Gillian Welch on How April 14th Came to Be ‘Ruination Day’

April 15 may be Tax Day, but for some—especially singer Gillian Welch—it’s the 14th of April that’s notorious.

April 14 marks the anniversary of three awful, fabled events: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865; the Titanic striking an iceberg in 1912 (it sunk in the wee hours of the 15th); and the Black Sunday dust storm of 1935. Gillian Welch first brought attention to this foreboding historical confluence on her 2001 album Time (The Revelator)which has two songs chronicling the events of April 14: “April the 14th, Part 1” and “Ruination Day, Part 2.” I caught up with Welch to discuss how she first made the connection, and how the songs in question came about.

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How did you become aware that these three events occurred on the same day? Was the confluence immediately meaningful to you?

I can’t remember which I knew first, but it was probably the Woody Guthrie song “Dust Storm Disaster,” that goes “on the 14th day of April… there came the greatest dust storm the world had ever known….er, ever filled the sky.” So that’s probably the first one I knew, and that’s considered the worst storm in American history. I think they call it Black Sunday. I’d known that one since I was a kid.
When Dave [David Rawlings, Welch’s musical partner and co-writer of Time (The Revelator)]  and I first started working together I was listening to a lot of Blind Willie Johnson, who does “God Moves on the Water,” and that has a lyric that goes “year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day.” When I made that connection I was like wow, crazy, the Titanic hit the iceberg on the same day as the dust storm. Bad day.

What about Lincoln’s assassination?

It wasn’t until 1998 or 1999, when I was living in a little shack of a house in Nashville. It was like an old slave quarters, and I was always sick when I lived there. So I was sick, and I had a ten-inch black and white TV, and I had it up next to the bed and I was lying in bed watching a PBS documentary on Lincoln. It got to the part where he was shot and they said “on April the 14th…” and I freaked out. I really thought it was very sinister; I think it’s how some people feel when they see a ghost. I got completely freaked out, got all cold and shivered, and I think I started yelling for Dave. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about it until I got to that third event. It was in the body of working on “April the 14th” and “Ruination Day,”—which were first one song and then kind of split apart into two songs—that I spat out the phrase “ruination day,” and then that was that.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Lifeboats of the RMS Titanic. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

How did that material split apart into two songs?

All the material—since it all related—was one song at first. “April the 14th” used to be a little bit more traditional sounding as it started, but we changed the music and it became a little more spacious, which is the way it ended up on the record. When that happened it was kind of like the song blew apart, and one part of it moved a little bit over towards Neil Young, and became a little more panoramic and trippy, and more of the modern setting with the story of the punk band, and their trials and travails on ruination day went into that. And then the more old-timey, more traditional feeling stuff went into “Ruination Day,” but it’s all the same story.

So it is a punk band with the “five band bill” and the “$2 dollar show” in the lyrics of “April the 14th, Part One”?

Yes. That came from a real thing.  On our first or second tour Dave and I were playing at a club—it’s been so long, but I think it was in Eugene, Oregon. We were playing, and then after us, at like ten o’clock, commenced a five band bill for two dollars. Five punk bands. As we were loading out, we saw one of the band vans out in front. The entire dash was just trashed and with a road girl, passed out in the van, sleeping. And you knew there was not going to be a hotel. So that’s where that part of that story came from, combined with the fact that at that time we were super nocturnal, and Nashville wasn’t like it is now. There was no late night scene. There was nothing to do after ten o’clock: pretty much every restaurant closed. You could go to Waffle House, but there wasn’t much else to do. So I used to kind of just drive or walk around where the clubs were closing or letting out, and not necessarily even go in but just sort of cruise. And that’s kind of what all combined into those songs.