Description: Gillian Welch
Publication Date: 11 October 2003
Another pretty good piece I think, delving into the "Authenticity problem" that still interests me.
I mentioned last week that I saw Gillian Welch perform on her birthday. It was at a taping of Austin City Limits--I had never been to one before and am happy to report that the studio is as intimate as it looks on TV. The cameras are a little distracting, especially when you’re futilely trying to avoid its search for audience reaction. You realize that the performance isn’t exactly for you when the show stops so the tape can be changed, or when Welch and her partner David Rawlings perform the songs which didn’t get recorded properly a second time. Nonetheless, it was a great performance which got me thinking about her career.
The first song of hers I remember hearing was “Orphan Girl,” as covered by Emmylou Harris. Welch’s first album, Revival came out shortly afterward, and since 1997 she’s released three others. I’ve heard all of these except the latest, the unfortunately named Soul Journey, and none of them as strong a set of songs as Revival though none vary too much in quality or style. The handle critics have put on her kind of music is “Americana,” which I suppose is as good as any other: the music draws from the traditions of folk and country. Some of it uses modern topics with traditional settings, some seems to be trying to replicate it in form and content. Welch does a bit of both, writing songs that are cognizant of (but not conversant with) rock and roll as well as odes to red dirt. Seldom if ever is the music itself ‘updated.’ Authenticity, the core value of this music, would be offended by a drum loop over “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” though contemporary scenes in traditional arrangements testify to the staying power of tradition itself. Whether or not that logic makes sense I don’t know, but that’s the way it is.
The motherlode of this kind of music is Harry Smith’s legendary Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. Even these recordings from the 20s are self-consciously Authentic; the early record companies actively searched for “old-timey” performers, though the songs themselves actually were old, for the most part. Some of Welch’s music aspires to Bill Monroe’s remark to a young John Prine after hearing the latter’s “Paradise.”—“I thought it was one of the old-time songs I never heard.” “Orphan Girl” is like that, and so is her “Tear My Stillhouse Down.” Presumably, this daughter of two television orchestrators never was a moonshiner, so she writes in these songs in emulation of tradition, as a gesture toward Authenticity, rather than as a matter of self-expression.
At the taping, Welch introduced “By the Mark,” one of my favorites from Revival, as her “first gospel song.” Contemporary gospel tends torrid the horrid, so imitating old ballads of devotion is a good move. What’s really remarkable about this song is how doubt is wholly engulfed by yearning: there’s a real belief that Jesus will return, and that she will know “my Saviour when he comes to me by the mark where the nails have been.” She doubts her own faith even as she expresses it by invoking Doubting Thomas in its formulation. (I say “she,” but basic interpretive strategies tell us that this is just a persona. As it happens, Welch is utterly circumspect. There was a lapse in the taping when someone shouted out “When are you and David going to get married.” Her evasive response was, after a pause, “How do you know we’re not?” although “Why do you think we’re even dating?” would have been as appropriate. While we don’t know her real thoughts on religion, it seems that she’s saying skeptical lines behind a dogmatic mask.)
Not all of Welch’s lyrics use these anachronistic masks. After her first album, she began to write songs that are more clearly contemporary in setting “My First Lover” recounts Trans-Am driving boyfriend and the Steve Miller song that was playing when she lost her virginity. (Again, “she” doesn't mean GW). The somber banjo picking heightens everything that happens to a mythic level. You can almost imagine a singer going up to hit the “Quicksilver girl” quote of the song. Certainly this is the best repurposing of Steve Miller’s work ever, though admittedly that field is limited.
Last week I mentioned that I had a complicated comparison with Sofia Copolla in mind. You wouldn’t think that a maker of urban films and a performer of traditional music would be that similar, but Copolla and Welch have a few things in common. They are both daughters of show business families and somewhat close in age (within two years on either side of yours truly). I suspect that they both faced a similar crisis of self-expression: in Lost in Translation Charlotte talks about a similar problem. She says,“I think every girl goes through a photography phase where she takes a lot of arty picture of her feet.” Charlotte’s problem is that she doesn’t know who she is, or what she has to say. Copolla and Welch have solved the feet problem in different ways: Copolla by finding new strategies for a deeply masculine role, and Welch by delving into a rich tradition, and finding in it what she needs. We’re lucky to have both of them.