., Memphis, TN.
Jerry Lee Lewis (Roland Janes, Jay Brown, James Van Eaton.
Producer: Sam Phillips and Jack Clement)
Released in 1970 on the album "Sunday Down South"
(c) Staple Singers (1960)
Released April 1960 on a 45: Vee Jay 885.
And on the album of the same name:
(c) John Lee Hooker (1974)
John Lee Hooker (v,g), Lefty Bates (g), poss. Roebuck "Pop" Staples (g), Quinn Wilson (b), Earl Phillips (d)
Recorded Jan. 4, 1961 - Chicago IL -
Released in 1974 on a 45 on the Dynasty-label # DST-4501
And on the album "In Person" (Dynasty-label #7301)
(c) Bob Dylan (1961) (as "Will The Circle Be Unbroken")
Recorded May 2, 1961 at Bonnie Beecher's Appartment, Minneapolis, MN (or maybe some coffeehouse)
Bob Dylan vocal, guitar, harmonica.
Released on the bootleg "Minnesota Party Tape 1961"
Listen here at 3 minutes and 43 seconds in the next YT:
(c) Bob Dylan and The Band (1967)
Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm
Recorded summer 1967 in Byrdcliffe or West Saugherties, NY
Song #8 on Disc #6 of the Bootleg Series Vol. 11.
Listen to a sample on the next link:
Dylan also sang the song in 1975 in an allstar band.
K101-FM S.N.A.C.K. Benefit Concert Broadcast, Kezar Stadium, Golden Gate Park San Francisco, CA, 03/23/75).
This was a one-day festival in aid of Bill Graham's S.N.A.C.K. (Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks) organization. Neil Young, with his regular sidemen Ben Keith and Tim Drummond, performed together with Bob Dylan, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm.
In 1968 Johnny Cash sang a few lines from the chorus of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" in his #1 C&W hit "Daddy Sang Bass".
(c) Johhnny Cash (1968) (incorporated in "Daddy Sang Bass")
Recorded July 30, 1968 in the Columbia Studios in Nashville.
with the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers on vocals and Carl and Luther Perkins on guitar
(c) Joan Baez (1968)
Recorded September 1968 in the CBS Studios in Nashville.
Released May 1969 on "David's Album"
(c) Pentangle (1971)
Recorded March 1971 in London
Released on the album "Reflection"
(c) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1972)
Recorded August 1971.
Released as the title-song of their 1972 concept-album "Will The Circle Be Unbroken"
Much later, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded two subsequent albums, Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two (1989) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III (2002), in an attempt to repeat the process with other historically significant musicians.
(c) Neville Brothers (1989)
Released on the album "Yellow Moon".
(c) Jeff Beck With The Kingdom Choir (2002)
On a tribute album to John Lee Hooker, who had recently passed away.
A beautiful choral version was sung in the Bioshock Infinite HD game (2013)
Much more versions here:
As I said in the beginning of this post, most versions of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" use the same melody as "Since I Laid My Burden Down".
But which song was the first one to use that common tune.
As we can hear in the ORIGINAL version by William McEwan, in the beginning of this post, that version uses a slightly different melody-line.
Around 1927 "Will The Circle Be Unbroken"and "Since I Laid My Burden Down" use the same tune.