A while ago, a writing group I am part of, gave ourselves the assignment of making a mix-cd of “writerly” songs. I included in my mix, this song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two of my favorite songwriters. I wrote a bit about what I found interesting about the song. I’m seeing her tonight at the Vancouver Folk Festival so I thought I’d share what I had written.
What could be a sad little song about wandering around a city and catching an Idaho punk band play some small fruitless show, is lifted into a much larger and deeper context by what frames it. On April the 14th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln (The Great Emancipator) was assassinated. On that same date in 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg. And in 1935 (April 14th again) one of the worst dust bowl storms (Black Sunday) ever sent residents (“Okies” from Oklahoma) fleeing for other areas. It’s hard to see how these events relate to this story about seeing a punk show, other than it possibly occurring on that same date too. There are other connections I can make…but that it would just be my personal connections; the song generously allows a lot of space for that.
Gillian places herself very much in an old-timey folk tradition and makes the most of it within her lyrics by referencing the work of older musicians and historical events from different times. As well, many phrases connect to other songs on the album: “the staggers and the jags” appears in the album’s sprawling closer “I Dream A Highway”, and “I wish I played in a rock n’ roll band” are from “I Want to Sing that Rock N’ Roll.” I love that idea of stitching songs on a album together this way and wish more songwriters did it.
Other trivia: Casey Jones was a train driver who famously saved the lives of many passengers by remaining on his train as it crashed in order to slow it down, thus killing himself. He has been referenced in plenty of songs. The line “God Moves on the Water” comes from the old song by Blind Willie Johnson, which is about the Titanic.