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April 14th Is Ruination Day


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As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

Sept. 21, 2001

In light of last week's terrorist attacks on this country, there are a pair of related songs on the new Gillian Welch album, Time (The Revelator) that take on new relevance.

"April the 14th (Part 1)" and "Ruination Day (Part 2)" are dark meditations on American history and symbolism. In the wake of the horror of 9-11, those songs are both disturbing yet strangely comforting.

"April the 14th" has a slow, mournful melody, while "Ruination Day" is a bluesy tune full of understated rage. Both seem at first a surreal jumble of American history with direct references to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the sinking of the Titanic.

Indeed, both these momentous events occurred on April 14. The date almost rivals in historical gravity April 19, the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, Waco and Oklahoma City.

Both songs refer to "God Moves On the Water," an old spiritual about the Titanic that gleefully celebrates the sinking of the great ship as a sign that God will punish mankind for getting too uppity.

But there is no hand-clapping happiness to be found in these songs. The mighty have fallen and the singer is stunned.

There are other stray historical references of doom here -- Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl in the first song; Casey Jones, the engineer of the fabled train wreck in both.

Both "April the 14th" and another song, the lengthy, hypnotic "I Dream a Highway" contain an obscure phrase, "the staggers and the jags," which is an antiquated term for VD. Its used in a historical ballad "Barretts Privateers" by Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers. (Privateers were basically pirates, except they were commissioned by governments to prey on enemy nations.) In the Rogers song, as well as in " April the 14th," the cook in the kitchen has "the staggers and the jags," a vivid metaphor of disease about to spread.

If there is one ray of hope here, its a seemingly unrelated story of the Idaho punk band that unfolds in " April the 14th." Its a crappy gig-- the anonymous band sharing the bill with four others, splitting the $2 cover charge. They didn't make enough cash for a half a tank of gas, and the local press, scumbags that they are, didn't even show. But as the singer watches the group loading their equipment into their van, all she feels is envy and intrigue.

"I watched them walk through the Bottom Land and I wished I played in a rock n roll band," Welch sings.

Although the entire album is acoustic, featuring guitars and banjo by Welch and longtime partner David Rawlings (who co-wrote the songs), Time (The Revelator) is full of rock n roll desire.

"I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll," Welch and Rawlings sing in a live recording also included in the Down From the Mountain soundtrack. Meanwhile "Elvis Presley Blues" contains the refrain "Didn't he die? Didn't he die?" yet the verses celebrate the glory that was Elvis, who "shook it like a chorus girl ... shook it like a Harlem queen ..." and electrified the soul and broke the shackles of a puritanical nation.

"He shook it like a holy roller with his soul at stake."

Welch, in that Idaho band of "April the 14th" sees the spark of Elvis spirit, the spirit of John Henry and Lewis and Clark and the Apollo astronauts. Their van's gas tank might be empty, great ships may strike icebergs and heroes may fall, but they will make it to the next gig one way or another.


April 14th, Part 1

When the iceberg hit,

Oh they must have known,

God moves on the water

Like Casey Jones.

So I walked downtown

On my telephone,

And took a lazy turn

Through the redeye zone.

It was a five-band bill,

A two-dollar show.

I saw the van out in front

From Idaho,

And the girl passed out

In the backseat trash.

There were no way they'd make

Even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned

And strangely dressed.

No one showed

From the local press.

But I watched them walk

Through the bottom land,

And I wished that I played

In a rock & roll band.

Hey, hey,

It was the fourteenth day of April.

Well they closed it down,

With the sails in rags.

And I swept up the fags

And the local mags.

I threw the plastic cups

In the plastic bags,

And the cooks cleaned the kitchen

With the staggers and the jags.

Ruination day,

And the sky was red.

I went back to work,

And back to bed.

And the iceberg broke,

And the Okies fled,

And the Great Emancipator

Took a bullet in the back of the head...


Ruination Day, Part 2

And the great barge sank.

And the Okies fled.

And the great emancipater

Took a bullet in the head.

In the head...

Took a bullet in the back of the head.

It was not December.

Was not in May.

Was the 14th of April.

That is ruination day.

That's the day...

The day that is ruination day.

They were one.

They were two.

They were three.

They were four.

They were five hundred miles from their home.

From their home...

They were five hundred miles from their home.

When the iceberg hit

Well they must have known

That God moves on the water Casey Jones.

Casey Jones...

God moves on the water Casey Jones.

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