Gillian Welch, “Hard Times”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Plenty has been written about how Gillian Welch had writer’s block for eight years in between 2003’s Soul Journey and this year’s The Harrow And The Harvest. The point is, she seems to have worked it out. That’s good. Folks needed a new Gillian Welch record.

This past weekend at the Newport Folk Festival, Gillian Welch and her musical partner Dave Rawlings opened their set with the Appalachian-leaning “Orphan Girl,” then dove into “Hard Times,” the eighth song off Harrow and probably the album’s best.

“Hard Times” is a mix of old-timey kitsch, 21st century cool, and pure timelessness that only Gillian Welch can get away with.

I remember back in 2008 at the Newport Folk Festival when the pair pulled out a few new songs, including “Throw Me A Rope,” which ends up on Harrow, and  “Sweet Tooth,” which arrived on wax for last year’s Dave Rawlings Machine effort, A Friend Of A Friend. Back then, we thought a Gillian Welch album was just a around the corner.

But Welch was “dissatisfied” with the songs she was writing at the time, and decided to put her creative energy into other projects, like Rawling’s album, as well as work with Conor Oberst and The Decemberists, to name just a few.

While Rawlings usually seems to serve as more an editor than creative spark in the Gillian Welch songwriting process, (“I’m a way more natural collaborative writer than I am a natural solitary writer,” he said when A Friend Of A Friend came out), “Hard Times” was his baby.

In the current feature story in American Songwriter, Rawlings talks about how the song came in two waves. In the first version, he was set to record the song for Friend along with Levon Helm. That didn’t pan out, and a few months later he picked up the basic elements of the song again.

“I couldn’t exactly remember how it went, and sometimes that’s good, because you come to the song remembering nothing but the essence of it. You’ve lost some of the details that were distracting you from what’s most important.”

Welch compares her and Rawling’s co-writing process to Dylan and The Band’s Woodstock jam sessions in 1967.

“I remember hearing stories about The Basement Tapes, where one of the guys would start writing something and leave it on the kitchen table and go to bed, only to wake up the next morning and realize someone else had written another section. That’s pretty much how everything went. It’s our most intertwined, co-authored, jointly-composed album.”

In Newport on Saturday, Rawlings warmed up the crowd in his native Rhode Island while Welch strapped on her banjo for “Hard Times.”

“We’re pretty happy to be here singing folk songs we wrote,” said Rawlings, then added, “Hopefully they’ll be folk songs some day.”

“That means folks like ’em,” Welch chimed in.

“Hard Times”

There was a Camptown man who used to plow and sing
He loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to his muley cow

Calling come on my sweet old girl
I’d bet the whole damn world
That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the row

Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
No more

He said it’s a mean old world heavy in need
And that big machine is just a-picking up speed
We’re supping on tears and we’re supping on wine
But we all get to heaven in our own sweet time

So come on you Asheville boys
Turn up your old time noise
Kick till the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor

Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Brother
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
No more

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the superette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone

So come all ye ragtime kings
Come on you dogs and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow

Playing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Sugar
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
No more

Written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings

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