As a big Gillian Welch/David Rawlings fan I was surprised to read recently that David and Samantha Cameron attended the concert by the awesome duo in London last November. On one level it suggests that the Camerons at least have good taste, and that unlike Tony Blair, their tastes are not calculated to win headlines or demonstrate that they are rock n’ rollin’ Cool Britannia types through celebrity schmoozing with the likes of Oasis and the Bee Gees.
But it is difficult to understand how someone who once chose Benny Hill’s ghastly Ernie as one of his Desert Island Discs can also like the pared-down beauty of Welch/Rawlings. And there is something curious and incongruous about the interest of the ex-Etonian stockbroker’s son and the entrepreneur daughter of a Baronet in a couple whose excavations of American bluegrass/country/folk traditions return again and again to a world of marginalised people, of loners, losers, and troubled souls, ground down by poverty, fruitless labour, adversity that does not generally figure in the priorities of the Tory party.
Many Welch/Rawlings songs revolve around individual ‘characters’ or narrators who would not have been out of place in the photographs of Walker Evans, in the pages of James Agee, Steinbeck or Raymond Carver, or the forbidding religious fundamentalism of Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories. Take the junkie/war veteran in My Morphine, who prefers drugs to women:
You should have seen me and my morphine
When we used to go dancing in the war
Spin me right off the floor
And the Tennessee miner in Miners Refrain, who sings
When you search the rain for the silver cloud
And you wait on days of gold
When you pitch to the bottom
Then the dirt comes down
And you cry so cold, so cold
Or the sleepless prostitute in Barroom Girls:
Well, she tosses and turns because the sun is unkind
And the heat of the day is coming in through the blinds
Leave all the blue skies for the rest of the world
Because the neon will shine for the Barroom Girls
There is the Alabama sharecropper in the utterly tragic Annabelle, who ekes out a living renting land from a banking trust, and cannot save her beloved daughter:
And when I die I’ll leave a hard life of tears
For every day I’ve ever known
But Anna’s in the churchyard
She got no life at all
Just these words on a stone
And the farmer in Camptown Man who sings to his mule:
I said it is a mean old world
Heavy in need
And that big machine is just a-pickin up speed
And we”re suppin on tears
And we”re suppin on wine
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time
And the whisky bootlegger ruined by alcoholism in Tear My Stillhouse Down,
When I was a child way back in the hills
I laughed at the men who tended those stills
But that old mountain shine, it caught me somehow
When I die tear my stillhouse down
Or the dustbowl migrant in One More Dollar who goes to California hoping to pick fruit and send money back home, but never quite makes it:
A long time ago I left my home
Just a boy passing twenty
Could you spare a coin and a Christian prayer
For my luck has turned against me
Despite their often grim subject matter, these songs are often laced with a dark streak of humour, and also with hope and a stubborn streak of resilience, like the narrator in Little Red Bird, who sings
So long now I’ve been out
in the rain and snow
But winter’s come and gone
A little bird told me so
Or the flower that sustains yet another of the Welch/Rawlings character down on their luck in Acony Bell:
Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world “Why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away”
For the despised bachelor farmer in Red Clay Halo who works in the fields all day and can’t find a wife, redemption comes in the next world:
Now it’s mud in the spring and it’s dust in the summer,
When it blows in a crimson tide.
Until trees and leaves and the cows are the colour,
Of the dirt on the mountainside.
But when I pass through the pearly gate,
Will my gown be gold instead?
Or just a red clay robe with red clay wings,
And a red clay halo for my head?
Like so much great American music, these songs evoke specific places, from California and the Appalachians to Ohio or Alabama, but they also have a pathos and humanity that gives them a wider resonance. In an interview on the stunning new album The Harrow & the Harvest, Welch described the content of the new songs in the following terms:
I think the themes are fairly adult, rather major themes of regret and loss and dealing with substantial reversals, and dealing with life not dealing you the hand you were wishing for or expecting. I think in general though, the narrator copes with it. No one on the record, no narrator on the record is completely overcome by these reversals.
I’m aware that the Camerons have experienced regret and loss in their personal lives, and maybe this explains their affinity for Welch and Rawlings. Because there is certainly no indication from Cameron and his government of any sympathy or empathy with the kind of people who feature in their music. Over the next few years many people will experience ‘substantial reversals’ as a result of an atrophied economic and financial system that increasingly resembles the Great Depression landscapes evoked in songs like Annabelle and One More Dollar.
So perhaps Dave and Sam Cam don’t listen to the lyrics, and just let the gorgeous harmonies and David Rawlings’ immaculate acoustic picking wash over them.
Or perhaps they only concentrate on the lovesongs.