Introduction to American Southern Gothic Music

Introduction to American Southern Gothic Music

Defining “Southern Gothic”

“Southern Gothic” is a widely-used term often applied to literature, music, art, and film. In literature, Southern Gothic refers to stories set in the South that are often about the “darker” elements of Southern life, such as grotesque characters, declining families, and old plantation houses haunted by the memories, if not the actual spirits, of racial and cultural wrongs. The theme of “broken minds and bodies”, according to Laurie Miller professor at George Mason University, also incorporates the ideas of madness or infirmity into Southern Gothic literature.

Southern Gothic, Gothic Americana, and Gothic Country Music

Southern Gothic music (also known as Gothic Americana and Gothic Country, among other terms), takes many cues from literature, but it also borrows from the haunting traditional banjo tunes of the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains as well as the gospel tradition. Appalachian artists such as Dock Boggs and Doc Watson, with their haunting claw hammer banjo playing and ballads of murder and alcoholism, clearly pre-date later artists who sang about troubled lives in the South. As Bob Tarte notes in his 1998 article, “Bogged Down” in The Beat magazine, Dock Boggs’ music emphasizes the “importance of symbol-drenched folklore and superstition in traditional Appalachian life.” This focus on symbol, folklore, and superstition remain in many contemporary Southern Gothic artists.

African American artists, such as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins brought the darkness of Southern history as well as the soaring and sometimes frightening elements of gospel music (hellfire, jugdment day) to the mix. Singers in the 60’s, such as Karen Dalton, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger, renewed interest in traditional folk ballads. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson both took the dark storytelling of Americana music into the second half of the 20th century with their respective “Man in Black” and “Red-Headed Stranger” personas.

Contemporary Southern Gothic Music

Some bands and artists that keep closely to Americana traditions are Gillian Welch, 16 Horsepower, Woven Hand, and Alela Diane. Gillian Welch writes songs about farm life, religious longing, and the desperation of small-town life that could have been written anywhere between now and the turn of the century, and her traditional banjo picking and guitar speak to her traditional roots.

Sixteen Horsepower and Woven Hand, both led by the artist David Eugene Edwards, takes a more mystical religious route, writing frenzied praise songs with haunting banjo and howling vocals. Alela Diane’s simple and lovely melodies call back to female singers such as June Carter and Judee Sill.