Listen: The Harrow & The Harvest

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Article Reviews
The Harrow & The Harvest
Gillian Welch (Acony Records, 2011)

Gillian Welch has described the 10 songs on The Harrow & The Harvest as “10 kinds of miserable.” And that’s pretty accurate. The characters here find themselves mortified, exiled, overdosed, and finally laid to rest “with a pistol in my vest.” These are 21st-century original songs planted firmly in the American old-time folk tradition, the kind that Bob Dylan once described as brimming with “despair . . . sadness . . . triumph, [and] faith in the supernatural.”

The music here is, if anything, more authentically rooted than the lyrics. The only instruments are acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, and “hands and feet.” And the melodies are drawn from that vast pool of American music fed by field hollers, spirituals, old English ballads, and Celtic fiddle tunes. Some (say, “Down Along the Dixie Line”) could have been Stephen Foster tunes from the 1850s. Others (“Scarlet Town” or “Six White Horses”) could be a century older than that. 

Welch gained her greatest fame with her contributions to the soundtrack of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but her die was cast long before that. On her first album, Revival, in 1996, she sang self-penned Appalachian death ballads that addressed the listener in the persona of Alabama sharecroppers and other displaced time travelers.

Welch’s secret weapon is her partner, David Rawlings. All the songs are co-written, and Rawlings contributes close harmony vocals in the best country family band tradition. In addition, Rawlings is an absolute virtuoso on his 1935 Epiphone arch-top guitar. His lead lines, alternately plaintive and propulsive, moan and dance their way through every song, doing the job usually reserved for the fiddle in this music.

If you don’t know Welch’s recordings, or you only know her from the O Brother soundtrack, this album is an excellent place to begin your acquaintance.

This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 3, pages 42-43.)