Songs of ruin and lamentation
On the necessity of heavy music for dark days
Yesterday was April 14 and there wasn’t much else to do, so I sat on the porch with my guitar and played along to a Gillian Welch song about the date.
“April the 14th (Part 1)” is a track on Welch’s 2001 album Time (The Revelator) that draws a thread through three national tragedies: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865; the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg on April 14, 1912; and the Black Sunday dust storm of April 14, 1935.
And the iceberg broke
And the Okies fled
And the Great Emancipator
Took a bullet in the back of the head
She refers to the date as “Ruination Day” in the song and its sequel, “Ruination Day (Part 2).” I had always assumed this was a well-known historical allusion, but it turns out she coined the term after noticing the coincidence herself.
The date stood out to Welch because she’s well-versed in American folk songs, a number of which commemorate deaths, disasters, and ruinations. Blind Willie Johnson’s Titanic memorial song “God Moves on the Water” mentions the date in the first line, as does Woody Guthrie’s “The Great Dust Storm.”
These songs are quintessential Americana, but they draw on older traditions. English murder balladeers of the 18th century used to dash off lyrics and sheet music to sell at public executions, with themes ranging from moralistic to irreverent.
Anyway, Welch was laid up sick in bed one day in the late ‘90s watching a PBS documentary about the Civil War (I assume Ken Burns’), and when she heard a mention of Lincoln’s assassination date, something clicked, according to an interview she gave to Longreads in 2015.
“I freaked out,” she said. “I really thought it was very sinister; I think it’s how some people feel when they see a ghost.”
In the final telling, the three historic tragedies ended up as window dressing for the main plotline of “April the 14th (Part 1),” which focused on a punk band Welch saw playing a 5-band set for a $2 door charge. The relatively minor tragedy of a doomed tour, and the worrying image of a girl passed out in the back of the band’s van, get absorbed into the sinister feeling of the day.
Life goes on without much resolution:
And the sky was red
I went back to work
And back to bed
Right now we are watching a disease drag across the earth. There’s a nightmarish quality to the slow-rolling approach of COVID-19, as if we saw a train coming from a mile away and couldn’t lift our bodies from the tracks.
Sammy Fretwell at The State newspaper interviewed several nurses who were caring for COVID-19 patients at a South Carolina hospital last week, and the stories were haunting. Patients are isolated and depressed, unable to draw breath, and too infectious to say goodbye to their families. A doctor held a woman’s hand so she wouldn’t die alone.
“They are scared and they ask us for reassurance, and we don’t have a lot of reassurance to give them,’’ a nurse said.
Someone is going to have to respond to all this suffering in song. I don’t buy all the romantic claptrap floating around about artists creating their masterpieces during a pandemic, but one day, maybe after this has passed us over, you will know the song when you hear it.
I have a deep-felt need for songs of lamentation. Last week was Holy Week in the Christian tradition, so I revisited some old hymns and spirituals about the crucifixion of Jesus. In a Good Friday service at some churches, you can hear songs about trials, beatings, and execution, but not a word about the resurrection. We save those songs for Sunday. Friday is for sorrow.
“Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” goes a refrain in my favorite version of the song “Were You There?”
Our last national tragedy to inspire an outpouring of song was the series of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Particularly on country radio, we reeled in the shock as artists churned out songs ranging from maudlin to xenophobic to downright execrable. Elsewhere, Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band and recorded a whole album’s worth of songs about 9/11.
People grieve in their own ways. Every year on Sept. 11, I listen to The Disintegration Loops by the composer William Basinski, an album that wasn’t originally meant as an elegy but has come to serve that purpose.
The story goes that Basinski was trying to digitize some old tape loops he’d recorded in the ‘80s when he discovered some of the tapes were badly degraded. Every time the magnetic tape passed over a tape head, it warped and deteriorated. He set up a short loop and let it play over and over again, recording the gradual decay for hours. The result is a reverberant volley of horns, echoing over an ever-changing crackle and hiss.
Basinski finished his project on the morning of the attacks. An uncredited critic in Stylus magazine described the album this way:
He and his friends went on the roof of his building and played the Loops over and over, all day long, watching the slow death of one New York and the slow rise of another, all the while listening to the death of one music and the creation of another.
When I listen to it now, I think about panicked final moments and grieving families, both in the U.S. and in the countries we invaded shortly afterward.
The old feelings come back: the rage, the sadness, the fear. But they feel different every year, a little more distant and a little less raw.
The painting at the top is from an altarpiece by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald. Monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France, commissioned the painting to display to medical patients who were in their care. Many of their patients suffered from ergotism, also known as St. Anthony’s Fire, a painful skin condition that caused seizures and sores. Jesus is depicted with similar sores in the painting.
I first read about this painting in Eric G. Wilson’s 2012 book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. It’s a breezy philosophical read that treats serial killer memorabilia, church passion plays, and street fight videos with equal seriousness. You can order a copy via Bookshop.
Speaking of buying books on the internet, I released the debut episode of the Brutal South Podcast last week featuring an interview with a local bookseller about ways to resist the Amazon juggernaut. You can now subscribe via the Apple Podcasts library here or copy the RSS link into your podcast player of choice.
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