Swimming Against the Stream

Gordon Gano

American Gothic Music: An Incomplete List

Addendum to The Original American Gothic Series

Chain Gang Houses

A Southern Prison Chain Gang Housed in Cages. The real Question I have is this: What kind of music did that guy with the guitar play for the others.

While I’m getting myself in gear to write more. Here is a sampling of music that I would categorize as American Gothic. Remember American Gothic is neither strictly Americana nor Goth. It takes roots music in its darker form along with other emphases like circus or carnival music, late 19th Century immigrant strains, and certainly even Minstrel style is buried deep within as well. American Gothic Music, like other arts mutated through the American Gothic vision is music that is connected to the darker roots of American culture, with less of a European sensibility. (See our original essay on American Gothic Music.)


None of these songs could be considered American Gothic as such. But they certainly are the kinds of music that make up the bedrock of influences within the musical spectrum.

Chain Gang Songs – Old Alabama, Murderer’s Home, Grizzely Bear, We Need Another Witness (These are the real thing, songs sung by actual prisoners. They are as frightening and strange as can be.)

Tommy Johnson

The only photo extant of the eerie Tommy Johnson.

Tommy Johnson – Cool Drink of Water Blues (Perhaps the most haunted song in American music history)

Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed, God Moves On the Water (There is something quite mysterious about the Christian songs of Mr. Johnson. These songs sum it up.)

Blind Lemon Jefferson – See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Black Snake Moan, Wartime Blues (Also check out Nick Cave’s tribute song.)

Washington Phillips – Train Your Child (A creaky instrumental that gets into your soul.)

Charley Patton – Moon Going Down (Scratchy voiced and scratchy recording!)

The Spirit of Memphis Quartet – The Day is Passed and Gone (Beauty, terror, death and life all in one stark song.)

Marion Williams – The Day is Passed and Gone (The same tune radically altered. It would be hard to imagine something more chilling.)

Robert Johnson – Cross Road Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Me And The Devil Blues (How could you have a list of dark American music without Mr. Johnson?)

Son House – John the Revelator, Death Letter Blues, Preachin’ Blues, Grinnin’ In Your Face (Blood curdling stuff.)

Howlin’ Wolf – I Asked Her For Water, Smokestack Lightning, How Many More years, No Place to Go, Ain’t Superstitious, Somebody Walkin’ In My House (Wolf moans quite low and means every word.)

Hank Williams – Lost Highway, Ramblin’ Man (Lonesome and dark.)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell on You, Voices (It’s Halloween and truly weird all together.)

An alternate shot from John Wesley Harding

An alternate shot from John Wesley Harding found in newsprint back in the late 60’s. The natural degradation of the image perfectly captures the American Gothic mood of the album. The two odd looking fellows were actually bauls (singing madmen) from India. Interestingly they kind of look like 19th Century images of American Indians.

The Originators

These are the artists that first delineated the style.

Bob Dylan – Desolation Row, Tombstone Blues, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,This Wheel’s on Fire, John Wesley Harding, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, The Wicked Messenger, Three Angels, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Yeah Dylan pretty much invented the mode, like so many other things.)

The Doors – The End, People Are Strange (Musically more European, even Hindu, but thematically Morrison was swimming in dark American nightmares.)

Link Wray

Link Wray who embodies a distinctive American Gothic mode where the Native American and the black/white battle of blues, country and rock and roll intersect.

Link Wray – Shawnee Tribe, Waterboy, Right or Wrong (You Lose), Rumble (The Beans and Fat Back LP is a real milestone. The equivalent of finding an indian burial ground. Rumble is here but could be an Ancestor as well.)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Walk on the Water, I Put A Spell On You, Tombstone Shadow, Born on the Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Effigy, Graveyard Train, Ramble Tamble, Run through the Jungle (In my essay I forgot to mention CCR. Big omission. Fogerty and crew fairly reek of decay in the swamp. Seminal.)

Canned Heat – On the Road Again (This song is a real milestone in the style. Rootsy blues, but where is this sound really from? It’s not found in the original song. It’s not really John Lee Hooker. It’s as haunted as it’s soon to be dead singer’s eerie voice.)

The Eagles – Hotel California (Somewhere down on the border. There is a ghost of a dream here.)

Ry Cooder – Soundtracks: Paris Texas, Southern Comfort, The Border (When Ry Cooder lets his slide drone on… creepy.)

Tom Waits in American Gothic mode

Tom Waits in American Gothic mode

Tom Waits – 16 Shells from a 30.6, Earth Died Screaming, Jesus Gonna Be Here, Lucky Day Overture, What’s He Building? (Waits Gothic American sound has all of the mystery of a hog hanging up in the barn.)

Nick Cave – Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rye Whisky, City of Refuge, The Folk Singer, Saint Huck, Tupelo, Stagger Lee (He only claims to be from Australia. His heart is firmly interred behind the tent at the carnival.)

Violent Femmes – Country Death Song (Gordon Gano was quite instrumental in reinterpreting the old American themes.)

16 Horsepower – American Wheeze, Low Estate, Hang My Teeth On Your Door, Heel On the Shovel, Coal Black Horse, Bad Moon Risin’ (These guys really defined the new era of American Gothic Music.

Calexico – Black Heart, Frontera, Dub Latina, Circo (Somewhere South near the Border in Cormac McCarthy territory.)

Reverend Glasseye

Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs one of the outstanding American Gothic bands of the last decade.

Contemporary American Gothic Musicians

These are people actively working in the present era, when there has been a proliferation of the American Gothic style in several arts. (See our series of essays on the subject here.) Go search them out explore the zone.

Nicole Atkins – The Tower, You Were The Devil

The Black Heart Procession – A Truth Quietly Told

The Blind Willies – Last Drop of Midnight, Don’t Let the Devil Steal Your Joy

The Born Again Floozies – Dirt Cheap Suit, Street Music

The Whiskey Folk Ramblers – My Rolling Wino,Pies of Old Kylene, Into That Slide

Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons – How Long, Diana?, Hard Time in a Terrible Land, Teenage Wasteland

Harmonious Wail – I Like To Feel My Bones

Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Moonstruck, Gone in Two Seconds

Jessica Hernandez Border Gothic

Jessica Hernandez Border Gothic in Detroit. And I have been waiting as patiently as possible for her next musical move.

O’Death – Adelita, Down To Rest, Gas Can Row

Reverend Glasseye – 17 Lashes, King of Men, Sweet Sweet Countrymen, Black River Falls, Midnight Cabaret

Liz Tormes – Fall Silent, Black Luck

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska