Blessed with a Dark Turn of Mind: Gillian Welch's Spiritual Strivings

Paul Harvey

A few days ago I blogged a bit about Reinhold
Niebuhr and Gillian Welch, an unlikely but (in my view) apt combination of theologian and performing artist. In this short essay for Religion Dispatches, I develop my thoughts about her newest recording (and some of her previous recordings) at greater length, focusing especially on her musical relationship to the "hard religion" of the rural South whose music she recreates, rejuvenates, and reinterprets. We here at the blog await word from her publicist about the possibility of an email interview, but suffice to say if that happens (big if there) it will be awesome!!!! Scroll down a bit for a live performance of one of the tunes from the record.

Update! Alec Wilkinson for the New Yorker makes many similar points about the record, in this piece just out for the magazine. Cool, but I wrote mine early last week, so feeling ahead of the curve, even if I do live in a flyover state and famously conservative city!

A brief excerpt from the piece, and then follow the rest at the link:
“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.

Continue . . . .

Here's a clip from one tune, "The Way It Goes," performed recently:


Mike said…
I've been listening to "Tennessee" pretty regularly since I got the album.
Anonymous said…
Why "Gatling guns and paint"?