Hymns of My Youth #105: Will the Circle Be Unbroken

ada-habershon.jpg This will be the penultimate entry in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. This week’s feature has been called the greatest country song ever written, and illustrates how the refreshing of old hymns can create a new “standard” song for a new generation of worshippers — and, in fact, for several generations which follow them. In 1907, Ada R. Ha­ber­shon wrote the lyrics to “Will the circle be unbroken”, with music contributed by Charles H. Ga­br­iel. Her version of the hymn lyrics follow, and if you’re like me, you’ve possibly heard them before, at least not that you recall… though they do have a strange familiarity. A review of the refrain makes me think I’ve heard this version before, and a reading of the verses fills out a slightly stronger sense of the Christian hope that undergirds both versions. The overwhelming sense of (particularly the familiar) hymn is almost more akin to sentimentality than faith, but it touches the universal theme of loss, to which we can all relate on some level. The original version in particular remembers the times of youth before the loss of family members and other saints occurred.

Will the circle be unbroken

There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss;
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.


You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?


You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below:


One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken–
Will it be complete one day?


carterfamily.jpg The version we probably all know was made famous by “Country Music’s First Family,” the Carter Family. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)” is A.P. Carter’s reworking of the hymn. First recorded 81 years ago in Camden, New Jersey on May 27, 1928, the song became one of the Carter family’s “signature” songs and has since become almost synonymous with country music itself, having been called the greatest country song ever written. Most cover versions use the alternate title “Will the Circle be Unbroken” — and it’s been done by such musicians as Bob Dylan, The Band, The Staple Singers, John Fahey, Roy Acuff, Joan Baez, The Chieftains, The Black Crowes, John Lee Hooker, Bill Monroe, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Pentangle, Spacemen 3, Country Joe McDonald, John Statz, Spirit of the West with The Wonder Stuff, The Felice Brothers, and Jeff Buckley. Its refrain was incorporated into the Carl Perkins song “Daddy Sang Bass” (#73 in my list). In 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Will The Circle Be Unbroken

I was standing by the window
On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling
To carry my mother away

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord bye and bye
There’s a better home a waiting
In the sky Lord in the sky

I said to the undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For that body you are carrying
Lord I hate to see her go

Well I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in that grave

I went back home Lord that home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
All my brothers and sisters crying
What a home so sad and alone

My recollection of the song from my youth tends to feature the voice of Johnny Cash.

Of course, with the number of other versions that have been recorded, beautiful and different takes on the hymn also exist, such as one from the first Transatlantic Sessions — vocals: Michelle Wright, Iris DeMent, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh; Fiddles: Jay Ungar, Aly Bain; Mandolin: Russ Barenberg, Bouzouki: Donal Lunny; Accordion: Phil Cunningham; Guitar: Molly Mason

Next week I’ll conclude the series with a look at the greatest hymn ever written. And don’t even bother to argue with me about whether I’ve made the right selection or not. ;^)


  1. This song will now always remind me of Billy. Billy was a part of our church family’s life for a few years before his untimely and tragic death (in his mid-forties). Billy loved people and loved Jesus. We all tried to encourage him and help him in whatever way we could, though sometimes we were frustrated. My husband and I pitched in by going out of our way to give him transportation to church for church services or for odd jobs at church that our pastor gave him to help him financially. My husband and I were asked to sing “Will the Circle be Unbroken” at his memorial service because that had been his favorite song. We made a medley out of that and “Unclouded Day” because we thought singing the whole song would be too heavy. I remember seeing Billy’s siblings in the audience react as we sang. They could remember singing that with Billy as youngsters as they worked in tobacco fields. During the time Billy was with us, we all seemed to be aware of what we were giving to Billy, but after his death we reflected on how much he had enriched and helped our church. We miss him. I look forward to seeing him in heaven someday.

  2. I like the version of the last video you post of the song here.. but I don´t understand and I don´t know the last part of the song. I speak spanish and it has been difficult to have the lyric of this song, (the last paragrahp) specially in this version.

    I appreciate if you can help me. Thanks.

  3. Do you know of ANYBODY that has recorded the origonal lyrics of Will the circke be unbroken? I don’t like the A P Carter version, thats the only version I’ve been able to find.

  4. Larry, here are versions from the Silver Leaf Quartet of Norfolks and the Swan Silvertones.

    “Will the circle be unbroken” (original lyrics) Silver Leaf Quartet of Norfolks http://is.gd/PKXsyc

    “Will the circle be unbroken?” (more traditional lyrics) Swan Silvertones http://is.gd/gxhERI

    Also here is a beautiful version done by Joan Baez:

    “Will the circle be unbroken” [with special lyrics] Joan Baez http://is.gd/KawFo8

  5. i really felt this… i have it on my i pod and i listen to it when i walk on trees and when i sleep in my ocean raft.. thank you for making this the hymn of the mounth!!

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