Discovering the Southern Gothic



That day in third grade, on a winter day with its curious, early darkness that seems anomalous to life in the South, the record player labored slowly and desultorily at its task. The teacher played the record that left a furious kiss on my heart amidst Satan’s scratching fiddles and the conspiratorial flatness of banjos elegiacally plucked.

It was the “folk music” unit of our elementary-school Music class. We had heard a tune about a raccoon named “Barb’ry Allen,” surely a reference to the folk song of the same name, with its strange refrain “Dillom Dillom Down.” We’d heard songs about hollers and cricks, but on this one day the music was more firey.

A thousand devils’ dulcimer hammers pounded the burning vengeful amalgam of those words, fury, fire and the tribulation mete to us by a jealous God into scalding, thin sheets and wrapped them around my child’s heart. I was baptized to the full, fatal fury of my birthright as a son from the Southwestern states.

It was the Appalachian folk music that changed me that day. There in suburban affluence in the modern state of Texas, I was given a heaping dose of that “Old Timey Mountain Music.” That kind that’s not so pretty, not so friendly, and which can swallow your screams in the vastness of Carolina forests or the mute swamps of Louisiana. It’s the music of misfortune, of death, of the afterlife and there it was, in a state-sanctioned music unit, darted from horrified mind to horrified mind through a tenebrous circuit.

The Young and The Appalachian Gothic

The young aren’t supposed to know such things, much less suburban, affluent kids, but they know them sooner than their parents would wish. In that era “Regan,” “Transformer,” or “Warren Moon” were the nouns our station and parents’ loving care entitled us to. But as all parents have learned, from Siddartha Gautama’s father to Maria of Nazareth, the peril of living at the sufferance of a jealous God is great.

Carefree and incautious, the children find those words: “kill,” “die,” and “death” as unaware as God coming across Cain in his soggy field.

And (we) adults come upon them and their new vocabularies in the same way, the table now turned, we play the naïf: “Where is your brother Abel? Whither is that innocence you had just yesterday?”

What parent doesn’t want to keep the tenebrous tentacles of the end of the coil away from that dearly-gained, fresh life. But children, with their perfect beauty and brutality, don’t see that discovering those words marks the beginning of the end of their own innocence. To assuage parents, I like to imagine that it’s not that innocence was corrupted, I like to imagine that it’s truth remembered.

I like to imagine that it’s because these little souls remember being pulled across the void too clearly, too recently to not want to name it and its magic. They remember the whisper-thin veil between the home of souls and incarnation. They remember the woman’s hand, with her life staked as the ante, that so-recently reached across the fearsome gap of Sheol and brought a life into their bodies. They remember the shocking gasp of the hidden woman’s magic that turns the animal flesh into the sentient being. They remember the light, the dazzling light, but their animal bodies remember the dark, the tomb of the womb which only recently let them go.

It’s a folly that we today think we can hide those nouns and ideas from children. My grandmother was no stranger to it. None of ours were. The viscera of children and death were playmates to them. Combine accidents, the Spanish flu, and snakebites were all real enough that no-one got the luxury of delaying their familiarization with the fear and death that animates the Gothic.

Back in the Classroom

Yet that day, that record reminded all us children that that un-place and those words describing it were real, powerful, and eternal. It’s hard to find rapt prepubescents, but rapt we were.

That day, Appalachian mountain music, the fiddles and furies of my grandmother’s childhood slithered from the vinyl platter. It felt like it went on forever, but I’m sure it wasn’t very long at all.

Near that time, we even had a guest visitor, Mr. David Holt, a folklorist, who came around to perform some authentic folk music with harmonica, banjo, guitar, Jew’s harp, etc. Holt spun tales about liver-stealing (“Spearfinger”) and bone-chasing (“Taily-bone”) monsters.

The Beautiful Deadly Mountain Music

Mountain music is totemic and powerful. It’s the processed aggregate of Grimm’s tales (the real ones, not the Disney ones) washed in Scots-Irish musical tradition. In a Jungian sense they speak to something transcendentally deep, as deep as the difference between the quick and they dead. They give voice to dread and unease, fears about the child poisoner, the abandoned barn, the indifference witness of mountains to misdeed, the nailed-shut well, the dark stranger. They’re the songs for scared boys wandering the deep forest to hum as they pretend that they did not hear a twig snap.

My Life

In that day, my music teacher gave to me the interests that would define so much my aesthetic appreciation of life: Heavy metal, Milton, 16 Horsepower, Nick Cave and the ponderous Goth music that grinds like an ox-drawn plow’s blade skimming an errant skull under fields’ topsoil.

She gave me PJ Harvey’s “The Dancer” and Nick Cave’s “Weeping Song” and Portishead’s “Roads.” She gave me Leonard Cohen and his Catholic sadness. She gave me Neko Case’s lungs stealing every ounce of oxygen out of the room to echo like thunder on granite walls.

She gave me the Man in Black and Jack White. She gave me the “Boll Weevil” song melting out at the Greek theatre in Berkeley under White’s care on the date of the death of that Man in Black. All of it started there.

I hadn’t thought much about these tales and their influence upon me until I realized that so many of my favorite stories and films hinge on Gothic elements. The first memory I have of those themes was this day.