Wednesday, February 10, 2010
#1: Annabelle, by Gillian Welch
It's hard to imagine it, but 12 years ago the world was a very different place. I was driving around Missoula, Montana, listening to music on my tapedeck. The tape was actually something I'd dubbed off of a VHS tape I'd used to record some Austin City Limits shows on PBS. I should also mention that I had to put my feet through the holes in the car's floor and run to make the car move forward.
Anyway, on this tape were a couple of tracks by a pair of musicians that I'd never heard of before. Through the taping and dubbing and transferring, I actually didn't know who they were; I just dug those songs. I loved those harmonies, and the interplay between the two guitars, and the melodies that seemed so familiar and new at the same time. I loved that it sounded old-timey without sounding kitschy or dated.
Today, I'd be able to name the musicians in a thirty second web-search, but back in my analog days it was more hit or miss than that.
It took a year or so of driving with that tape in the car before I finally, through some series of connections I can't recall, managed to put a name to those songs. Shockingly enough it was one name: Gillian Welch. Through some record label nonsense that I still can't comprehend, her partner, David Rawlings, wasn't mentioned anywhere, though they were unquestionably a duo, and Rawling's guitar work was one jaw-dropping ingredient in the act.
So, I picked up Welch's debut, Revival, and it was great, great stuff.
Through her next three albums, the work has continued to impress and inspire me, and I've actually come to like those faux old-timey tunes much less that when Welch channels those same themes and aesthetics through something a bit more contemporary (such as stand-out moments on her wonderfully uneven Soul Journey).
But I want to stick with that first batch of songs and focus particularly on one track that I've latched onto: "Annabelle."
There are so many things I love about this song: the Dust Bowl setting, the melody, the clever-but-not-too-clever way that the chorus transforms into Annabelle's epitaph. But really, I love the song for the lyric of that third verse:
When I'm dead and buried
I'll take a hard life of tears
for every day I've ever known.
It may not seem like much, but I find this sentiment to be a direct challenge to one of the most common tropes in American folk music. I'll call it, rather uncharitably, Christian Nihilism.
Christian Nihilism (which has it's variations in most of the world's religions)is characterized by the rejection of this world as a fallen world of pain, misery, and torment. Life is a test. Life is a trial. It's what comes after that matters, and human concerns are therefore devalued in favor of "higher" concerns.
The great purveyors of this particular brand of nihilism are my heroes, the Carter Family. Consider the wonderful tune, "Just a Few More Days."
Just a few more days of sorrow
Just a few more days of pain
Just a few more days of cloudiness
Just a few more days of rain
Then I'm going to live with Jesus
He has got a home prepared
Then I'll join the holy angels
Mother will be waiting there
I can forgive this sentiment, to a degree, in this particular context, coming as it does as a deathbed cry. This is the very reason that humans ever dreamed up an afterlife in the first place: to cheat death. And if that were all it amounted to, I'd say no more. But this is a continual theme, all of it feeding into a millennial view of the 1930s that gets creepier the longer you look at it.
I'm going where there's no depression
To the lovely land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven, I'm going there
This goes beyond the embracing of heaven as a paradise and directly into the rejection of our earthly home as alien. In another tune, "Can't Feel at Home in the World Anymore," we get the definitive statement, repeated in a million variations through a million different songs:
This world is not my home, I'm just passing through
My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue
Where many many friends and kindred have gone on before
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore
What I love about Welch's shift in "Annabelle" is how it turns that idea on its ear. Her child's death (another popular trope) does not cause the speaker to reject this world but rather to wish for more life. I almost detect a gentle thumbing of the nose toward the idea of a perfect heaven. Who cares about heaven if we have to suffer "a hard life of tears" to get there?
Who ever said we'd have all things to please us?
The refusal of heaven's balm makes Welch's lyrics a kind of heroic stance: an acceptance of that eternal recurrance of the same, a great "Yes" to life.