Content warning: discussion of sexual assault
Last week, I discussed why Gillian Welch’s song ‘Caleb Meyer’ resonates as a murder ballad about survival, sexual assault, male violence, and why the song succeeds as the “opposite of non-survivor privilege.” ‘Caleb Meyer’ is a 1998 folk song, specifically a murder ballad, about a woman named Nellie Cane who kills the titular character to stop him from raping her. (In my last article, I had spelled her last name as ‘Kane’, but I recently found the album booklet, so it turns out that Genius lyrics had the wrong spelling.) The story, set somewhere in Appalachia, relays the narrative about an attempted acquaintance rape, the threat even a neighbor could pose to a woman alone in her house.
Today I will be tackling male critics’ interpretations of the song and how they make no sense from an analytical perspective, instead revealing how unconscious biases affect a person’s understanding of a story, and in this case specifically, how misogyny and non-survivor privilege lead men to devalue women’s art through dismissive, condescending language. Commentary on a work of art, though not what defines the work, can affect the public’s perception, infecting their opinion. Critics have a responsibility to evaluate the art as neutrally as possible, letting it speak for itself rather than projecting their preconceived notions.
Feminism, Sexual Assault, & Non-Survivor Privilege:
For readers familiar with my work, I’ve discussed the phenomenon of ‘non-survivor privilege’ a few times, most notably as a series about Warrior Nun and its bungling of Ava’s trauma narrative. ‘Non-survivor privilege’ encompasses interpersonal traumas, and thus the issue often is understood through the lens of feminism, since ‘non-survivor privilege’ comes up most clearly in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. These are issues that feminists universally address. This privilege addresses how a survivor’s worldview changes irrevocably and how society subsequently seeks to silence her, wanting to maintain the status quo, and as I wrote in the part one of the Warrior Nun series, “When I refer to ‘non-survivor privilege’ in regards to media, I am not referring to any single individual’s privilege but rather to social norms that affect what stories we prioritize and how we frame them.”
Part four covered why themes of sexual assault appeared in Ava’s trauma narrative, specifically of violation and loss of autonomy, and in trauma narratives in general. I cited Cassandra J. Farin’s writing, as she summarizes a Christian legend about the rape of Eve, noting, “I find it stunning and yet strangely appropriate that [this legend] roots every human being’s personal moral struggle in this original act of rape. One could call it the feminine counterpart of Cain and Abel.” Her comment stayed with me because it’s a concise summary of why rape has shaped general understanding of womanhood, women’s history, and women’s culture, and how it still does. While rape can happen to anyone, the experience is extremely gendered and always has been.
Farrin wrote that in 2015, and her comments resonates with feminist literature from forty years ago. In 1975, Susan Brownmiller observed,
Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. (pp. 14-15)
And to be clear, I am not trying to imply that men are never sexually assaulted or that women have never committed sexual assault. But it’d be dishonest to not acknowledge that men commit most of the sexual violence in the world and that women are the primary targets, and how rape and the threat of it are used systematically to keep women in line. Even if a woman has never experienced sexual assault, she has still been shaped by the possibility of it, known another woman in her life who was attacked. As with other systems of oppression, women go through life being harmed by patriarchy, from constant microaggressions to bodily assault to systemic issues. (Think of Bill Cosby recently being released from prison due to a technicality.)
Non-survivor privilege can intersect with other issues when considering traumas predominantly associated with a social class, such as gender or race, and how people from the opposing, privileged class can infringe on stories that aren’t theirs to shape. When it comes to gender-based traumas and crimes, rape and sexual assault in general loom large for women. It could be best then to summarize non-survivor privilege and its relationship to male violence against women as ‘patriarchal non-survivor privilege’.
Thus, when a man adds his commentary to the subject of other men subjecting women to sexual assault, he must tread carefully, as he could easily speak over those less privileged than him and center himself in a conversation that is absolutely not about him or about men in general. Too often conversations about rape have centered around the rapist’s version of events, his feelings, and his potential future. (Of course this doesn’t take into account how race, class, and other social classifications affect power dynamics, but we only have so much time.)
Male Critics’ History of Reviewing Gillian Welch’s Career:
Gillian Welch came onto the country and folk scene with her 1996 debut album, Revival. The album garnered a Grammy nomination the following year, but (male) critics in music magazines questioned her presence in the genre for those first two years. Welch had grown up in a privileged family from L.A., and her parents composed music for a comedy variety show (Mojo Collection, p. 646). She wouldn’t discover bluegrass until college. To the music world, Gillian Welch was a shallow, inauthentic, sheltered young woman who couldn’t know anything about hardship and whose Appalachian-inspired writings were cheap imitation. The criticisms reached such a fever pitch that music critic Mark Kemp had to pen a rebuttal piece for The New York Times, pointing out the unfair standards put on her and similar creators for “the compassionate creation of artifice”. His 1998 article reads differently in 2021 as the conversation around cultural appropriation in pop culture has become more mainstream, the music industry built on white artists appropriating the music of Black artists.
But that’s not what is happening here. If you’re familiar with the discourse™ around female singer-songwriters, then you know that the criticism Welch endured reeked of misogyny. Female songwriters suffer more scrutiny for their work — regardless if they write explicitly personal songs or write impersonal narratives. In her 2015 memoir, musician Carrie Brownstein describes the double standards in music:
Musicians, especially those who are women, are often dogged by the assumption that they are singing from a personal perspective. Perhaps it is a carelessness on the audience’s part, or an entrenched cultural assumption that the female experience can merely encompass the known, the domestic, the ordinary. When a woman sings a nonpersonal narrative, listeners and watchers must acknowledge that she’s not performing as herself, and if she’s not performing as herself, then it’s not her who is wooing us, loving us. We don’t get to have her because we don’t know exactly who she is. An audience doesn’t want female distance, they want female openness and accessibility, familiarity that validates femaleness. Persona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman, more distant and unknowable, and thus threatening. When men sing personal songs, they seem sensitive and evolved; when women sing personal songs, they are inviting and vulnerable, or worse, catty and tiresome. (pp. 165-166)
This ‘cultural assumption’ relates to the Madonna-Whore complex, the binary that divides women into flat, moralistic archetypes split between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In the female musician’s case of songwriting, misogyny splits women into binaries of ‘truth-teller’ and ‘liar’, hidden under questions of ‘authenticity’.
One of the oldest misogynistic tropes centers around women as inherently dishonest, shallow creatures. Think of the Fake Geek Girl discourse from the early 2010s, the accusations that have followed Hillary Clinton for decades, the trope of woman-as-snake. Similarly, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a fifteenth-century publication on witchcraft, helped to shape the extreme violence of the witch hunts, and with its visceral misogyny and the harm that it brought to numerous women, it’s basically a hate crime on paper. Its portrayal of women reveals the pervasiveness of this dangerous trope:
[T]here was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, […] which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. For Cato says: When a woman weeps she weaves snares. And again: When a woman weeps, she labours to deceive a man. […] Let us consider another property of hers, the voice. For as she is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us. (pp. 44-46)
Thus, suspicion towards women’s vulnerability and trauma is baked into our culture, and that applies to the art that women create about their experiences and to the fictional stories they create ‘compassionate artifice’, art to explore the darker sides of humanity. Notably, a contemporary review of Welch’s second album described her music as ‘suspect’ because of her skilled ‘mimicry’ of Appalachian music culture.
I grew up watching Taylor Swift navigate similar criticisms, her diaristic writing reduced to accusations of her dating for inspiration. Once she started to gain solid power in the music industry, in her early twenties, she went from “inviting and vulnerable” to “catty and tiresome” in the media’s eyes. In a 2019 interview, Swift pointed out the vocabulary that shames women in the music industry, explaining that men are considered ‘strategic’ while women are ‘calculating’ (t. 1:47-2:17). Women’s creativity must spring from an innate, accidental place, and if they demonstrate any forethought in the craft, then it becomes suspect. Unsurprisingly, a 1998 (male) critic praised Hell Among the Yearlings with the caveat that, “[i]t’s so good, in fact, that it puts most doubt about her sincerity out of mind. Welch’s act is an obviously calculated throwback, but it’s a strong and surprisingly honest one,” (The Monitor p. 50).
Patriarchy hates women with boundaries, and a woman who manages a persona to protect herself, or refuses to disclose direct, personal information about herself in her work, is absolutely setting up boundaries. Gillian Welch, as far as I could find, has never discussed the inspiration behind ‘Caleb Meyer’, and such speculation, due to the nature of the song, would be highly inappropriate. Regardless of Welch’s experiences in life, she is a writer who possesses the capability to imagine stories and the empathy to give those stories resonance. To reiterate, talking about non-survivor privilege here is not a speculation on her personal experience but pointing out how men speak over and rewrite women’s art, specifically about gendered trauma.
Non-Survivor Privilege & Male Critics Interpreting Nellie Cane’s Story:
The misogyny that lurks in critical reception of the song intersects with non-survivor privilege and how men project their beliefs about women and survivorship onto feminine experiences. Women can absolutely fall into this trap, but from what I’ve read, it’s men whose language and framing of ‘Caleb Meyer’ reflect non-survivor privilege. Overall, the general themes relate to misrepresenting song details, and while I doubt any of these critics meant harm, their language, as a pattern, downplays the strength and seriousness of the narrative.
The more obvious combination of misogyny and non-survivor privilege show up in critics who downplayed the significance of the song or used titillating language. Bruce Elder, writing in 1998, praised ‘Caleb Meyer’ but clearly missed the point of the song, writing that it “sounds like any one of a thousand Appalachian songs about bootleg whisky,” (p. 65). Another critic grossly summarized the song as “a juicy tale of rape and murder”.
Similarly, in 2005, Christopher Blank praised ‘Caleb Meyer’, writing, “Caleb Meyer, the first song on the album, is a narrative about cutting the throat of a rapist. Blood, fear, religion and sexual tension run through this primitive and melancholy recording. Welch’s hell is even more frightening because she sees it through a child’s eyes.” Blank’s review reveals the contradictions behind misogyny and rape culture, as he acknowledges the violence in the song while still implying a level of consent from Nellie Cane. By describing the assault as ‘sexual tension’, Blank eroticizes a woman’s fear as that term refers to mutual, unspoken sexual attraction between people. That sexualization gets worse considering he thinks that the character Nellie Cane is a ‘child’. And his infantilization of Nellie Cane, coupled with the seemingly-throwaway phrase ‘sexual tension’, feeds into the Lolita-myth that girls invite sexual abuse from older men.
Other critics undermine Nellie Cane’s agency by rewriting the story about an underage girl killing her attacker, ignoring key details in the lyrics. Several reviewers, besides Christopher Blank, over the years have described Nellie Cane as a ‘girl’, one critic explicitly calling ‘Caleb Meyer’ a “feminist-tinted child murder ballad.” This interpretation makes no sense from the details we have of this simple story. Caleb Meyer is emboldened to rape Nellie because her husband is away, and that detail about her husband implies that she is a grown woman. She only calls herself a ‘child’ when praying to God, imploring him to help her because she is one of ‘his children’. While I could chalk an instance or two up to a critic mishearing the lyrics and not bothering to relisten to the song, the prevalence of this makes me skeptical, especially considering that society still infantilizes women. Men, and society in general, undermine adult women by referring to them as ‘girls’.
Additionally, Welch does not use any language in her lyrics to suggest a child’s point-of-view, and in an interview, Welch mentioned that her protagonist is a woman that stops a rape attempt (t. 1:18-1:59). She had a specific vision of her character and the story, and the straightforward lyrics conveyed that.
Mark Kemp, who defended Welch’s songwriting, even fell into this pattern. He referred to Nellie Cane as a ‘young girl’. Another critic seemingly rewrote the character dynamics entirely: “[‘Caleb Meyer is] the account of an attempted rape by an old hermit on a young girl.” We know nothing about the characters’ ages, so this baseless belief changes the story about a neighbor’s attempted acquaintance rape to the more familiar, and paradoxically comforting, story of the outsider pedophile. Either situation would be horrifying, but the latter situation tends to feel more distant due to the monstrous pedophile archetype. Yes, Nellie Cane describes Caleb Meyer as being hermit-like, but the context of him living near her and knowing her, adds another level of horror. The affirmation of the possibility that anyone can harm you.
Relatedly, many critics also often misunderstand the narrative, believing that Caleb Meyer succeeded in raping Nellie Cane before she kills him. Tellingly, in his 2018 interpretation, Ed Godfrey describes ‘Caleb Meyer’ as being “a song about a woman who avenges being raped by a drunken moonshiner.” Not only does he get the level of violence wrong, incorrectly saying that Caleb Meyer raped Nellie Cane, Godfrey’s word choice makes it sound like she planned Caleb’s death while he acted impulsively, being drunk. By all accounts, the lyrics indicate the reverse: that Caleb Meyer planned his attack, to a degree, while Nellie Cane reacted, using his broken bottle because it was the only thing in reach. Portraying the character as an ‘avenger’ misses the whole point of desperation and raw survival in the song.
While any normal person would recognize that Nellie is justified in killing Caleb Meyer, I think for some listeners that the image of a woman killing a man and then expressing her trauma afterwards can make them uncomfortable. In 2017, Fandomentals writer Jess discussed Game of Thrones and its tendency to equate women’s agency with violence, coining the term “empowering murderous smirk of feminism.” ‘Caleb Meyer’ does not express that sentiment at all. There is no moment of Empowerment™, no smirk from Nellie Cane, and the catharsis of this song does not make us forget about Nellie’s trauma. Rather we feel it more deeply due to the unspoken question we and Nellie Cane are thinking after the assault: Why did this have to happen at all?
‘Caleb Meyer’ tells the story of a woman killing her neighbor when he attemps to rape her, and she neither needs to be underage nor does the sexual assault need to be a rape for the experience to be traumatic. Overall, the song subverts the murdered girl trope in murder ballads, and there is no comedic tone when Nellie kills her assailant. It’s a grim framing that forces listeners to sit with the protagonist’s trauma as she struggles to sleep at night.
And it’s because of that framing that those with patriarchal non-survivor privilege feel the need to rewrite the story, in a multitude of ways. Male critics, as well as male musicians, essentially are speaking over a woman’s story. Part three will focus on these musicians and how their reinterpretations of ‘Caleb Meyer’ the song and Caleb Meyer the character tip the musical scales back in the direction of rape culture, non-survivor privilege showing itself in giving voice back to the archetypal sexual predator whose perspective has dominated our stories and our news screens.
See you all then!
Images courtesy of Gillian Welch. Cover image courtesy of Lee Burchfield on flickr.
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