Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Vocals: Jeff Mosier, Willie Nelson; Phish (backing)
Original Artist: Traditional
Historian: Erik Swain
Like many of America’s older folk songs, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” has a fractured and fuzzy history. The authorship of this spiritual is unknown. The Carter Family popularized the song with the country music audience in the 1930s, and an arrangement was copyrighted in 1941 under the name “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” It reached the pop audience in 1972 as the title track of a seminal album by country-rockers Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Maybelle Carter from The Carter Family performed on that rendition. This project likely represented the first major collaboration between hippies and old-time country musicians. (One of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s founding members, John McEuen, has sat in with Phish on several occasions.) It has subsequently been performed by, among others, Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson and the Dirt Band again on their sequels Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2 (1989) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 3 (2002).
Phish is first known to have attempted this song in 1994. Its only appearance from that era known to fans is in the 11/19/94 parking lot jam, where it closed the impromptu set with “Reverend” Jeff Mosier. Before the song begins, you can hear someone tell Trey that it’s time to wrap up the gig.
To the mainstream public, Phish became part of the song’s history at the Farm Aid benefit on 10/3/98. After Phish jammed with Neil Young on “Down By the River,” Phish and Young welcomed Nelson and keyboardist Paul Shaffer to the stage for four songs to close the benefit. “Circle,” a staple of Nelson’s live show, was the second. Nelson sang lead and the rest backed him with a frenetic bluegrass arrangement. Just after the song began, four Native Americans came on stage to clap along, though their presence seemed to confound some of the Phish fans in the audience. At its end, the song segued into another Nelson concert mainstay a bit more familiar to Phish fans: “Amazing Grace.”
Less than a month later, Trey and Mike had apparently forgotten the words. On 11/1/98, they attempted to wrap up their jam with open mic night patrons at the Dead Goat Saloon in Salt Lake City with this song. But it was aborted when no one could remember the lyrics.
Trey acquitted himself much better three years later. On 9/9/01 at a benefit for Clear Path International at Higher Ground in Winooski, VT, he performed with McEuen and another Dirt Band founder, Jimmy Ibbotson, as Gopher Broke. Their set ended with a 20-minute jam on “Circle,” during which they were joined by members of other bands who played that night. Mike redeemed himself as well, jamming on this song, among others, when he sat in with the Zen Tricksters on 5/30/02 in New York City.