Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

There are ten tracks on the magnificent new album from Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest – ten songs that Welch half-jokingly says express ‘ten different kinds of sad’.  So how can this music be enjoyable?

The answer lies in the consummate musicianship of GillianWelch and her musical partner, David Rawlings.  Their vocal harmonies are achieve such perfection that most of the time it is impossible to distinguish one voice from another. In addition, they are both superb instrumentalists:  Welch plays an old Gibson acoustic guitar which dates from the the 1960s or occasionally an old open back banjo, while Rawlings plays an Epiphone Olympia Guitar from the 1930s.  There are no drums, bass, keyboards – just two voices harmonising and two sets of strings resonating. This is truly beautiful music: melodic, yet also stark, raw, and often dark.

Which brings us to the songs themselves. Welch and Rawlings are writers of extraordinary lyrics that draw deeply on American tradition to paint vivid scenarios from the rural, run-down, paint-peeling, backroads America of now.  Welch once admitted ‘I don’t start writing until I’m totally miserable’, and her albums are famous for their ‘dark turn of mind’, in the words of one of the songs on the new album:

some girls are bright as morning, and some are blessed with a dark turn of mind

Like many of their compositions, that song is voiced by a woman who has been around the block and knows enough to expect the worst of a man:

Take me and love me if you want me
Don’t ever treat me unkind
‘Cause I had that trouble already
And it left me with a dark turn of mind

It’s the same voice that is heard on ‘Tennessee’, an absolute gem of a song that hinges on this line:

Of all the ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you may be my favourite one of all

She’s one who walks the line between goodness and temptation:

I kissed you cause I’ve never been an angel
I learned to say 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
Even so I try to be a good girl
It’s only what I want that makes me weak
I had no desire to be a child of sin
Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek

Of the ten songs that make up the new album, nine (there is one upbeat number!) deal with darkness and pain, lives unfulfilled, desperation and death.  Yet the fact that these songs can be listened to with pleasure and not despair is testimony to their humanity and the fortitude of characters who stomp and yell: ‘hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind‘.

That line is from ‘Hard Times’, another outstanding and ambitious song from the album that seeks to encompass the sense of loss as old ways disappear.  It opens with a romantic image of a rural past:

There was a Camptown man, used to plow and sing
And he loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to his mule cow
Calling, “Come on my sweet old girl, and I’d bet the whole damn world
That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road”
Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

The final verse is drenched in a sense of having lost something you didn’t realise you had:

Said it’s a mean old world, heavy in need
That big machine is just picking up speed

But the Camptown man, he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings, and come on you dogs and sing
And pick up the dusty old horn and give it a blow

The aural soundscape of these tracks derives from the blend of bluegrass, Appalachian and old timey music of the 1930s, especially the close harmonies of the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers and the Delmore Brothers.  What’s extraordinary is the degree to which Rawlings and Welch, as songwriters and musicians, inhabit that period, whilst coming up with songs that are not a mere exercise in musical nostalgia, but are tuned to the modern world, often having a rock’n’roll sensibility: listen to ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ and ‘I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll’ from Time (The Revelator) or ‘Honey Now’ off Hell Among The Yearlings, for example, or the new mp3 single, a cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’.  As the Allmusic review of The Harrow and the Harvest says:

Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, are not mere revivalists in the old-timey style; Welch’s debts to artists of the past are obvious and clearly acknowledged, but there’s a maturity, intelligence, and keen eye for detail in Welch’s songs you wouldn’t expect from someone simply trying to ape the Carter Family.

Or, as Kitty Empire wrote of the duo some time ago in The Observer:

It would … be a mistake to dismiss them as staid revivalists (even though their first album was called Revival). Certainly, they play traditional American music to an impeccable standard … but Welch’s songs transcend the genre, speaking to anyone who has ever mourned a missed opportunity, or heard a train whistle on the wind and found it lonesome. [They are] a duo in love with the power of a tradition, but not in thrall to it.

In a sense the album is organised around three songs, ‘The Way It Goes’, ‘The Way It Will Be’ and ‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’.  The trademark blending of traditional sounds with modern sensibilities is apparent in the mordant ‘The Way It Goes’, in which we learn that ‘Betsy Johnson bought the farm, stuck a needle in her arm, that’s the way that it goes’, while

Miranda ran away
Took her cat and left LA
That’s the way that it goes
That’s the way

She was busted, broke and flat
Had to sell that pussy cat
That’s the way that it goes

Welch’s languid vocal and the duo’s knack of finding a haunting melody makes a thing of beauty from the resignation of ‘The Way It Will Be’, a song that Welch has been singing at concerts for some time and which fans knew as ‘Throw Me a Rope’, referring to the song’s most poignant line.  The song’s protagonist addresses the lover she has lost:

I lost you awhile ago
But still I don’t know why
I can’t say your name
Without a crow flying by
Gotta watch my back now
That you turned me around
Got me walking backwards
Into my hometown

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

Say you wanna see my garden
And you wanna make it shine
Say you wanna see my blue jeans
Hanging on your old clothesline
Standing in the backdoor crying
Now you wanna be my friend
That’s the way the cornbread crumbles
That’s the way the whole thing ends

‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’ is a shimmering blues, with Welch’s lyrics wryly noting a faithless  lover’s failings whilst noting that

People oughta stick together
That’s the way to make a crowd
But here ya come alone and crying
Now you wanna be my friend.

Many Welch-Rawlings songs could be mistaken for standards; on this album, ‘Down Along The Dixie Line’ and ‘Silver Dagger’ especially so.  But there’s always a moment on a Gillian Welch record when she reminds us that her old-timey music doesn’t live in the past. On ‘Silver Dagger’, for instance, the singer personifies a woman in a very dark place who is  wistful for the good old days of ‘nineteen-hundred and ninety-nine’:

I’m on the dark side of a hollow hill


I can’t remember when I felt so free
Maybe September, the year you believed in me,
Nineteen-hundred and ninety-nine
When I found the angels a’drinkin’ wine

Seems every castle is made of sand
The great destroyer sleeps in every man
Here comes my baby, here comes my man
With that silver dagger in his hand

‘Down along the Dixie Line’ is a train song, an elegy for a log-lost past, and the song of an exile:

I spent my childhood walking the wildwood
Down along the Dixie Line
Freight trains a-squallin’
Highballs a-bawling
Four engines at a time

They pulled up the tracks now
I can’t go back now
Can’t hardly keep from cryin’
Oh do they miss me way down in Dixie

All in all, The Harrow & the Harvest is remarkable for its  lack of studio artifice, its warmth and its timeless musicianship. Many of us thought that Time (The Revelator) was Gillian Welch’s masterpiece, but this is triumphantly better.

The title of  The Harrow And The Harvest is a metaphor for the record’s lengthy gestation: ithas been 8 years since Soul Journey appeared in 2003.  Welch explains that this tense time period inspired the album title:

Our songcraft slipped and I really don’t know why. It’s not uncommon. It’s something that happens to writers. It’s the deepest frustration we have come through, hence the album title.  The writing process involved this endless back and forth between the two of us.  It’s our most intertwined, co-authored, jointly-composed album.

Jason D. Hamad has dug deeper into the possible meaning(s) of the album title, comparing dictionary definitions of ‘harrow’ and ‘harvest’:

On the face of it, the applicable definitions are probably “harrow” (1) 1. and “harvest” 3., implying that the long fallow period was the churning of the ground that produced a bountiful return. But when you dig deeper, this agricultural denotation becomes a Delphic metaphor. “To disturb keenly or painfully; distress the mind, feelings, etc., of.” Surely the experience of your talents suddenly and inexplicably failing must be disturbing and painful, and certainly the stories contained on the album contain many harrowed characters.

But take the leap and look at the other, archaic root of the word. “To ravish; violate; despoil.” Yep that’s there. And “(of Christ) to descend into (hell) to free the righteous held captive.” Not to suggest that Gillian is a messiah figure, but she certainly does this with the characters in her songs. …  The Harrow and the Harvest is as close as we’re gonna come, and that’s just fine by me. I have said in the past that I hate applying the word “revelation” to music, but if it is proper to do so, then this is the time.

Back at the start of this fallow period, on Soul Journey in 2003, Gillian Welch is credited as sole writer of this song that she performs solo, with no accompaniment by David Rawlings; a pretty song from desperate place in which a writer finds herself blocked, perhaps:

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little song that ain’t been sung
One little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhythms

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