She Broke Your Memory Last Night #2: On Gillian Welch And Appalachian Appropriation

On May 25, 2016

by Susannah Young


Exactly one half of my Thinking About Cultural Identity brain believes good ideas belong to the world: that the true watermark of good art is the ease with which people can identify with it and write their own lived experience onto it. Our natural response to art that moves us is to proselytize on its behalf, to share its gospel because it feels like our gospel, too. That’s why the natural extension of our now-unfettered access to centuries of music from all around the world are musicians who borrow from Bach and bachata with equal measure, making music that reflects the threads of their curiosity and the patterns of consumption—not necessarily the lives they’ve lived.

This is a very beautiful One World Alliance™ sentiment—but it can also be a huge fucking problem. A musician can wade into murky waters when s/he adopts the aesthetics of a genre absent the lived experience that gave rise to the art in the first place—which becomes increasingly problematic if the lived experience that birthed this art involves hardship you could never experience. The Internet is both a real-time chronicle of the way appreciation can quickly veer into appropriation and a real-time transcript of Woke Folks falling all over themselves to point out these transgressions: a not-black gay man covering Beyonce’s “Formation,” or a bunch of well-meaning white people using the word “woke,” (just like Yours Truly did less than one sentence ago). All good music exists for all of us—but it’s important to remember that being moved by music and wanting to be its ambassador is an entirely separate thing from living the experience that birthed that music in the first place. 

I don’t remember why I decided to look up where Gillian Welch was from—but I do remember I didn’t do it until I’d been listening to and loving her music for years and years, and I also remember stupidly feeling a little betrayed when I found out she was born in New York and raised in Los Angeles—and not somewhere in Appalachia, as everything about her music suggests. Any free spirit sporting a sundress or a patchy beard can pick up a banjo and I’m fine with it (as long as I’m not within earshot of said free spirit), but the depth of Welch’s commitment to recreating my home’s music initially touched a prideful nerve. This is not to say I stopped listening to Gillian Welch: nothing could be further from the truth, or a stupider form of protest. But I found myself impressed with her commitment to creating this kind of music—in instrumentation, song structure, even the accent she sings in—and wanted to dig a little deeper into why it became such an illuminating force in the life of a New Yorker-turned-Californian.

By her own account, Welch’s fascination with traditional folk, bluegrass and country music started while she was a photography student at UC-Santa Cruz, playing in both goth and psychedelic bands. After her roommate at the time (and former bandmate) Mike McKinley played her a record by the Stanley Brothers, she said she was hooked for life. It’s worth noting that Ralph Stanley himself initially would have been skeptical of her chances of success; he says of bluegrass, “[It’s] born and bred. I don't think you can really get this sound unless you were born into it." And I completely get what he’s saying. In a world where global connection is erasing regional identity, places that still do have a strong regional identity—like the American Southeast—have become more appealing, and are now inspiring people all around the country to glom onto and/or ape our more attractive customs. In Matt Hartman’s fantastic piece for The Awl, “Garden and Gut,” he makes the salient point that market-based consumption alters the presentation of any tradition, both in the products produced and the language used to describe them. Making a tradition more inclusive by necessity alters it, whether it’s mission creep in country music that’s now inspiring Jason Aldean, Sam Hunt and others to rap, or a chef in Chicago creating a $30 fried chicken plate.


This is the kind of phenomenon that makes people sad and/or mad—which is understandable but also sort of a waste of emotion because culture is a living thing: a giant, anarchic, never-ending game of Telephone, where everything that came before is a springboard for everything you hope to add based on your own perspective. Which is exactly what Welch does; she uses the structure and tropes of Appalachian music as an aesthetic springboard. Sometimes it happens by covering traditional songs with timeless themes, like “Silver Dagger” and “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”: moms will always try to keep their daughters away from garbage dudes, and friends will always demand to crash on your couch. Sometimes it happens through songs like “Orphan Girl” that very directly mimic traditional Appalachian music. Though Welch-penned, with its matter-of-fact marinating in hardship and a final verse that centers on powering through a shitty life on earth in exchange for peace in heaven, “Orphan Girl” could easily pass for a song that’s lived in the hills for a century.

But Welch is at her best and her most interesting when she’s less focused on preserving the traditions of Appalachian music and more focused on making Appalachian music in her own voice. It’s what makes “Wrecking Ball” one of her very best songs: a richly detailed, passionate retrospective of Welch’s fumblings through young adulthood. It sounds like traditional Appalachian music, but the subject matter is her own life: Deadheads, not coalminers; flunking out of college, not toiling in a coal mine; earthly transgressions with no repentance and no heavenly reward. It’s not technically authentic—but it still reads as a completely authentic song because it’s authentic to her. It’s Welch telling you her story using the sound that makes sense to her. She just had to look around awhile to find out where she was really from.

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