Americana artist Gillian Welch has always included southern Christian imagery in her work. Though not native to the South, her music is at its most comfortable when it explores the tragedy and violence of working-class survival in the region. Welch and partner David Rawlings write and record sparse songs unlike any others. In part, this has to do with Rawlings’ masterful guitar work, but it also stems from Welch’s unuusal singing voice.
See “The Way it Goes” from new album, The Harrow and the Harvest (lyrics here):
Alec Wilkinson’s 2004 profile of Welch contains the most perfect description of her vocals as any I have seen:
She conveys emotion through dynamics, not vibrato, and by a self-effacing absorption with the narrative. What ornamentation she employs comes mainly from bluegrass and brother-team singing—the pounce on certain syllables, the dying falls, the trills, the quick fades and returns, the small tear—though she manages, partly by the solemnity of her bearing, to give the impression of singing without artifice, which in itself is dramatic.
Though Welch’s music has always been dark, its Baptist revival style spirituality is usually a source of light. On the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? she famously sings, “I want to electrify my soul,” in one of the more upbeat tracks of her career.
The new album departs from the earlier music because Christian spirituality becomes a source of danger and harm rather than comfort. This is the first album in which I think Welch confronts the menaces of patriarchal religion head-on.
She does this through working-class narrators who have suffered deeply and had enough. The narrator on “That’s the Way it Will Be,” sings “I’ve never been so disabused, I’ve never been so mad/I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad.”
In “Silver Dagger,” the narrator—possibly a ghost—is running from someone, whether an abusive lover or god: “I’m through with Bibles and I’m through with food/Somebody’s calling, trying to track me down.” But she has “never felt as free” as she does on the run, having admitted that “every castle is made of sand/The great destroyer sleeps in every man.” Still, there is no redemption or salvation to be had. She can only run for so long before the man “with the silver dagger in his hand” catches up.
“Dark Turn of Mind” is about recovering from abuse and assault, though it is not entirely clear whether the narrator has been beaten or raped. One or the other, at least, seems likely she warns, “Don’t ever treat me unkind/’Cause I had that trouble already/and it left me with a dark turn of mind.” The character casts her life in nightmarish imagery. She sees “bones in the river” and hears “shadows a-calling.” The only respite from the bright sun, she says, is not salvation, not god, just darkness.
“Tennessee,” about a “bad girl” in thrall to sexual desire, is both defiant and mournful (lyrics here):
“I kissed you ‘cause I’ve never been an angel/I learned to sing hosannas on my knees/But they threw me out of Sunday school when I was nine/And the sisters said I did just as I pleased.” Sensual desires, then, have always put her at odds with rigid religious tradition, and she “tried to be a good girl” but quickly learned, “it’s only what I want that makes me weak.”
Over the course of the song, the narrator provides a litany of her sins, from drinking to gambling to sex. And it’s the sexual relationship that keeps her from trying anymore “’cause your affront to my virtue was a touch too much/But you left a little twinkle in my eye.” Now, “dancing with damnation” is a practice to be savored and one that she cannot relinquish.
This is what fills her from day to day, the addictive and forbidden pursuit of pleasure that serves as “beefsteak when I’m working” and “whiskey when I’m dry.” There’s a half-hearted plea to “let me go, honey oh,” but there is also resignation to a fate she has embraced. She can no longer “go back to apple pie”—that is, to her conventional life in Tennessee.
This song demonstrates the trial by fire that greets women entrenched in traditional, patriarchal forms of religion who cannot tow the line. The narrator mourns what she has lost but cannot forget that “dancing with damnation” is sustenance.
On this album, the only escape from the cruelties of life and religion is the narrator’s resolve on “Hard Times,” which “ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.” It’s a “mean old world,” but maybe “we all get to heaven in our own sweet time.” In this song, however, I don’t think “heaven” is understood in the traditional Christian sense. I think it’s the far-off time in which the narrator will finally rest in the achievement of survival (lyrics):