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October 2011

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2011

I was about to say that a couple of months ago I mentioned that this album was available for streaming from NPR. Then I checked the post where I mentioned it and found that it was actually four months ago—late June. This sort of thing is happening to me more and more. The carousel of the year has been continually speeding up for some time, but lately it’s become almost disorienting. Just when I think I’ve begun to get used to it, and am no longer making seriously inaccurate guesses about how long ago something happened, it gets even faster, and I’m doing it again. Can it really be football season again already? More than halfway through football season, as a matter of fact. And how can I have wasted so much time?

Likewise, I was a little surprised to find that it’s been closer to three than to four years since I reviewed Gillian Welch’s Time the Revelator. But a melancholy reflection is an appropriate beginning for a discussion of her work.  HarrowAndHarvest

I liked Time a lot, though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and the Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in mood, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others.

Time the Revelator is ten years old now, and yet this new album sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in Welch’s first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

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 (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. Perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding. At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

Anyway: if you have heard and liked the earlier work of Welch and Rawlings, it is pretty certain that you’ll like this. A week or so ago they were on Austin City Limits, and the program can be viewed online at the PBS site. The first half features the very interesting band The Decemberists. In the Welch-Rawlings half, you can see Gillian buck-dance. And by the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”

This Is A Very Large Sycamore Leaf

Sycamore leaves are on the large side generally--about as big as my hand with fingers spread wide. But not this big. We had a strong wind for 24 hours or so starting sometime Friday, and on Saturday morning there were several of these freaks on the ground. They must grow only very high up on the tree, where they get most of the sun, because none that I can see from the ground are this big. I laid a coin (a quarter) on it just to give you some sense of the size: almost 18 inches/45cm across.


Christ In All Men

In case my account of Caryll Houselander's vision of Christ In All Men may have left anyone who hasn't read the book with the idea that it was a sweet but vague sentiment, here are some key passages from her description of the experience and its implications:

I had long been haunted by the Russian conception of the humilated Christ, the lame Christ limping through Russia, begging his bread; the Christ who, all through the ages, might return to the earth and come even to sinners to win their compassion by his need. Now, in the flash of a second, I knew that this dream is a fact; not a dream, not the fantasy of a devout people, not the prerogative of the Russians, but Christ in man...

Although [the vision] did not prevent me from sinning again, it showed me what sin is, especially those sins done in the name of "love," so often held to be "harmless"--for to sin with one whom you loved was to blaspheme Christ in that person; it was to spit on Him, perhaps to crucify Him. I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are his tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, no one of us who has fallen into mortal sin himself must ever lose hope....

I knew too that since Christ is One in all men, as He is One in countless Hosts, everyone is included in Him; there can be no outcasts, no excommunicates, excepting those who excommunicate themselves--and they too may be saved, Christ rising from death in them.

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life.


Contradictions of Capitalism

Scroll down to the review of The Great A&P on this page for a fascinating bit about the A&P grocery chain. It was a fixture of life in the U.S. for several decades, and anyone over, I suppose, 55 or so remembers when "A&P" was almost a synonym for "grocery store." Many of us even recall it nostalgically, but when it appeared it was the WalMart of its day, driving small grocers and their suppliers out of business.

BUT. Here's the maddening thing about this sort of trend: Americans spent far less of their income on food after A&P revolutionized the business. That's just one of many, many reasons why our current economic troubles are so intractable: what lowers prices for Joe puts Bill out of work. I suspect that anything that could reduce that instability would also leave us, overall, less affluent. Which is not to say that it wouldn't be the right way to go. But how do you convince people of that? Do we have to have a complete collapse first?

Caryll Houselander: A Rocking-Horse Catholic

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2011

As I mentioned back in July when I wrote about Houselander’s book of quasi-poetry, The Flowering Tree, I intended to read this autobiographical work next. I don’t remember for sure now, but I believe that decision was made when I took it off the shelf in the library and read the opening paragraphs, in which she recounts the two attempts at baptizing her which followed immediately upon her birth (September 29, 1901). The poor baby was not expected to live, and the clergyman called to baptize her was disconcerted to find that her mother and uncle, the only other persons present, had no name for her, because they “had not thought it necessary to think of names for ‘something that would not live for twenty-four hours.’”

Moreover, “[my uncle] said that I was so small and so odd, and so like a tiny red fish, that it seemed that I should either be drowned in the baptismal waters or swim away in them.”

Well, how could one not want to read further after that? And so I did. And I would say this might be the best place to start with Houselander’s work. Might be: since I haven’t read anything other than these two books and a few passages here and there, I can’t be sure about that. But it certainly illuminates The Flowering Tree considerably.

It’s a brief and extremely readable book, only a hundred and fifty smallish pages. One could easily read it in a weekend and still get some other things done, and I rather wish I’d had the opportunity to do that. Circumstances mostly beyond my control make my reading pretty fragmented, and although I had no trouble keeping the thread of this story fresh in my mind when I went several days without reading it, its impact and my response were correspondingly fragmented.

To summarize the life very, very briefly: Caryll Houselander was born into a family without religion, except the nominal Christianity implied in the baptism story, in which an almost superstitious fear of hell requires that a baby be baptized though one has no intention of raising it in the faith. Her ill health at birth seems to have continued for most of her life relatively short life; she died of cancer at 53.

Her mother became Catholic when Caryll was five, and had her baptized (conditionally, I suppose); hence the title of the book: she was not a cradle Catholic but a rocking-horse Catholic. Her parents’ marriage dissolved when she was nine, and this came as a terrible blow to her. From then until she was sixteen she was sent to convent schools, the first of which she liked very much and which encouraged a devotional life which I think must have had some influence in preventing her from leaving the Church altogether when, not very many years later, she very much wanted to. At the second convent, which sounds like something out of the upper-class Catholic milieu of Brideshead Revisited, she learned to associate the Church with snobbery, and this began a process of disaffection which lasted until (I gather—it isn’t entirely clear) sometime in her twenties.

She was called home from the second convent to help her mother care for a wayward priest, “a very sick man in mind and body.” Some years later she left home and lived on her own in great poverty. Estranged from the Church, she worked hard to find a substitute for it, but did not succeed.

I referred to this as an autobiographical work, not an autobiography, because although it was written not long before the author’s death, it stops with the last of three mystical experiences, and the one which seems to have led to her return to the Church, although that isn’t entirely clear. And it is very short on details: it wasn’t clear, for instance, to me at any rate, why the presence of the sick priest was cause for ostracism. Was it simply that a priest was there at all, in the home of a divorced woman? Or was it something more, something in particular about him? One reads in the Wikipedia biography that Houselander was left heartbroken by a very improbably-sounding love affair with Sidney Reilly, a famous spy and rather bad man, but nothing of that sort is mentioned here, and nothing very specific about the half-starved years in which she lived among London bohemians.

But that’s all somewhat beside the point, which is the spiritual testament. The only thing that keeps me from saying that it ranks with the great ones is that I’ve read so few of those. Certainly it is a very fine and memorable one. It has the depth of insight that one would assume in a spiritual classic, but it has a somewhat cool, very modern and English tone, which I like very much. She describes coolly episodes of intense feeling, such as this period of severe mental and physical suffering that struck her at the age of (I think) about six:

Before I was able to go to my second Holy Communion I was again attacked by illness, this time an illness which made a deeper impression on my whole subsequent life than anything that has ever happened to me before or since. It occurred with astonishing suddenness. At one moment...I was a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience and usually naughty rather than good; but a moment later I was literally prostrated by what must surely have been an acute and violent neurosis, characterised by an unbearable sense of guilt.

I was walking upstairs, going (unwillingly) to wash my hand for tea, when without a moment’s warning I became too weak to take another step. I sat down on the steps feeling as if all my life was flowing out of my heels, and my wrists were too weak, too fluid, to lift my hands. There, after the tea bell had run repeatedly and vainly for me, I was found, and carried upstairs and put to bed, where I had to remain for the next three months.

I’ll stop there, because you really need to read the resolution of this incident for yourself.

One naturally is reminded of Flannery O’Connor: another sickly woman, Catholic, unmarried, possessed of sharp wit, acute and unsentimental spiritual insight, and a considerable literary gift. O’Connor is more significant, of course, from the literary point of view, but I begin to think that Houselander may be of equal importance as a spiritual writer. And her literary gifts are not inconsequential: this book is a work of artless-seeming art, a well-structured narrative written in graceful prose of great clarity and precision and frequent dry wit (“a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience”).


I had written all the above when it came time to go to 5:30 Mass. I planned to add only another paragraph noting that the vision upon which Caryll Houselander’s spirituality rested was of Christ in all men. It was literally a vision, one which came to her toward the end of that part of her life which is included in this book. Afterwards, “if the ‘vision’ had faded, the knowledge had not”—and the knowledge became the foundation of a sort of ministry to troubled people.

Christ in all men. Yes, certainly I believe that, and I want to see that way, too. And so I went on to Mass, intending to add that last paragraph later.

A woman sat down next to me in church. She was wearing running shorts and a sweatshirt. I’m at ease with the informal way most people (in this country, at least) dress for Mass, and in fact I like it, because it means I don’t have to wear a tie. But...shorts that have hardly any leg at all? That’s a little too much, or rather much too little. And on women it’s certainly distracting to men, though in this case the wearer was mistaken if she thought the shorts made her attractive. Well, at least she’s here, I thought, and it’s not my place to judge her. Then she began fidgeting restlessly and generally giving off an air of being unhappy to be there. And that was a bit distracting, too, and a bit annoying. Don’t let that bother you, I thought.

Then I realized that the thing which was really getting on my nerves, though I had not yet taken conscious note of it, was that she was chewing gum—chewing it vigorously, and very audibly, with frequent loud pops. At that point I went, mentally, over the edge, though I didn’t do or say anything. It happens to be a quirk of mine that any sort of smacking, slurping, or snuffling noise that continues for very long has an extremely irritating effect on me, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I really can’t control the reaction—I mean, I can control my behavior, and I usually am able to stifle my impulse to lash out at the perpetrator, but I go rigid with irritated tension. Of course the more I tried to ignore the sound the more I noticed it, and for a great deal of the Mass all I could hear was the popping and smacking.

Ok, Lord, I get your point

I had a pretty tough time seeing Christ in the gum-smacking lady. No doubt God was at work there, and probably laughing at me. At the Exchange of the Peace, I did manage to look into her eyes and see, if not Christ, at least a fellow sinner for whom I could feel kindness, and concomitant shame for my anger.

I wondered how she was going to receive Communion while chewing gum. At the Consecration she pulled a song sheet out of the rack on the pew and wrapped her gum in it.


I have never been tempted to steal a library book before, but I'm tempted to steal this one. It doesn't appear to have been checked out for many years, and it's just a matter of time until they discard it. And A Rocking-Horse Catholic appears to be in print only in some sort of scanned paperback, and used copies of the old Sheed & Ward edition start at around $45. I'd really like to have one of those, with dust jacket intact: the illustration is based on a design by Houselander.


The one in the library is probably an original edition, but of course it doesn't have the dust jacket. It does have, pasted into the inside back cover, the front and back...what do you call them?...the pieces of the dust jacket that go inside the book, with a fine tribute from Ronald Knox and one of those nostalgic Sheed & Ward offers to send you a copy of Sheed & Ward's Own Trumpet, request to be addressed to J. Buck, Sheed & Ward, New York 3. Can you imagine a publisher today putting an individual's name on something like that?

Don't worry, I'm in no danger of actually stealing it--the thought just crossed my mind, that's all.