As silly as it might sound, sometimes I look for nothing less than the Great Mojo Spirit in the music I listen to. This is doubly true for music that goes out of its way to invite this kind of spiritual curiosity. Case in point: the music of Gillian Welch. It took me over a month to purchase Welch’s new album, the Harrow and the Harvest. I knew this music was going to be a dark and transcendent trip and I needed time to prepare myself for its intensity.
Gillian Welch is actually a duo, with musical partner Dave Rawlings providing vocal harmonies and guitar. In 1996, they released their first album, called Revival. The title alone should give you a few clues as to what kind of direction their music took, and continues to take. Makes you think not only of the old-time Depression-era string music they were bringing back, but it also brings to mind an old tent revival. I drove past a few such revivals when I lived out in Montevallo, Alabama, where my first wife was going to college. Out driving in the middle of nowhere, I would always slow down to take in those otherworldly praise-voices and those black hands held high in the air, as if grabbing at the clouds. I sometimes wanted to get out of my car and join them. But, no, I didn’t believe in the same metaphysical truth as they did and so, naturally, had I joined them, I would have been a fake, an imposter, a jokester, no matter my sincerity and desire for new experience.
Listening to old Depression-era tunes, digitized from old 78rpm records can provide a sort of secular approximation of the tent revival. Perhaps some of today’s musicians will have this same effect of future generations, but none of us will be around to see it. You need the passing of a good number of years to understand the joy of old, timeless music. Because the experience is about feeling the past is as real as the present. Welch and Rawlings play old-time folk with the goal of evoking exactly this sense of timelessness. But Welch’s brooding lyrics are often contemporary too. “The Way it Goes” is about a group of friends, a high school clique, maybe, who grow apart as they age. “That’s the way it goes,” she sings, “everybody’s buying little baby clothes.”
I don’t always like the kind of almost emotionless singing and harmonizing that Welch and Rawlings use on the more minimal string-and-voice tunes. Sometimes I find it hard to pay attention to the lyrics or even distinguish one song from another. But when this album works, it really works and I’ll be goddamned if Welch and Rawlings don’t get pretty damn close to some real Holy Ghost moments. And hooo heee, if we’re heading for another depression, then this music is a good way to prepare ourselves for the coming doom. The time is about right for another Holy Ghost string music revival.