(originally posted 3/31/07)
“Red Clay Halo”
by Gillian Welch
written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (2001)
Gillian Welch writes contemporary songs that sound like they were penned fifty, sixty, even a hundred years ago. You can hear elements of various styles in her music: country, gospel, mountain, roots, old-time, rock, and blues, to name just a few. But with “Dear Someone” what you get is pretty straightforward: a slow waltz that’s in absolutely no hurry at all. Yet at just over three minutes, it’s over far too soon.
As with much of Gillian’s music, what you hear is stripped down: two acoustic guitars and two voices, that’s it. (That second voice, providing gorgeous harmony, belongs to Welch’s partner David Rawlings.) Other than calling it a waltz, “Dear Someone” is hard to classify. Nothing in the song really identifies itself as “country” or “gospel” or anything else. It’s just a waltz, a beautiful waltz of stunning simplicity.
The singer expresses her desire for freedom, freedom not only to see the world, but to find the one person waiting for her in a place she’s only dreamed of. Only the stars – perhaps only one star – knows where this other person is, but the singer tenaciously clings to the hope that “one little star, smiling tonight/knows where you are.”
“Dear Someone” is reflective, dreamlike, and yes, sentimental. The narrator doesn’t know where help is coming from, but she’s sure that little star will guide her. That sense of almost childlike hope pushes her forward, but with excruciating slowness. You get the sense that even when she says “Hurry and take me straight into the arms of my dear someone,” that it could take next to forever and her faith wouldn’t be deterred in the slightest.
“Red Clay Halo,” much livelier than “Dear Someone,” sounds as old as the Appalachian hills. It’s the type of old-time bluegrass/gospel tune you could’ve heard at a barn dance fifty years ago. David Rawlings’s picking sounds light, effortless, and at times just a little bit alien. If you ever see Welch live, you can’t help but gravitate to Rawlings. He plays like he’s in his own little world, then expands out beyond the universe of what seems possible, reaching the extraordinary, then gives you an “Aw, shucks” expression, like there’s nothing to it.
In “Red Clay Halo,” like many of Welch’s songs, themes of anticipation and redemption are prominent. No one wants to associate (much less dance) with the song’s narrator, since he/she can’t escape the indignity of clay, mud, and dirt that seems to inundate all of life. There’s no friendship, no recognition here of anything beyond surfaces appearances. This filth is part of life, but the narrator wonders if defilement will follow him/her into the next life.
But when I pass through the pearly gate,
Will my gown be gold instead?
Or just a red clay robe with red clay wings
And a red clay halo for my head?
Is it even possible for me to be cleansed? Will it matter that I’m filthy in heaven? By the time we get to the final verse, the narrator seems to be singing, “This is who I am and I can’t change it.”
And you know, the thing is, you don’t even have to.
“Dear Someone” and “Red Clay Halo” appear on Gillian Welch’s 2001 album Time (The Revelator).