Gillian Welch — one of the leaders of the roots revival movement typified by the multi-million selling album O Brother Where Art Thou — is not an orphan, but sometimes she sings like one.
I am an orphan
On God’s highway.
–“Orphan Girl,” Revival
This couplet — the first lines of the first song on Gillian Welch’s first album — begs a question as old as the Bible: Do we interpret it literally or figuratively? If literally, then Welch is indeed a waif, and a believer to boot. If figuratively, then Welch masks herself behind abandonment and faith. Trouble is, as with the good book, there’s no way to tell which it is — truth or fiction.
Without knowledge of Welch’s biography, we might mistake her for a child of Appalachia. Her music echoes that high lonesome sound: interwoven instrumentation braided around intertwining vocal harmonies. Her lyrics lean heavily on old time Appalachian themes: the grief of loss, the imprisonment of addiction, the degradation of labor, the violence of desire, the attraction of evil, the joy of redemption.
Some have criticized Welch upon learning she wasn’t born in the shadow of the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, but of the Empire State Building. Worse yet, she grew up in L.A., hanging out in the CBS studios where her parents wrote music for the Carol Burnett Show. How could a child of privilege presume to sing songs of deprivation and depression?
Welch has never dignified this criticism with a direct response. She has, however, freely revealed an interesting biographical fact: She was adopted. “My mom was [an 18-year-old] freshman at some university here in New York . . . At Columbia, maybe,” she said in an interview on John Hiatt’s “Sessions on West 54th” program. “My dad was a musician,” she continued, “and my biological grandparents lived down in, I don’t know, Georgia or Florida or something, from the South.”
This revelation subtly undermined those who questioned her authenticity: If she really hailed from the deep South, then Appalachian music just might flow through her veins, justifying her right to adopt its sound. Or, more precisely, essentialists who criticized her as lacking the proper heritage found the rug pulled from beneath their argument, as they couldn’t verify any imperfection in Welch’s pedigree.
Yet Welch balked at the notion of authenticating her music by her lineage. “[It] seems kind of far-fetched to think that the reason I play music that’s kind of out of a Southern Appalachian tradition is because it’s in my blood,” she said. “That seems reaching a little bit.”
Although this remark sounds self-effacing, it actually solves her dilemma remarkably well. On the one hand, her refusal to claim an Appalachian heritage forces listeners to judge her music on its own terms, not on the grounds of her heredity. On the other hand, she doesn’t completely reject the possibility of an Appalachian heritage, thus preventing the “blood” card from trumping her.
Now that we know some of Welch’s history, the words to “Orphan Girl” take on new meaning. Her biography could support a literal interpretation. “I know no mother, no father, no sister, no brother,” the song goes on to say. And it’s true– in a strict biological sense, she doesn’t.
Yet by her own admission, we know she wasn’t really orphaned, but adopted — the two terms are similar, but not synonymous. The fact of her adoption tempts us to take her words literally, while simultaneously forcing us to accept the images as metaphorical. Through her song, Welch metamorphosized herself into an orphan.
When I cross over,
I will shout and sing.
I will know my savior
By the mark where the nails have been.
–“By the Mark,” Revival
Just as Welch adopted an Appalachian sound, she also adopted the gospel formula. “Gospel tunes are great to write,” she explained, “because you know what’s going to happen. There’s only so many things that go on in a gospel tune. You can sin. You can repent. And you can be saved. You can be remorseful of the sinning you’ve done. It’s a very restrictive form. I like that.”
Welch speaks about writing gospel tunes as if they are sonnets, with strict structural dictates, not sacred songs imbued with spirit. Does she even believe in the words she sings?
“I didn’t grow up in church,” she admitted, and continued to explain that she “would probably qualify as a semi-spiritual person.” So do the songs she writes qualify as spirituals, or merely “semi-spirituals”?
Nothing seems “semi” about her spirituals, which sound as if she wrote them at a country baptism. Her narrators speak confidently of their redemption, saying not “if” but “when” they enter into heaven. What’s more, Welch writes her gospel songs in the first person, tempting us to mistake her for the believers she impersonates.
Does it matter whether Welch herself believes? I don’t think so. What matters more is that we don’t know her spiritual status for sure. Indeed, why should we know — who of us knows for sure whether our faith, if we have any, will lead us to salvation?
I cried, “My God, I am your child,
Send your angel down.”
Then feeling with my fingertips
The bottleneck I found.
–“Caleb Meyer,” Hell Among the Yearlings
Welch opens her second album singing again in the first person: As Nellie Cain, she prays for deliverance from rape at the hand of the title character. Her prayers are answered, but by who? Was the bottle Nellie broke to defend herself from violation delivered from on high, or the gift of her own wits?
If the former, then “Caleb Meyer” could qualify as a gospel song, or at least a song of belief; if the latter, it’s clearly a secular song. Absent a certain answer, however, we can’t call it one or the other for certain — Welch seals the song in an interpretive purgatory. By burying the answer between the lines, Welch poses very the same question that faith asks: do you believe in divinity, or in humanity?
While Welch’s gospel songs — “By the Mark,” “Rock of Ages” (with its naming of the Biblical Gospel writers) and “Red Clay Halo” (which appears on her third and latest album, but dates back to before her first) — seem at first glance to be straightforward statements of belief, Welch’s own uncertain spiritual status calls this simplistic formulation into question. “Caleb Meyer” takes this dynamic one step further by leaving the spiritual status of the song itself vague. Interestingly, though, this may perform a more spiritual function than most gospel songs, forcing listeners to interpret the song in a way that reveals their own spiritual commitment.
I’m the pretender
And not what I’m supposed to be.
But who could know if I’m a traitor?
Time’s the revelator.
–“Revelator,” Time (the Revelator)
On the first song on her latest album, Welch erases all traces of religious reference completely. Well, not quite completely. This song contains no mention of pearly gates or Gospel prophets, as if she’s outgrown the gospel formula she once lauded, but its title (and refrain) echoes the album title, Time (the Revelator), which in turn echoes Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 “John (the Revelator),” a gospel song about the infamous Baptist. This song has been covered by everyone from Son House to Harry Belafonte to Taj Mahal to Beck, each shifting the lyrics to some degree. However, Welch performs a complete transformation, using Johnson’s title alone as a platform from which to launch into her radical reinterpretation: Whereas Johnson’s revelation is supernatural, as is that of his faithful followers, Welch’s notion of revelation is firmly rooted in the temporal.
Just as Welch’s song echoes the title of an old gospel tune, so too does it echo the Biblical character of Judas by invoking the role of “traitor.” It’s a charge that’s been made in the music world before. Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s electrification drew accusations of heresy from folk purists. When an audience member yelled “Judas!” during a 1966 British show released as an “official bootleg” a few years ago, Dylan responded, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” Welch goes him one better: instead of rejecting the indictment, she embraces it, donning the cloak of heresy. “But who could know if I’m a traitor?” she asks in the very next line, casting doubt on the charge. In the verse’s final line, she turns the tables much more effectively than Dylan: “Time’s the revelator,” she sings, paraphrasing Dylan’s “Time will tell/ Just who has fell/ And who’s been left behind…” In gospel, God is the judge; in Welch’s secular reformulation, time is.
While Welch includes some sacred quoting on Time, her meditations center more on the historical, grounding her imagistic landscape in events of significant cultural importance (the sinking of the Titanic, the dust storms that blew in the Great Depression, the assassination of Lincoln) as well as culling images from America’s musical mythology (Casey Jones’ last ride, Elvis’s death, John Henry’s hammer, Johnny Cash’s amphetamine-addled antics). By drawing on events and images we all share, Welch not only invites listeners onto common ground, but she also avoids the charge that she is treading on the sacred territory of gospel music as a non-believer, nor on the hallowed grounds of Appalachian music as a flatlander. She rightfully claims all Americana as her religion.
Bill Baue is music director at radio free brattleboro, a commercial-free independent community station that also streams on the web. He lives with his two daughters in southern Vermont, where he writes short stories and news for SocialFunds.com.