Take a musical tour of the old and strange Gothic South

Southern Gothic, the term for shifting events under the Mason Dixon line, is apparently more popular than ever these days. From the TV series “True Blood” and “True Detective” to award-winning films such as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the general acceptance of author Cormac McCarthy as one of the world’s greatest writers, the Southern Gothic genre seems particularly wholesome these days. .

The best Southern Gothic art often works under the assumption that the South is a land haunted, literally and figuratively, by past unrequited sins. Decay, the majestic rotting of the earth almost impenetrable to outsiders, is a theme that recurs time and time again in these works.

As with other art forms, Southern music has a rich and varied history in the Gothic tradition. Drawing inspiration from writers such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Conner, as well as 1955’s classic film noir ‘Night of the Hunter’ and 2010’s ‘Winter’s Bone’, some of the best music to come from the South in recent years has drawn from the regions seemingly an endless reservoir of the bizarre and the anachronistic. When performed by musicians attuned to the surreal and complex beauty of the region, the results speak for themselves.

An apt description of the Southern Gothic sound is found in author Charles Frazier’s masterpiece of the Civil War-era North Carolina highlands, “Cold Mountain.” Writing of a particularly moving piece of mountain music of yesteryear, Frazier notes: “As the minor key drifted, it was like shadows under the trees, and the piece evoked something of dark wood, the light of a lantern. It was horrible old music in one of the old modalities, music that encapsulates a culture and is the true expression of its inner life.

In homage to the enduring weirdness and dark ambiguity of the South, here are five gothic albums every fan of Southern music should know.

‘Complete Early Recordings’ – Skip James

Skip James - The First Complete Recordings

Robert Johnson gets all the press, but that early Delta bluesman Skip James cut just as hard and weird in his prime. Using an open, haunting D minor guitar tuning and intricate fingering, James was a musical virtuoso whose early 1930s recordings are idiosyncratic even among obscure blues numbers of the time. Rising through layers of pre-digital darkness, songs such as “Devil Got My Woman”, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “22-20 Blues” are chilling in their descriptions of violent and exuberant life. of a traveling musician in the pre-Civil Rights South. Voiced in James’ lonely high moan, they come across as some of the loudest blues ever conjured up.

‘Grey-Grey’ – Dr. John

The great New Orleans pianist Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John.

“Gris-Gris” is the debut album from piano ace Mac Rebennack in which he fully embraces for the first, and probably last, the persona of Dr. John, a 19th century voodoo root doctor. What it conjures up is an utterly unique and earth-shattering gumbo of New Orleans rhythms, psychedelic rock and Creole juju that sounds as eerily disarming today as when it was released in 1968.

‘Dixie Fried’ – James Luther Dickinson

Occupying a musical twilight zone somewhere between the Rolling Stones, the Doors and the more offbeat efforts of Tom Waits, “Dixie Fried” by the late Memphis producer and musical storyteller James Luther Dickinson features the rockabilly gospel of the title track; a spoken word version of Bob Dylan’s unsettling comeback tale, “John Brown,” and the mountain funk of the obscure vaudeville tune “O How She Dances.” Filled with more soul, grit and mind-numbing weirdness than any of the 10 records you care to name, it stands as both the sum of everything that makes Southern music special and a big fun party for all the dead bluesmen, war vets and the old west. gunslingers who roam his songs as landmarks for the end times decades to come.

“On the plane over the sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel

Populated with an unlikely cast of sacred rattlesnakes, shape-shifting ghosts and two-headed boys trapped in jars, “In the Airplane Over the Sea” is an unsettling, melodic song cycle that rewards the kind of repeat listening of most music fans. no longer have the patience for. Athens, Georgia-based band Neutral Milk Hotel are definitely an acquired taste, but the album is well worth the effort for anyone interested in what Bryan Wilson of The Beach Boys might have conjured up had he been a disturbed inhabitant of the southern commune.

‘Fables of Reconstruction’ – REM

Michael Stipe, singer of the rock band REM

Everything about the 1985 release of “Fables of Reconstruction” by another Athens-based band, REM, alludes to the mystery that lurks just below the surface of the Southern landscape, from the title’s reference to the transformation of the South after civil war to the album illustration, which features images of burning books and a swinging pendulum à la Salvador Dali. But it’s the music that ultimately gives this album its gothic alterity. From the opening shock of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” with its unnerving three-note riff, to the dense train mythology of “Driver 8” and the ominous character portrayal of “Old Man Kinsey,” REM portrays the South as a land made up of as many dreams and bizarre coincidences as the hard fabric of reality.