There is more to the harmonica than meets the lips, to the extent that a careless student of the instrument might blow some serious money on a chromatic version instead of a diatonic one, or invest in a fancy chord model or a tremolo-tuned concoction when something with ‘bog-standard’ engraved on the side would have been a far better fit. And even if you somehow arrive home with the right bit of equipment, there is not the remotest chance you will make a noise like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. Certainly not at first, and probably never.
As for emulating Gillian Welch on I Made A Lovers Prayer, the hauntingly spare and heartfelt stand-out track on her fourth album, 2003’s Soul Journey… well, good luck to you. Her work is a marvel, pure and simple. Not in terms of adventurous notation or masterful technique: truth be told, there isn’t much evidence of either in the five minutes of bliss she offers. What she does give us is something far more precious. Within the narrowest of musical confines, she manages to create the loneliest sound in the world.
The great American singer-songwriters – all those dusty troubadours and balladeering poets – have been making the trusty old mouth organ wail and ache for many a long generation. On his Live Rust double album of more than 40 years ago, Young treated us to an entire side of emotionally-charged, harmonica-driven majesty before his pumped-up Crazy Horse bandmates were granted so much as a look-in. And before that, of course, Dylan was calling down thunderbolts from the heavens with little more in the armoury than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ mounted on a neck rack. I am no one’s idea of a Dylan devotee, but I could happily listen to Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for ever and a day. Not for the words, although they are a very long way from the worst ever written. Sacrilegious as it may sound, it’s the harmonica that grabs me and holds me tight. Like his forerunner, Springsteen might be described as a ‘Steinbeck of the mouth organ’. There are plenty of bleaker-than-bleak moments running through his back catalogue – the darkness of Nebraska, The Boss’s 10-song journey through a broken landscape of gallows anguish, has as its principal weapon a whole series of jabs and slashes from the harmonica – but by and large, those moments are balanced by redemptive flashes of grim resistance or surging declarations of hope-springs-eternal romance. Listen to the way his introduction to Thunder Road accelerates towards a spirit of defiance before those celebrated first words are sung, then shed a tear at the sense of impending grace in the long closing solo on Across The Border. That latter number is to be found on The Ghost Of Tom Joad. You can’t get more Steinbeckian than that.
The 52-year-old Welch is a different proposition, captivated as she is by Appalachian and country music rather than the pure folk tradition that drove Dylan or the blue-collar synthesis of soulful street-sound rock on which Springsteen laid his mighty foundations. Interestingly, the outspoken music critic Robert Christgau has dismissed her pretty much out of hand, mocking her ‘polka-dot dress as a costume rather than a heritage’ and claiming she ‘just doesn’t have the voice, eye or way with words to bring her simulation off’. Couldn’t be clearer. There again, the same writer considered Born In The USA to be a significantly better Springsteen album than Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Dear God, how wrong can you be?
Not that Christgau is alone in suggesting that Welch is somehow inauthentic, or even a fraud: there are plenty of critics Stateside who brand her an interloper on the spurious, borderline offensive grounds that she was born in the wrong place – New York, to a college-fresher mother – and raised by adoptive parents, Ken and Mitzie Welch, performers themselves, in Los Angeles, which the naysayers consider to be equally beyond the pale. To their minds, it’s a matter of geography. You were either discovered fully-formed, wearing boots and dungarees, in a tumbledown shack in Tennessee, or you leave the music alone.
Happily, Welch has a broad streak of ‘I’ll do it my way and to hell with the lot of you’. She attended university in California, where her initial exposure to bluegrass and Americana had the force of an ‘electric shock’, as she once described it. After a spell studying songwriting in Boston, she upped sticks and moved to Nashville, where virtually all of her new favourite songs had been recorded. In taking the brave decision to play her music where the music ran deepest, she completed an apprenticeship tough enough to justify herself in any company.
It is hard to see much Steinbeck in I Made A Lovers Prayer, for there is no trace of the heroic to be found. Quite the opposite. Unlike Thunder Road, the playing here conjures the image of the vagrant hitchhiker with nowhere to go in the closing pages of John Dos Passos’s great trilogy U.S.A. – the guy who ‘waits with swimming head, needs knot the belly, idle hands numb, beside the speeding traffic. A hundred miles down the road’. Lonesomeness in 21 words becomes lonesomeness in a few bars of simple harmonica. So simple, it’s level of difficulty is off the scale. Learning to play hurt like this takes a big chunk out of a life. Lyrically, the song appears to add up to very little: 16 short lines, half of them straight repetitions of the words in the title. The surprise comes when you realise that in delivering them, Welch has travelled a long way. A hundred miles down the road. ‘I made a lover’s prayer/ Then watched the sky/ Then wanted to cry,’ the New Yorker sings in the opening verse. ‘It’s only you and I/ And how I try.’ The hopelessness almost screams at you. Yet in the second and final verse, there is at least some clarity to her yearning, the hint of an answer. ‘Help me rise above/ What I’m thinking of/ Just a little more love.’
There is a third element to the music, underpinning and accentuating the voice and harmonica. Dave Rawlings is Welch’s full-time musical collaborator as well as her partner – they met during her time in Boston, after which he followed her to Nashville – and his work is as distinctive as anything currently to be heard, sound-wise as well as stylistically. He rarely plays anything other than the 1935 Epiphone Olympic he discovered under a heap of sawdust in a friend’s garage. Like treasure hunters the world over, he had to dig for the best stuff.
Rawlings’ musicianship comes armed with a range of flourishes, but the key to his playing is a mix of delicacy and restraint: invaluable virtues in these surroundings, for some of Welch’s best work is on the stationary side of slow. I Dream A Highway, at almost 15 minutes the longest track on her fine third album Time (The Revelator), starts at a snail’s pace and has the snail pausing for a rest well before the end. It is a brave experiment in music as a full stop and would have been impossible to pull off without an unusual degree of telepathy, of the kind most often to be found in the greatest string quartets. Almost without us noticing, there are bars in I Made A Lovers Prayer when Welch’s harmonica plays second fiddle, so to speak, to Rawlings’ guitar before reclaiming its place at the forefront. And during her longer held notes, there is a barely perceptible but crucial intensifying of the sound from that ancient combination of mahogany and sprucewood resting in the guitarist’s hands. If this stripped-down number sounds shoulder-shruggingly straightforward as it ends on one final faint wheeze of the mouth organ, remember this: Otis Redding gave us his own Lover’s Prayer and made that sound easy too. Does this mean we can all do it? Not quite, I’m afraid.