Country Music Wimmin Appreciation Series, vol. 4
The two songs "Long Black Veil" and "Caleb Meyer" are separated by thirty-nine years; they were both written by women, both tell a story with an Appalachian feel, both take place at night, both involve the ghosts of men who died violently, and both were recorded by Joan Baez, which is how I first heard each of them.
The ghost in "Long Black Veil" is in the background of the song, present only as the first-person narrator of the story in the present time of the implied framing. He relates the circumstances of his death ten years previously, but his ghost self does not otherwise take part in the action of the story. The focus is on his lover who is still in the world of the living and how she copes with his being unjustly executed. He had taken the fall to preserve her reputation because she was his "best friend's wife," and his only alibi from a murder accusation was that he had been in her arms when the murder took place. He "said not a word," and chose to go to the gallows for her sake. Seems to me in a lot of old folklore and literature the ghosts of those who were unjustly put to death are of the exceptionally unquiet type. This one isn't quiet either, but instead of rattling chains he just wants to tell us his story. The whole song exists within an archaic setting of traditional chivalry, touched with deep mournfulness. After ten years, she still walks the hills to mourn alone at his grave, wearing a long black veil "at night when the cold winds moan," watched over by the ghost.
So "Long Black Veil" actually had many listeners believing that it was an old-timey traditional Appalachian murder ballad. Nope, it was written in 1959 (the year I was born) by Marijohn Wilkin, one of the foremost professional songwriters of the Nashville music machine. The same day she wrote it, she took it to the studio where she gave it to Lefty Frizzell; he recorded it that very night, with Wilkin on piano. It became an instant classic. She wrote it for a male first-person narrator. When Joan Baez sang it, she kept the original masculine gender of the narrator singing about his girlfriend. We should not necessarily read any of Joan's acknowledged bisexuality into this; it's just an old song tradition to not shift the first-person narrator's gender regardless of who's singing it (of course, the practice of switching gender in songs that way is probably just as old).
The song follows a more or less conservative three-chord country harmonic progression, in the plain European key of D major with nary an accidental. This was a norm for the time and place in which the song was written. It was the time when Nashville was busy taking the leadership of country music and beginning to build it into a commercial empire. Nashville commercialism soon led to syrupy deracinated music that neglected its raw bluegrass/honky tonk roots. But in 1959 country was still not so far removed from its origins that Wilkin couldn't have a Nashville-based hit with such an old-timey-style song.
The ghost in Gillian Welch's 1998 song "Caleb Meyer" is likewise an unglimpsed figure both backgrounded and yet central to the setting of the song. The verses tell the first-person story of a Kentucky mountain woman who killed the man that was attempting to rape her. The chorus of the song, in present time, is like an incantation to ward off his unquiet ghost from troubling her sleep. Hell of a thing, to kill a man with your own hands, ain't it? That's one badass woman.
In comparison to 1959 Nashville, Gillian Welch gave her song a much darker, colder feel. The stark melody, driving rhythm, and modal chord progression are rooted in the more primitive strains of the bluegrass tradition, harking directly back to its roots in medieval Gaelic music, tinged with African-American blue notes and perhaps some American Indian influence in expressiveness. This style of music came back with a vengeance thanks to first the 1960s folk revival (with its twin sister, the bluegrass revival), and then the 1970s outlaw country movement, as a reaction countering the overly polished and prettified norms that the Nashville establishment had come to enforce. It's a sound well suited to Southern Gothic, or eldritch mountain tales, or other such bleak, spare-textured country songs that seek to erect your body hairs with horripilation, from "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and "Riders on the Storm" to "Caleb Meyer" and the Indigo Girls' eerie "Sister." Joan Baez's rendition of "Caleb" on Dark Chords from a Big Guitar comes complete with the requisite reverbed twangy guitar, playing a minor-key melody in its low register. While Gillian gave her original version a very mountainy sound, Joan went for a hipster alt-country feel tinged with a bit of psychobilly.
Also musically notable in Welch's composition is what she's done to her chords. Even though this is only a 3-chord song, the way she forms and handles the chords is harmonically advanced. She intensified the modal feel by dropping the third at the center of each chord down to a second. So for example the song's tonic chord of F# minor, instead of having the usual triad F#, A, C#, is made of the notes F#, G#, C#. (Fig. 1.) The second is a fourth lower than the dominant of the chord, and in the first inversion (G#, C#, F#´), it becomes clear that this isn't a triad any more, it's a quartal chord, built of fourths instead of thirds. (Fig. 2.)
Avant-garde modern composers in the 20th century experimented with such radically different methods of harmony, notably Béla Bartók after he found such modal techniques in old folk music and worked to introduce them into the modern Western musical vocabulary. Welch's composition is the beneficiary of Bartók's pioneering studies as well as the revivals of American roots music. Welch's use of quartal harmony could easily produce ambiguous tonality, but the ear hears F# as the tonic because her chord voicing tucks the G# inside the tonic/dominant framework of F# and C#.
Welch includes in "Caleb" an even more intensely modal chord, the subdominant B quartal-seventh, whose seventh note, A, is the minor third for the tonic F# minor. (Fig. 3.) This A is the note needed to define the whole song's minor tonality, though it is not represented in the F# quartal chords themselves. So Welch sketches her spare tonality with subtle strokes, very deftly applied.
A lot can happen to music over thirty-nine years. From the story of a chivalrous man nobly sacrificing himself for a woman… to an empowered woman all on her own fighting back and killing a rapist. Both takes, though, emanate from women's perspectives on gender relations.