It’s time once again for the annual end-of-year musings we like to call Shadows and Reflections. First to look back over the past 12 months is Paul Scraton.
There are records that, no matter where they were written and recorded, who made them or what the songs are even about, come to represent a certain time or place in the memory. An unwrapped present that becomes the soundtrack to Christmas. The album that offers company through a certain sleepless night. The songs on a mixtape that accompanied a college road trip to a campsite at the very edge of the land, where the road ran out.
Late 2020, Gillian Welch released Boots No.02: The Lost Songs, and it landed in my hands a few months later. A box set of three records and 48 songs, it is a collection of recordings made by Welch and her partner and collaborator David Rawlings in 2002 to fulfill a publishing contract based on fragments of ideas the musicians found in their notebooks. The songs were never released, although a few became the basis for later recordings. Nearly twenty years later, a tornado took a portion of the roof off Welch and Rawlings’ studio in Nashville. Rushing back and forth through the storm to rescue what they could, the tapes from those songwriting sessions were rediscovered.
Led by Welch’s raw vocals and Rawlings’ distinctive guitar-playing, this is stripped-down storytelling that is rooted in a place, in a landscape I have never been to and yet seems to come alive in my imagination thanks to the power of the songwriting and performance. The images and symbols evoked in the songs mingle with those borrowed from films and photography; a place of crossroads and front porches, dusty tracks and bourbon bottles, stories of religion and loss, love and loneliness, hope and regret.
These are cliches, I fully admit. But these are places I have only ever been to through the artistic creations of others, and so I can but try my best to authentically imagine what it is like to meet someone at the county fair, ‘with a first place ribbon in her hair’, to picture how the landscape shifts in the Valley of Tears or to try to understand what fate has befallen the characters who mournfully stalk the streets of St Paul.
But if the stories start out in these places, in these visions of a certain America, they soon come to mean something else. As with all Gillian Welch’s output, or those records released in David Rawlings’ name, Boots No.02 has an atmosphere that comes to transcend the place it originates. I have Gillian Welch albums that make me think of big skies and empty roads in central Sweden. Another that immediately takes me back to sitting beside the fireplace in a borrowed house. Her voice has been the soundtrack to years of moving and of standing still, of winter nights at home and summertime travels, and as with all music, they will mean something different to me than to the next person.
With each play of the record, over the weeks and months that followed its arrival in Germany, the songs and stories of Boots No.02 have come to cross the Atlantic and find a home with us in this particular time and place, in this most particular of years, and how we have spent it.
It feels as if many of the stories to be found in these lost songs take place at dusk, all whisky glasses on porches in the twilight or some lonesome soul roaming through the gloaming. It is about this time that we often take a walk out from our house on the edge of the village in Brandenburg, a stroll down and out the back of the estate and down to a dusty track of our own that leads to an old oak tree. From there it crosses the fields where hooded crows pick at the ploughed earth and, in the summertime, storks descend from their nest atop the chimney above the village hall to stride through the long grass.
Our house, and those around it, were built after the Second World War for newcomers to the village, arriving to work in the newly state-owned industries of the German Democratic Republic. The houses around the church are older, low buildings that stand in the shadow of the palace. This aristocratic residence is a reminder of more feudal times, and is taller than all but the storks’ nest. During the GDR the palace housed a boarding school; today it is private apartments, although the parkland that runs from the terrace for a couple of miles down to the railway station is open to all.
Our walk by the old oak tree brings us through the old village and out into the park close to the ponds, where anglers can often be found sitting at social distances established long before any pandemic. Keep walking, and the landscaped gardens give way to mixed woodland and, eventually, a forest of pines. These are the plantations that both make the forests of this part of the world financially viable and yet are, as monocultures susceptible to the attacks of bark beetles and the ravages of forest fires, the canary in this particular coal mine when it comes to the unfolding climate crisis.
The walk, which rarely takes more than an hour, is an introduction to different facets of the landscape in this part of the world. Fields give way to forests that hide the dry valleys and erratics left behind with the end of the Ice Age. Some of these stones, long exposed by a farmer’s plough, were used to build the distinctive churches of the region. In the villages and towns, a mish-mash of architectural styles help to tell the tale of what has happened here, the armies that passed through and the people that settled, and the different ideologies sometimes imposed, and sometimes enthusiastically supported.
This year, the walk has become part of our routine whenever we are out in the village. A first familiar greeting when we arrive or a farewell in footsteps before we are once again about to leave. Back at the house, the record turns, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sing and tell their stories. They may be rooted elsewhere, on the other side of the ocean. But now they are also the soundtrack to the dirt track and the oak tree, the pine trees and the storks’ nest, and the rest of this little corner of Germany.
Paul Scraton’s novella of the forest ‘In the Pines’ was published in November 2021 by Influx Press.