Blessed With a Dark Turn of Mind: Gillian Welch’s Spiritual Strivings

 

“It is the best kind of record: one that lures you in and soothes you with harmonies and banjo, only to leave you wondering what the hell just happened.”
—Kitty Empire, review of The Harrow & the Harvest in The Observer, June 26, 2011

That’s a good question to ask of someone who sings of spending seven years with her companion

on the burning shore, with Gatling guns and paint,
working the lowlands door to door, like a Latter-day Saint.

And that’s before she’s turned out at the top of the stairs, by someone who took all the glory, that you just couldn’t share. Welch and her partner David Rawlings sing in haunting union:

I’ve never been so disabused, never been so mad
I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad.

Listening to this song, “The Way It Will Be,” I too don’t know what the hell just happened, but it’s impossible not to complete the story, to fill in those gaps. We’ve all eaten that bitterness at some point. And that urge to figure out the details in the mysteriously unsettling story comes wrapped here in religiously-tinged narratives and imagery that historically have received their richest expression in the musical culture of the American South.

Welch’s Southern characters, though, emerge not from some imaginary version of God, country, and family, but from the spiritual strivings of folk who have seen plenty of hard times. Sometimes classed in the “No Depression” category, other times as “alt-country,” sometimes humored or condescendingly referred to as a folk “revivalist” or imitator—but more often praised as a creative rejuvenator of older traditions of American folk and country song—Welch’s body of work prods people to wonder how the soul of her characters will get over. This most recent recording makes one wonder not only about the characters, but also the singer, and therefore the listener.

Are these archetypical characters mined for their religious expressions because that’s the language of the genre in which Welch works, or is this a mythos that speaks to the personal as much as the archetypical? Sometimes, especially in earlier recordings such as 1996’s Revival or 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings, the songs clearly arise as contemporary adaptations of a songbook from the Carter family, mixed with Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, and a host of lesser-known Southern songsters:

Once my father set down
And told me of the prophets
Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John
They’re gone but not forgotten
Round, round wanna go round
Wanna see the rock of ages
Till my body gives out
Gonna read the Gospel pages

Other times it’s not as clear, particularly so on more recent recordings, and especially so in The Harrow & the Harvest. Put more simply: whose soul does she want to [e]’lectrify, and who are those six white horses coming after? And what happened in nineteen hundred… and ninety-nine, when she found the angels a-drinking wine? (the pregnant pause after “nineteen hundred” serves as a humorous hat tip to our expectation from the traditional “silver dagger” song that this is perhaps 1909 or 1939, but certainly not within our lifetime). Whatever it was that happened, it could not have been entirely pretty:

Seems every castle is made of sand
The Great Destroyer sleeps in every man
Here comes my baby, here comes my man
With the silver dagger in his hand.

And how can all these stories of barroom girls, morphine addicts, rape victims, murdering ghosts, and lost friends be told with such precise harmonies (with longtime performing partner David Rawlings), delicate guitar work, and exact diction—the kind (as Nate Chinen writes in the New York Times) that makes poetry seem like plain speech? The languid, almost unbearable restraint of the music, particularly on this latest recording, constantly strains against the mythically dark stories of the characters’ individual lives. The understated, even mannered, songs tell hyperbolic character tales. In “Tennessee,” a girl-gone-wrong song, a gentle guitar and swaying melody gives voice to a character who learned to sing hosannas on my knees, was corrupted by the feel of whiskers on her cheek, and now lives with slight consolations: it’s beefsteak when I’m working, whiskey when I’m dry, and sweet heaven when I die.

Welch’s songs are shot through with characters whose lives of struggles are balanced with the desire to see Jesus, to read the Gospel pages. They want to see that my hobo soul will rise, or reach the Glory Land and shake my Savior’s hands through the salvation of rock and roll. Appropriate for characters nearly always set in the South or with Southern language, darkness always looms. Those who will enact Satan’s purposes on Earth are never far away, and even in the most personal of songs, symbols of disturbance straight from the playbook of Southern lore and Scots-Irish ballads abound:

I can’t say your name
without a crow flying by.

Conjurers and tricksters from black Southern lore, and traveling rounders as well as mountain women, desperate sharecroppers, and gospel singers from the white Southern tradition carry these narratives. These characters know that no answer will come on this Earth:

We cannot have all things to please us
No matter how we try
Till we’ve all gone to Jesus
We can only wonder why

In the songs about life’s downtrodden, nearly always tinged with melancholy, if not outright despair and exhaustion, landlords swallow up the produce of farmers while beloved children die and take parents’ hopes for something better with them; ghosts of failed attackers and rapists wear rattlin’ chains and occupy the dreams of near victims; and characters pondering failed lives wonder why of all the ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you might be my favorite of all. No wonder that Welch sings, surely of herself, that some girls are bright as the morning, [while] some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind. That’s because she returns constantly to those who are dancing with damnation:

The man who knows what time it is is knocking at the door
I’m been looking through a telescope from hell to scarlet town.

On her previous CDs, one could easily attribute this to the formula of Welch’s chosen genre. These appeared to be deliberate re-creations of the kind of “hard, hard religion” in which Johnny Cash and other latter day re-creators have specialized. These are songs representing the spirit of Southern men and women abused by modernity, with sparse hopes but constantly beckoned by visions of glory and transcendence.

On The Harrow & the Harvest, though, the stories sometimes get more personal, even if never fully in focus. As a friend wrote to me reflecting on the CD, “For a genre defined by tellin’ it like it is or should be, I like how she doesn’t quite tell you what it is or should be.” That’s because we don’t know what the hell just happened, but we keep listening, trying to figure it out. Some sort of painful saga, one presumes, produces a song such as “The Way It Will Be”:

Gotta watch my back now
That you turned me around
Got me walking backwards
Into my hometown

Later, the shattered narrator continues:

Throw me a rope
On the rolling tide
What did you want it to be?
You say it’s him or it’s me
The way you made it
That’s the way it will be

Still, the religious imagery brings hope, for the prophets may be gone, but they’re not forgotten, be they biblical characters, family members, or aspirants to be the next Elvis. From her first single “Orphan Girl,” which expresses the ache from lacking any “ties of kinship” but finds comfort that heaven will provide her with the family she never had on Earth, Welch’s characters seek some way that hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind.

The minor keys, the Appalachian harmonies, and the tough lyrics pushed out through clenched teeth, reflect the characteristic determination of her characters to survive the vicissitudes that befall them, both those dictated by fate and those they bring on themselves. Perhaps more personal and less archetypical or self-consciously mythical than in some of her previous records, these are stories of American religious realism and spiritual strivings both anonymously mythical and personally individual.

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.