What’s In Gillian Welch’s Hope Chest

I keep thinking of my two Americas, which may or may not align with Edwards’, though I doubt it, because, for all of Edwards’ faults, he’s sincere and not at all pained by being so.  My two Americas are Walt Whitman’s America versus The America of Dudes With their Blow-Dried Full Heads of Hair Parted on the Side.  Pretty much, if you see a dude with a full head of hair cut just so, blow-dried and parted on the side, he is the enemy of truth and beauty.  In fact, if you see him at all, you’ve probably caught him in mid-lie.

I don’t know if there’s anything good in the America of the Dudes with The Haircut.  Maybe there is.  My question is, even if it’s good, how can you know if it’s real?  It’s like being fed a steady diet of Special K.  It’s just crunchy air.  It’s not bad for you.  But I don’t know that it’s going to cure what ails any of us.

I finally finished The Devil in the Shape of a Woman and at the end of it, the author is talking about the possession of the Salem girls and how, regardless of what you view as the cause of their behavior, it’s hard not to notice that their bodies seemed to be acting out a rage they were helpless in the face of, a rage they could not express in real life.  I wonder what it says about me that I cannot handle open spaces combined with heights.  On Monday, I couldn’t see out of my left eye.  It was just full of junk and it seems to have cleared itself up (in other words, it wasn’t my eye itself that was the problem.  I wasn’t blind.  I just couldn’t see through the crap over it).  But it was playing funky stuff with my perceptions as my right eye tried to compensate and I was getting weird blindspots and from a certain angle, it looked like the dog only had one eye.

Maybe I should have taken that as a friendly warning.

Anyway, I was looking around the internet for a good discussion of Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway” and I don’t see any.  I don’t know if that’s because it’s so obvious to everyone or if it’s because it’s so obscure.  I think of this song as a kind of cataloging of what’s in Gillian Welch’s hope chest, her meandering walk through what she loves in the Walt Whitman America, like her “Wrecking Ball” but with less obvious anger.

I really love it, though, I’m not sure what it all means.  I think any discussion has to start with the allusions, just to make sure everyone’s on the same place on those terms.

So, shall we start there?

The John who’s kicking out the footlights is Johnny Cash kicking out the footlights of the Opry

The Grand Ole Opry did get a brand new band right before this song came out and folks were outraged that so many loyal old musicians were displaced.

So you might say that the first verse is about the Opry and the whole ongoing conflict between what’s new and “how things have always been done.”  In a nice twist, the verse doesn’t settle on one side of the debate.  In the case of Cash, we think of “how things have always been done” as stifling the outlaw genius. In the case of the brand new band, we’re supposed to lament the passing of “how things have always been done.”  And yet, if you didn’t know that, the verse is written so that John’s kicking out of the footlights seems to be in direct protest of the Grand Ole Opry getting a brand new band.

Well, clearly, this is Dream Time.  Effects can be felt years before causes cause them.  We start, though, in Nashville.

Then, we’re thinking about moving down into Memphis.  Since we started talking about music, and we’re listening to a song, it’s tempting to read this verse also as being about music.   But who is the hatchet man who forked the speaker’s tongue?  A hatchet man is usually a term used to mean a hack.  I used to think he was Elvis, but maybe he’s Sam Phillips.  Whoever he is, he taught our song bird how to speak (tongue forking is a way to make crows speak).  We haven’t left for Memphis yet, though, we’re laying around waiting for the wagons to come.  What wagons?  Fuck if I know.

Next verse, (though I must say, I think it’s important that she’s positioned herself as a crow, as a psychopomp–we’re traveling here, not just across America, but back and forth from the living to the dead), she’s escaped Nashville and is headed now to Memphis (a three hour drive/a three hour jones).

Next verse, she’s picked up Jack of Diamonds–unless he’s the rattling bones in her empty wagon.  Who’s Jack of Diamonds?  A drifter a female singer says, “I know you of old You have robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold.”  Welch’s narrator indicates they’re playing some ancient game with well-defined parts–will Jack of Diamonds be the one who goes or the one who stays?  The one who dies and becomes a legend or the one who’s left behind with the legacy?  Welch suggests that it’s Jack’s turn to stay behind and her turn to become legendary.

But what does it mean for her to be legendary?  Thinking of herself as a legend, as “something to write home about,” she doesn’t know who she is.  I think that’s what this next verse is about, her studying the television, looking for some model she can follow in order to figure out what kind of legend she can be.

Then she turns back to Jack and brags about the self-destructive things she’s done and how he should give her some of what he’s having, his poison, his place in history; it might be poison, but she can take it.

Then, bam, we’re not on the road to Memphis any more.  We’ve traded that for another liminal space–a bathroom and we’re hung over and it’s too bright.  But the weirdness isn’t over.  It’s not just there hanging some place between Nashville and Memphis.

It’s also in a diner where you can watch a waitress for a million years until you have a Biblical vision.

I don’t know why Lazarus is hiding behind the window shade but I appreciate that, just as the singer seems to be slipping back and forth between living and death and living again, she would welcome the company of a man back from the dead.

And then, in the last verse, of course, no matter how profound this shit is, you can’t ever hold onto it like you want to.  The knowledge is so hard to hang onto, to know it in your bones and keep it there.

5 thoughts on “What’s In Gillian Welch’s Hope Chest

  1. But who is the hatchet man who forked the speaker’s tongue? A hatchet man is usually a term used to mean a hack. I used to think he was Elvis, but maybe he’s Sam Phillips. Whoever he is, he taught our song bird how to speak (tongue forking is a way to make crows speak). We haven’t left for Memphis yet, though, we’re laying around waiting for the wagons to come. What wagons? Fuck if I know.

    I think the hatchet man (not just a hack, but a hack who fires people and does the dirty work for the boss) is the Nashville industry people, because she hasn’t left town yet. They have the power to make/let you speak/sing, but this hurts. I suppose she is distancing herself for the guys with the blow-dried hair, just as you are. I think she’s being a little disingenuous here, as she’s a label head and studio owner herself. But everybody gets to have their contradictions, not just Walt. The whole music as business/pleasure dichotomy and what she wants to get out of it was really on her and David’s mind at the time, right? Because on the same album she’s got “Everything’s Free” (or “Everything’s for Free” — I never remember which) which is full of complaining about how everyone wants artists to make them stuff and then not get paid for it. In fact, she says in that song that she wants to “go back to Cali” and I think that “I Dream a Highway” is about what that trip would be like — it ends up in a diner in Hollywood. Anyway, maybe part of her musing is about irony and sincerity in what she does. Which would bring the discussion right back to John Edwards.

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  3. Pingback: I Dream a Highway – Gillian Welch’s Song of America Explicated « Live Little

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  5. Just a small interjection – IMHO ‘Everything is free now’ is about internet music piracy. ‘Someone hit the big time – they figured it out’ is about Napster and the discovery of how to decrypt DVDs.

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